Keira Knightley on family, feminism and freedom
One of the most celebrated actresses of her generation, Keira Knightley has spent the past three years juggling the demands of motherhood and a stellar career. As she returns to our screens to play the French literary icon Colette, she talks to Sophie Elmhirst about family, feminism and finding the freedom to be herself.
You can see the panic in Keira Knightley's eyes. This morning she has been trying to work out where to send her three-year-old daughter, Edie, to school next year, the kind of conundrum that to non-parents seems laughable and to parents becomes a sanity-devouring subject that has no happy ending.
There’s the local school, which she likes but her child might not get into, or the variety of private schools she’s not sure about, or home-schooling, which she would definitely never do. "And I’ve literally just gone crazy looking at every single one in London!" she says, laughing in the slightly possessed way of the deranged.
Knightley is sitting in an Islington café, not far from where she lives with her daughter and her musician husband, James Righton. The last time we met, five years ago, she was post-marriage, pre-baby. Back then, she’d just been in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a ‘piece of popcorn’ as she called it, and she was sweary and ferocious and funny. This time, she’s just put in a powerhouse performance in the title role inColetteand she’s still sweary and ferocious and funny, but slightly unravelled by three long years of destroyed nights.
Life has changed. The films are a little different, and she’s had approximately
100 per cent less sleep. It got to the point, she says, "where it’s like, “Oh, nobody is sleeping in this house”, and you think, “Do we all hate each other, or are we actually completely sleep-deprived?”"
While pregnant, she took a year off work. Then she had her daughter and with
a four-month-old in tow, the family moved to New York so that Knightley could
perform the title role inThérèse Raquinon Broadway. "I actually don’t know how we did that," she says, still looking bemused by the decision. "If we have another one I wouldn’t say I’d do that again. It was quite mad." She remembers little of the time – the eight three-hour shows a week while breastfeeding an infant blurring into a haze. It was only possible at all by hiring a maternity nurse at night, who Knightley paid double what she was earning in the show so that she could rest in order to play the psychotic and murderous Thérèse again the next day. At least, she says, the storm of new-mother hormones and overspilling emotions proved helpful for the role.
"It was suddenly very important that I had that thing that was still me and mine"
AfterThérèse Raquin, Knightley packed her schedule with movies, includingColette, Berlin, I Love Youand a heightened and slightly terrifying turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy inThe Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Edie came on set when she could and Knightley kept working, compelled by the influence of her own mother, Sharman Macdonald, the screenwriter. "My mum always worked when I was small," says Knightley, "and she’s always had a real thing about me continuing to work, and I think a lot of my sense of self came from me being so proud of her for working and having that ethic."
She also wanted to hold on to something that was definably, indivisibly hers. "I think for my sense of identity, it was suddenly very important that I had that thing that was still me and mine," she says. "I’ve only been able to do it because I can afford the childcare, but I think that sense of identity is something that a lot of women really feel rocked by and work was a way for me to keep that."
Knightley doesn’t have vast patience for the how-do-you-make-it-work line of conversation, and yet, she admits, she longs to know how everyone else does it, practically and emotionally. The childcare and work-life-balance question; the need for independence and maternal-guilt question. She’s been wrestling with it since her daughter was born, and she realises she’ll be wrestling with it forever. She counts herself lucky that the nature of film-making means you’re working for a couple of months and then off for four, so she’s around a lot.
She’s equally aware that she relies on a tribe of helpers, including her mother and a nanny, and Righton, who travels with her and Edie wherever they go. But it hasn’t been exactly easy. There have been photo-shoots with leaking breasts, and exhaustion during the long hours on set with no sleep the night before. Or as she puts it: "Remembering the lines became a bit trickier."
Never mind what was going on behind the scenes; you can detect in Knightley’s recent performances something that wasn’t there before, a rawness and loss of self-consciousness, the feeling of an actress finding a freedom and emotional register that was previously untapped. She also looks like she’s having an extremely good time. Or as Knightley explains it, in typical shorthand: "There’s that sense of, like, I don’t give a fuck." She laughs. "Once you’ve had that whole experience of leaking breasts everywhere and the messiness of it –there’s no control, it’s animalistic. I feel that in a funny way with acting it sort of helps; there is no embarrassment any more."
Motherhood has also helped to silence what used to be an acute and relentless self-critic. There isn’t enough time any more to berate herself, or to take criticism to heart, or try to please everyone all the time. Nor does she have the energy to pretend to be someone she isn’t. "I’m not sure who else you’re supposed to be," she says, shrugging. "I'd be quite happy if someone could give me a character that I was meant to be because obviously being an actress that would be in my comfort zone. But I've never figured that one out, so the fuck-it-attitude has come in."
Colette, it turned out, offered the perfect platform for the attitude. It’s a gift of a role
– the extraordinary life story of a writer (who wrote richly and frequently for
Harper’s Bazaar, too) but also a study of sexual exploration, of Paris in the flush
of the belle époque, and the almost improbably resonant tale of a young
woman emerging from the control of an overbearing husband and finding her
voice. "It’s a great part," says Knightley. "I was thinking of me as a kid and what I
would have dreamed to play – it’s a character like that one.’ The film feels uncannily well-timed, and chimes with the other, more contextual shift in Knightley’s life: the explosion of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements that have simply changed everything. "I hope Pandora’s box has been opened," she says, "because you can’t shut it again."
The question is where it all goes from here. "Maybe talking is the only way to do it," says Knightley, "although hey, I’d like some of the guys to talk too... You have to engage with the other side of the conversation to say, how are we raising our boys? What is it that made people want to do this in the first place?" It’s not just the issue of assault, she says, but everything, from equal pay to control over women’s bodies. On the matter of pay, she still can’t quite work out why it never occurred to her to ask the question about how much she was getting paid compared to her male co-stars, but she never did.
Even when she found out that she wasn’t receiving the same amount, she didn’t feel particularly surprised. She had the same feeling that women everywhere have had, no matter the profession: a sense of being lucky to have the job at all, of not wanting to be seen to be difficult, not wanting to draw attention to herself. "You just want to keep everyone sweet and you want to be like, yes, I’m easy to work with," she says. "I’m all for gratitude for luck that you’ve had in your life, but at a certain point I have to stop just feeling lucky and making nice and actually ask the questions."
The questions have now been asked – "very politely with a please at the end" – and to good effect: no longer is she paid less; sometimes she is paid more. But she’s anxious that the issue doesn’t disappear as the news agenda moves on. Films likeColette, and her next project,Misbehaviour, about the 1970 Miss World competition when Women’s Liberation stormed the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, are getting made because the subjects currently feel vital and they can find financial backing. But they need to keep getting made, and Knightley believes it’s up to audiences to make the change permanent, to pay to see these films and prove to the market that these stories are viable and popular. "Because if you don’t," she says, "there won’t be another one."
Knightley has said in the past that she might think about directing one day, and she’s tried her hand at writing here and there; after all, she’s a veteran of the industry who knows how to play the game. Does she engage more in the business these days? "I don’t really," she says, grinning. "Maybe I should, maybe I shouldn’t, it doesn’t seem to be happening." She prefers to concentrate on the day ahead, making her performance the best it can be in that moment, and then letting go of it once it’s done. Sometimes she’ll see a film afterwards and wish she’d had more control over it, but mostly she’s happy to move on. Right now, she says, "I can’t imagine one more thing. What with the kid and the school and the house and the thing and thing..." She trails off into that never-ending to-do list.
It’s time to go, to return home and to Edie and the as-yet-unrealised dream of an uninterrupted night’s sleep that doesn’t end at dawn. Recently she’d persuaded her daughter to listen to a recording of a meditation designed for children in the hope that it might improve her sleep. It didn’t work."That woman keeps telling me to breathe in and out!’ shouts Knightley, doing a formidable imitation of a three-year-old. "I AM breathing in and out." Edie – inevitably – is pure inspiration too. Preparing for the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Knightley consulted her daughter and friends in a playground sandpit, trying out a strange, high-pitched voice.
It made them all laugh and copy her – squeak, squeak, squeak – so she used it in the film. Once she knew she was going to be adorned with candy floss hair and wearing a fantastical flouncy dress ("I look like a cake"), she turned her performance into a sort of sparkly pantomime, imagining what Edie would like. "Shall I try a twizzle?" she says, laughing. "I’ll just keep twizzling, shall I? And I had a dress that did such a good twizzle!" The memory makes Knightley bounce up and down on her chair, an imaginary frilly skirt bobbing around her, a huge smile on her face. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a twizzle.
‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ is in cinemas nationwide on 2 November. ‘Colette’ is released in January 2019. The December issue of Harper's Bazaar is on newsstands from 31 October.
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