Never shy, Keira Knightley is on fire during promotional duties for her latest film Colette, sounding off passionately about motherhood, feminism, her bust-up with John Carney, and the ‘so f***ing out there’ Harvey Weinstein situation
Keira Knightley talks feminism, fame, acting and equality
There are not many actors brave enough – or talented enough – to do an impersonation of what happened to their vagina during childbirth. But onscreen and off, one can always depend on Keira Knightley to be an absolute star.
“See this?” she asks, showing a wonky lump on her wrist that could be the first scene in a David Cronenberg film. “I’ve still got a completely f***ed wrist because of an accident I had when she was about five months old. When I went to see someone about it, they told me I still had the bendy pregnancy hormone so the cartilage is destroyed and it’s completely f***ed.”
She flexes her hand back and forth: “It’s amazing isn’t it? Terrible for bracelets. Everything goes a bit wiggly and funny. I have a completely different head of hair. There’s now a super-weird, massively curly bit at the back that has a completely different texture than everywhere else. It grows like a f***ing weed now. I don’t trust it.”
The Weaker Sex, her disarming account of giving birth in 2015, as featured in the collection Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies, opens with the words: “My vagina split. You came out with your eyes open. Arms up in the air. Screaming. They put you on to me, covered in blood, vernix, your head misshapen from the birth canal. Pulsating, gasping, screaming,” she writes to daughter Edie. “I remember the shit, the vomit, the blood, the stitches.”
Today, ahead of the London premiere of Colette, and definitely not covered in vernix, it’s a theme she’s keen to return to. “Nobody tells you about the shit,” she says. “The actual, not metaphorical shit.”
“I understand why some women need to have a birth plan,” says Knightley. “It’s a way to get a sense of control over a situation where you have no control. But don’t feel like you’ve failed when things don’t go to plan. If you need to take drugs to get the kid, take the drugs. That’s the end of it. Don’t listen to the people who say if this doesn’t happen or that doesn’t happen then you won’t have the hormone that allows you to bond. Guess what? You’re going to bond. You don’t have a choice. Remember that phrase from a few years ago? Too posh to push? Like that’s an easy way of doing it. Are you f***ing kidding? You’ve had your stomach ripped open and a child torn out. And you can’t move for six weeks. That’s easy? The politics around those words are mind-boggling.”
In the three years since Knightley and her husband and Klaxons frontman James Righton welcomed daughter Edie into the world, the 33-year-old has not been shy about sounding off on a whole raft of issues pertaining to motherhood.
Despite a recent turn in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Moana and Frozen get free passes, but most Disney princess movies are on the banned list. And how about reparations for housework while we’re at it: “For the unpaid child-rearing and housework and emotional support that most women do; I’ve darned your socks, now where can I send a bill to the patriarchy?” She’s particularly keen to highlight the loneliness that many women experience as new mothers.
“We need to have a conversation about the bubble of love, which is the only narrative we’re allowed to have,” she says. “I don’t think it is very helpful for the vast majority who feel that love and experience differently. You get through the physical and emotional marathon of birth and then, for our first three months, she woke up for a 45-minute feed every 45 minutes. There is no amazing hormone that makes sleep deprivation fine. So there has to be a dialogue so the men who are our partners
or the women who are our partners but who haven’t given birth don’t think ‘oh. She’s gone f***ing mental’. So we know it’ll be okay. You’ll figure it out. You just need a lot of cuddles. Look at me. I’m welling up.” She really is. It’s hard to imagine anyone better to play the daring belle époque author Colette, the first of three Knightley-led features coming our way in 2019: The Aftermath and Berlin, I
Love You are wending their way to a cinema near you. The film is directed by Wash Westmoreland, from a screenplay by Westmoreland and his late husband Richard Glatzer, the duo behind Still Alice. Glatzer died of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2015.
“The film is part of the amazing love story between those two men,” says Knightley. “They wanted to make this together for so long. We all felt that Richard was very present. Obviously, Wash talks about him and talks about their process. He was an extraordinary man and we made this in his memory.”
Under duress and lock and key
As Colette opens, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley), is a country girl who moves to turn-of-the-century Paris with her domineering, philandering writer husband, Willy (Dominic West). At Willy’s suggestion, Colette begins to write novels which are published under his name and which are sometimes written under duress and lock and key. Happily, the bohemian culture of Paris and a series of lovers allow Colette to outgrow and outshine her bullying spouse.
Many commentators have framed the film as a #MeToo or #TimesUp narrative. While Knightley acknowledges that Colette’s pleasure-seeking is still “revolutionary for women”, the film’s voguish themes are more by accident than design.
“Wash was trying to get this made for 17 years so this was in no way ‘oh there’s a female movement so let’s make a movie to capitalise on it’. Obviously, it’s a film about a woman stepping out from the shadow of a man and finding her own voice, and her own way to live. The fact that it was made when it was and finally got financing is because feminist issues are suddenly more culturally acceptable. There is at least some conversation about the pay divide and harassment on a near-global scale.”
On the troublesome matter of harassment, I wonder what she thinks about Harvey Weinstein. Knightley made two films with The Weinstein Company studio founder,
The Imitation Game and Begin Again. “I absolutely knew he was a bully, and I absolutely knew he was a womaniser, but I totally thought that was consensual. But rape? And the whole bath towel business? It’s so f***ing out there. I think the reason I wasn’t targeted was because I had a certain amount of power by the time I met him. But if you’re at the beginning of your career and he’s the top of the industry then of course you don’t have the power to say f**k off. We talk about wanting equality. We need equality just to be safe.”
In recent years, Knightley has spoken about her anxieties around the sudden global fame that came with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I was surprised to read it. Can this really be the same Keira Knightley who, aged three, asked her actor father and writer mother if she could get an agent? By my own recollection, around the release of the second Pirates film, she seemed like the most self-possessed 20-year-old on the planet. Questions pertaining to her weight were shut down with aplomb. And I do recall one journalist being asked: “Why don’t you ask my male colleagues that?” when he had the audacity to ask her if she planned on having children. Was she not as unflappable as she appeared?
“Oh good,” she says. “That’s what I was going for! For the first Pirates film, things were alright. After that, I was not alright. I’m glad you said unflappable because I was absolutely the opposite. I’m glad to hear it was so impenetrable. But that’s the public face. That’s what all women are trained to do. Just for me, it was more extreme because I was dealing with the press. All I remember is that I was a very, very young girl trying desperately to pretend.”
I can’t help but wonder what went down on the set on John Carney’s Begin Again. This is the third time I’ve met Knightley and she’s always been an unfailingly good sport and a straight-shooter. It’s hard to square with the Irish director’s 2016 remark: “I’ll never make a film with supermodels again.” Carney has subsequently apologised unreservedly.
“I was sort of thrilled,” she laughs. “I’ve been called many things in my life, many worse things – but I’ve never been called a supermodel. Thanks! It was a very difficult shoot. We didn’t get on. It’s just a thing that happens sometimes and I say that with no blame. It takes two to tango. I think we can both be very proud of ourselves for the film that we made, because it’s difficult when a lead actor and director don’t get on. And I don’t think you could tell that from watching the film. You would probably never have known had John maybe not decided to tell everybody. But that is his right. And he apologised for that comment, which he didn’t have to do. He apologised both privately and publicly. And I’ve accepted that apology.”
He has a big personality, I suggest. It’s why Catherine Keener says she loves him but calls him “a f***er” in the same breath.
“He does have a big personality,” says Knightley. “And that’s part of what makes him a wonderful writer. Once is a great film. Begin
Again is a wonderful film. It didn’t do what we hoped. So there was a level of disappointment attached. Except in South Korea. It was huge in South Korea. Often that’s part of what makes a great director. I accept that sometimes that is part and parcel.”
She laughs: “But that doesn’t mean you have to work with them again.”
For the first ‘Pirates’ film, things were alright. After that, I was not alright. I’m glad you said unflappable because I was absolutely the opposite. I’m glad to hear it was so impenetrable. But that’s the public face. That’s what all women are trained to do
Colette opens on January 9th
Above Keira Knightley and Dominic West in Colette, and (above right) with co-star Adam Levine in John Carney’s Begin Again. Right: as Elizabeth Swann in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. PHOTOGRAPHS: RYAN PFLUGER/THE NEW YORK TIMES; ROBERT VIGLASKY / BLEECKER STREET; THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY; WALT DISNEY PICTURES