One look at the cover of this issue of The EDIT and it’s clear that Keira Knightley is perfectly cast as the bewitching heroine of our fashion fantasy. So it’s a shame that she doesn’t believe in fairy-tales. “I left them behind,” she shrugs. “Why should you be told to wait for some f***ing dude to rescue you?”
It’s a subject that Knightley says she has been discussing a great deal of late: gender equality and Hollywood’s double standards. “The people who make movies, whether it’s directors or producers or money people, look for things that they can identify with,” the actress explains, “and if they’re all predominantly middle-aged white men, then what you see are things that middle-aged white men can identify with. And you don’t get anything for anybody else.”
She may still be shy of her 30th birthday, but Knightley’s near 20 years of acting (she made her film debut in 1995) has given her insight into the issue to accompany her vested interest. Not that she claims to have the answers, just an increasing desire to try to find them. “A friend of mine just had a daughter,” says Knightley. “It’s a political thing, having a baby girl, in a way that it isn’t for a boy. You think, ‘Oh, isn’t this fairy-tale lovely?’ Then suddenly you worry, ‘What [expectation] am I planting with that? I don’t want her to be waiting around for a man to fix her problems.’ Maybe it’s a bit silly, but because [gender] equality is going so hugely the other way, I think it probably does take being silly to try and swing it back round.”
It’s a divisive subject, feminism. As many women (and men) have pointed out, all being a feminist signifies is the belief that females should have equal rights to their male peers. Nothing objectionable there, surely. And yet there is a fear around it, because not all of us are entirely sure what we should be getting riled up about, what is acceptable and what isn’t. We’re so used to witnessing inequality that sometimes our reactions aren’t as politically perfect as we want them to be, no matter how good our intentions. Knightley knows exactly where we’re coming from.
“There’s a storyline in Borgen [the TV drama about the first female prime minister of Denmark] where her husband is freaking out because he’s not seeing his wife anymore and the wife isn’t seeing the kids because she doesn’t have enough time, so he’s going to leave her,” says Knightley. “And as a viewer, I went, ‘Oh my God, she has to give up her job! She needs to spend more time with her family.’ Then I realized, ‘Wait, if it was a guy playing the prime minister and his wife was freaking out, you’d go, ‘Shut up, woman! He’s the f***ing prime minister, give him a f***ing break!’ I’m a feminist, somebody who is saying there’s a f***ing problem, and I’m thinking that.”
For Knightley, though, there is no reluctance to discuss these issues. As you can no doubt tell from the swearing, it’s a subject she feels passionately about, and has done for most of her career. “I’ve turned a lot [of roles] down because of it, mostly because of really overt sex and violence that is just, in my view, not justified,” she explains. “I’m not saying that there can’t be really interesting stories about sex and violence, but a lot of it I just think, ‘This is gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous, and you’d never ask a dude to do this.’ It’s actually a difficult question: how much flesh are you meant to bare? What are we saying is appropriate or not appropriate? We’re saying that we should be sexually liberated but then again not that sexually liberated. It’s confusing.”
It’s certainly true that Knightley is not known as a ‘sexy’ actress, but why should she want to be? She is far more interested, she says, in exploring the psyches of women trying to escape their confines. “I think I’ve specifically taken two roles in order to be the kind of female stereotype because I was just quite interested in it,” she says, “but everything else, even the period films, even The Duchess, were all about a woman that doesn’t fit into the mold and is being constrained by it and trying to break out of it.” Indeed, those period costumes that people seem to identify her with are an outward expression of that struggle. Knightley takes issue, laughingly, with the idea that she always seems to be in period pieces – “The 1700s and the 1940s really are quite different, you know” – but says that the elaborate outfits help her to identify with the role. “I like exploring [female suppression] within period pieces because the clothes are literally so constricting. And you’ve got the class thing…”
It seems a little trite then, to say that Knightley has found her own happily ever after, marrying her long-term boyfriend, Klaxons musician James Righton, in France last summer. The entire affair appeared as charmingly low-key as the couple themselves, the bride skipping down the steps of the local church wearing a recycled Chanel short tulle dress, flat pumps and sunglasses.
Such lack of drama is par for the Knightley course. She ducked out early of a recent premiere to rush home and watch the finale of TV show The Great British Bake Off. She is also one of the few truly A-list actresses to regularly turn up to a shoot without an agent or an assistant. “Why not?” she laughs. “It’s nicer than coming in and being completely shut off. And it’s much easier to have a conversation yourself where it’s either, ‘Yes, I’ll do that,’ or ‘No, I won’t’.”
So it’s just her, in her inky jeans, oatmeal-hued sweater and beaten-up boots. In the flesh she doesn’t appear too thin in the slightest, and although undeniably beautiful, with a face-splitting smile that is pure Hollywood, it’s a beauty that is appealing rather than intimidating. In fact, there’s something about her that is so straightforward it’s almost childlike; perhaps the reason why director Lynn Shelton cast her in her upcoming film Laggies – Knightley’s character deals with her ‘quarter-life crisis’ by befriending the teenage Chloë Grace Moretz and her friends. With her own 30th birthday months away and a ring on her wedding finger, does Knightley feel grown-up yet? “I don’t know, what’s that meant to feel like?” she laughs. “There’s a concept of how you should be and I’m not sure anybody really fits into it. I hope they don’t, because I don’t feel like I do.”
Children, she agrees, could be one of the defining factors. “I’ve got friends in their thirties and they’re like, ‘I should have met the person and I should be married because I’m this age, and I should be thinking about kids.’ And you can’t say, ‘It’s OK,’ because there’s a clock with kids and that’s hard.”
Knightley herself has no qualms about ticking off another birthday. “I’m absolutely fine about it. I had a funny 22, I didn’t like that number. But 30, I’m alright with. With me, everything before 25 wasn’t so fun, but everything post has been great.” If pre-25 was so painful, did she ever think of quitting the film industry? “I can’t blame it totally on my career, it’s just the sort of personality that I was. Nothing that was designed to appeal to me at that age appealed, so I felt uncomfortable about everything – what and who I was meant to be. I felt totally outside everything.”
It was her own real-life version of a movie revelation that changed her outlook. “For some reason, on my 25th birthday I woke up and went, ‘Oh, actually, it’s alright.’ We went bowling and had lots of cupcakes and sang karaoke, which I normally hate, but it was something about doing a childish thing that was suddenly like, ‘This is really fun and I don’t have to pretend to be a grown-up or be sophisticated in some way that I really don’t feel.’ I wore awful clothes with no makeup and had a great time. The penny dropped.”
These days, having a great time involves friends, family, a good book and red wine. “I’m being educated on wine,” she grins. “I did a wine course earlier this year because I suddenly thought, ‘Cor, I drink quite a lot of this and I absolutely don’t know what any of it is.’ It was great fun. The wine was so nice that we didn’t spit it out, it seemed like a waste, so we got a bit drunk,” she laughs. “We were the drunks in the back of the class.”
Occasionally tipsy, talented and a status quo-challenging feminist – she may not be a fan of fairy-tales, but Keira Knightley is most certainly a modern heroine.