Let’s get a few things out of the way: your loyal narrator, being a man of his word, will not dramatize the ensuing interview with Keira Knightley in any which way. Frankly, he’d love to. He’d love to have you thinking that he was sitting next to her throughout, enjoying the springtime rebirth of London’s streets from the back seat of her private car, which muscles its way through the awakened capital from historic AbneyPark Cemetery (where she’s just been photographed for our cover in the finest Spring selections) to her six o’clock appointment at the West End’s Comedy Theatre for a performance in Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour. Just imagine: there we are—the car alive with expectation—exchanging flirtatious quips, laughing at the silliness of our fanciful occupations, remarking on the poesy of the cherry blossoms that quiver and flitter about our periphery, having all the while,well, a ball. Hell, maybe there’d be champagne, a mutual friend unearthed following a riveting anecdote from yours truly, perhaps a post-theatre drinks proposal? Yes, he’d like to have you think all that, but here’s the truth: this one happened over the phone. And despite the resentment’s that’s stockpiling with every passing moment towards a certain publisher who purchased said narrator a ticket to Heathrow to entertain this very description, and then reneged (citing the necessity to “finish the magazine” or something), a half-hour on the phone with the Oscar-nominated, beguiling, flat-out foxy leading lady of contemporary screen and stage, is still, above all else, a charmed and insightful exchange.
So… Knightley tops off our champ flutes, cracks the limo window for a dash of that unmistakable Dalston breeze, requests a bit of low level Radio 4 from our very skilled driver, and proceeds to share on a medley of things, most importantly: fidelity. The film mostly in question throughout our chat is Massy Tadjedin’s directorial debut, Last Night, which stars Knightley and Sam Worthington, alongside Eva Mendes and Guillaume Canet, both of whom play a relatively proportionate role in unraveling and/or substantiating Knightley and Worthington’s young marriage in the course of 24 hours or so. The film’s a bit disorienting, and at times somewhat implausible, but Knightley’s performance, as she’s wont, is compelling, sexy, timely, and measured. She peeks through its muddied elements and embraces its strengths. Knightley’s asked if she can separate her performance from a film’s greater thrust. “I find it completely impossible,” she says, leaning in so near I can feel her warm breath on my neck. “You’re too close to it, really, to be able to see it. There are too many stories attached to it and your life’s attached to it. It’s difficult to disassociate myself from that, let alone disassociating my performance from whether the film works or not. So I don’t think that that’s a skill I’ve got. And actually, in a funny kind of way, it’s not a skill I need. Once I’ve given a performance, the piece isn’t mine anymore anyway. It’s there to be done with what people want to do with it. It’s always quite interesting when you go back and think ‘Does this fit? Does that work?’ But actually, I’m crap at telling.”
This “crap” tendency might have something to do with Knightley’s nearly life-long, intensive relationship with performance. For some, it begs the question of whether she, despite delving into different states around the clock in honor of her art form, knows any world otherwise. But by this point, we’re wiggling into Central London and the bubbly, it’s glow nearly akin to the cherry blossoms blooming atop the trees along the streets, is risen to her signature cheekbones, and it’s difficult to imagine someone staring so heatedly, so impassionedly at you, having anything but true and certain character assessment skills, even of herself. No, Knightley seems right on the money. So, for now, some history: Knightley, having bounced about beginning at age six from small role to small role (including a laughably lateral performance with Sophia Coppola as a handmaiden to Queen Padmé Amidala in the first Star Wars reprisal), smashed onto the A-list with the surprise hit Bend It Like Beckham and the populist fodder Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003. Subsequently: a blur of period films which begot multiple award-nominations, box office bonanzas, and, of late, more theatre and edgy indie work. As well, she’s faced the big old luxury brands that keep us in furs… Chanel perfume seems to waft through the car. We’re thumping over some shoddy cobblestones now—at our behest, our driver is worming down side streets, a deft short cut. When it’s suggested that Knightley’s plateful might have something do with her inability to disassociate performance from product, she more or less tips back the last of her flute and says, coolly, “It’s an extension of that thing where you listen to your own voice on an answer machine message. You always sort of go, ‘Do I look like that? Or is that what I sound like? Or why did I do that?’ Or maybe it’s because I’m too damned busy and my mind’s on so many other things.”
We’ve moved onto fresh fruit as it’s a clever snack for a bit of pre-theatre blood sugar, and Knightley, more or less in gesture, sneakily confides that she’s packed in a bit of chocolate and hot pot for our fondue pleasure. That’s right. In the car. And yet, we haven’t even discussed the play she’s en route to perform. So she confides, while sorting through a bowl of mixed berries, that she stars opposite Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss in The Children’s Hour, a melodrama penned in 1934 “about two teachers who get accused of being lesbians.” Goodness. Regards the occasional allure of theatre work in lieu of that of film, she says, “It’s so alive. It’s your job every single night to make sure that it’s working. And no one can come in and make sure that it does. That’s interesting because it means you’re incredibly focused for two and a half hours, and if something goes wrong, you have to find a way to get out of it. That can be quite difficult in front of 800 people, so it’s quite exciting.”
It’s very well apparent by now that in addition to the thrills of the theatre, Knightley loves all breeds of excitement: at our encouragement, her driver is dangerously barreling through Central London, nearly smearing droves of fat old Danish tourists across the squiggly lines of its centuries-old pavement. See, it all makes sense. She likes a bit of a rush, a bit of speed. It’s perfect insight into why, perhaps, she’s remained an astutely London girl, why she hasn’t made The Hills her primary postcode, traded in her tea and flats for flip-flops and a suntan, her pork pies for spinach and frisée, her isle insecurity for disproportionate ego and bleach-blonde Tinseltown vamping. For Knightley, perhaps there’s more to her Hyde Park address than the proximity of a classical arts-prone family, or whatever else she might have let on about in other, less titillating interviews. This increasingly close friend might suggest it stems from a performance passion that can only be sated by the accessibility of world-renowned theatre. “I suppose I like the romance of it,” she says, regarding the London stage, “because you never see the same play twice. There’s something extraordinary about something that’s lost—that you will only ever see it for that night and that night only. You’ll never see it again, and it’s not recorded, and so it’s kind of magic.” We both heave a satisfied sigh and recline further into our seats, my suggesting a moody mix-tape I’ve sneaked in and Knightley nodding in heartfelt agreement.
While it would be a stretch to imply that Tadjedin’s Last Night—with all its dramatic conceits—has flourishes of the magic Knightley’s speaking about, it’s safe to say that the film achieves a substantial success: discussion. After watching the married Knightley and Worthington each betray one another’s trust in the course of an evening, the latter with his loins, and the former with her heart, a conversation—one that Knightley suggests may have no end or resolve—does delightfully and/or necessarily ensue. “What I loved about Last Night was that if you’re an adult,” Knightley says, “you recognize at least one of these situations, if not all four of them. And what I loved about the piece as a whole is it didn’t impose its morality, its judgment on any of the people. It kind of requires you the audience to make up your own mind, to put your own life into the piece. I think that that’s actually quite rare with film, as you’re told exactly what to think about everyone that’s in it. This is nice because it’s kind of free and open. It will change depending on what sort of life experience you’ve had and where your morality lies.”
Knightley’s appreciation for the conversations and contention that the characters’ actions in the film stirred amongst those on set, as well as a “blazing row” between her two, long-time agents, almost leads one to think the film is a quite noteworthy achievement. And maybe, if we’ll suspend the aforementioned judgment calls, it can be considered so. But stop. Let’s have a closer look. Our adventure seems to be drumming up its crescendo. Maybe what’s going on here, while Knightley and myself more or less determine another bottle of bubbles would be important to enjoy (we’re minutes from the theatre, the early evening twinkle of Marylebone providing a departing grandeur), your arrogant-leaning narrator is being handed a lesson. Because your narrator is now realizing that the woodenness he sees in Worthington, or the muted feel of the film’s other characters, is unadulteratedly of natural appeal to Knightley.
Because as the performer will attest, she’s principally looking to stay on her toes and, situation willing, perhaps follow the distanced joy of watching hers or another’s results with some charged conversation. “I quite like motives to not be clear,” she says. “I like to make my own mind up as far as the motives go. I think it’s important that you tell very specific stories, and with Joanna [Knightley’s character], jealousy is a part of it. Past love, regret, and all that, but was it jealousy that made her bump into that man [Joanna’s former lover] in the street? There’s a whole heap load of things that come to the foreground. That’s what I found interesting about it. You have a character that thinks she knows exactly who she is, that she’s totally safe in her world, and going down this path, and all of a sudden, something happens, and she’s not even sure what it was, but from that moment forward, things are different.” It’s a strong point of view, one that makes the reluctance for the film that leaked in above seem a bit immature. Your storyteller is not lapsing on opinions entirely, mind you, but certainly re-evaluating some things. And besides, in reality, being eight hours minus GMT, he’s drunk—on champagne!
So, it might have long ago occurred to the reader, but it’s only now occurred to the writer, that he’s passionately chatting about love, jealousy, and intimacy with Keira Knightley, a woman who’s exercised a pretty impressive, air-tight seal between her personal life and the public. And yet, she’s offering insights, and an ease with the mechanics of love and dating. Yes, it’s in the context of a film, but regardless, there’s no inclination whatsoever to corral her statements, to diffuse them into the personal, despite our comfortable closeness in the back seat of her car. She’s—for lack of a better term—in control. She’s more grown up. And it’s almost better than if we were throwing around real world proper nouns, because we’re granted the privilege of theorizing a little without repercussion. The subtext is there, but your narrator stays unobtrusive, not opting to cause any feather ruffling. And with such kind, receptive company, what would be the point? So, playfully lobbed her way is whether she thinks males and females exercise jealousy different from one another? “No, I don’t,” she says with a laugh. “I think that’s why I was really excited about doing a film like Last Night. I mean, my god, the stories you get from everybody. The whole crew, everyone, was trying to decide who was in the right and who was in the wrong. And people were like, ‘This happened to me,’ or, ‘My wife did this or my wife did that,’ and actually, what you find out is that we’re all pretty much the same.”
“What is worse?” she continues. “Joanna spends the night in the arms of a man who loves her, and who she loves. He fucks somebody else. What is worse? We had constant arguments about who was guilty and what was the worst action. Somebody said a great line: ‘He tests the marriage, and she breaks it.’ I don’t know if I agree with that or not, but I can certainly understand it at the same time. And maybe they do. Or maybe, they needed that night to get whatever it was out of their system, or scare themselves, and it’s going to be 10 times better afterwards. Who knows?”
And how about her thoughts now on a film that was shot before her role in another one, before a three month theatre stint, before whatever else she shoved in? Have the conversations she’d partaken in amounted to any sort of resolution, any conclusion on who is the guiltier party? “I think we’re all human and shit happens,” she reveals. “I vacillate between the two sides. I’ve got no idea. I rather enjoy not having an idea. I went in absolutely thinking that hers was worse. Somewhere in the middle I thought, ‘Well, bloody hell, she doesn’t fuck him. What’s the problem? They have a nice night, they have a bit of a kiss, she doesn’t really do anything.’ And then I went back to thinking hers was worse. I think it depends on where you are in your life, and that will always change. It’s a moveable feast.”
Looking forward, Knightley’s moveable feast will see her directed by outré filmmaker David Cronenberg, opposite Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender, in A Dangerous Method, which, in light of our conversation, most appropriately sees a dramatic take on the rise of popular psychoanalysis and the conflicting viewpoints of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. She’s soon off to L.A. to film Seeking Friends at the End of the World (at present, the internet suggests slightly different titles, so we’ll adhere to Knightley’s version), a rom-com with Steve Carell. “Then hopefully,” Knightley shares, “at the end of the year, I’m going to do a film with Joe Wright, who I did Pride and Prejudice and Atonement with, but given the financial climate, nothing is ever for certain, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
The car pulls up to the theatre. Knightley shoves off the throngs of wanting assistants that teem around us upon our arrival, because, by this point, she’s fiercely invested in the play out of this interview. She continues, “I don’t like the safe options. I like things that have a fifty-fifty chance of me falling on my face. I like the magic when it actually comes together and people enjoy it, but the magic is only there because of the distinct possibility of failure. I find that romantic in a funny kind of way. It’s very unstable at the moment. Things are falling through, and coming back up, and to tell you the truth, I think with independent film, that’s always been the case. It’s a balancing act at the best of times, but it’s definitely a balancing act now. It’s sticking to things, and seeing what miracle happens, and where the money actually holds. It’s the personal reward, because I love making them, but again, selfishly, because I love watching independent films. That’s why I got into the film industry. They’re the ones I love going to see, and I think my gang of friends are exactly the same. And [I also love making indie films] for the slightly hair-raising stake that you never know if the money’s going to hold—there’s always time constraints, and it’s difficult to get the finance, and that’s actually a quite exciting part of the process. They’re not always going to work. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Independent films surely are vulnerable to a number of corrosive factors. They’re like fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants dates. Or interviews. Or whatever it is you the reader wants from this commentary. But the entertainment machine doesn’t have much time for stories that feature actors previously unseen, that challenge norms, that don’t happily end. Yet what greatly contributes to keeping films like Last Night, or independent works we’ll see crop up in coming years, thriving on the margins, and occasionally swallowing up the limelight center, is the passion expressed by the seemingly invulnerable Knightley and her contribution to the hustle. At the spiritual core of performance and challenging storytelling is the mere idea that something may or may not work for everyone who invests time. And that, in turn, is the beauty in what this particular interview elicits.
But is Knightley, in this internet age of predatory heresy and conflated gossip, as invulnerable as she seems? Is a thick skin part of the job? “Yes, I think you’re right,” she replies. “I think you do have to try and get a thick skin. And sometimes, the skin goes incredibly thin and everything gets in, and everything hurts, and other times, you’re able to turn around and laugh at it and go, ‘You know what? It’s all fine. It’s all good. It’s cool. It sort of depends on what day of the week it is.”
Today is a Tuesday. Knightley woke up with the continuation of a head cold (she’s more or less been defeating little sniffles with a dainty box of tissues near the champagne ice bucket), was scooped up by her bodyguard/transportation head, taken to a cemetery all a-blanket in springtime floral, where she was glazed with fancy makeup and shepherded in and out of thousand dollar gowns, inspiring the photo team to all report back to L.A. on her sweetness, her professionalism, and her willingness to push hard in a small window of time, whereupon she was then whisked off to play an accused lesbian in a Depression-era stage drama before nearly a thousand ticketholders, but not before a chat with a guy on the phone who’d sooner have done so over champagne. Our sense of self, our remorse, our moral compass, our perception of our lovers, may very much indeed depend on what day of the week it is. But for Keira Knightley, she knows how to keep the proverbial fondue on high.