After starring in big box office hits like Love Actually and Pirates of the Caribbean, Keira Knightley walked away from the career she had always dreamed of when she suffered a breakdown and PTSD at the age of 22. Now she is back and doing it her own way, she gives Stylist a masterclass in speaking your mind and the importance of self-preservation.
Whenever I prep for an interview I watch, and rewatch, much of the subject’s work. I also read piles of old interviews, reaching back as far as I can.
So before meeting Keira Knightley at London’s Dorchester Hotel I go through her previous interviews, dating back to the early Noughties. What I wasn’t expecting was what an uncomfortable experience it would be, thanks to questions such as:
“Is there anything about your body you wish you could change?” (2006)
“If we gathered all your ex-boyfriends in a room, what do you think they would commiserate about?” (2006)
“Theatre people tend to be a competitive lot. Do you think your parents experience any jealousy that they never made the money or got the exposure that you’ve [had]?” (2006)
“Why do so many women hate you?” (2008)
And let us not forget this particular quote from a 2008 opinion piece:
“If you want to befriend a woman, ask her the question, ‘What do you think of Keira Knightley?’ In the resulting torrent of bile and loathing, you will bond.”
I’m shocked as I read and read. But also not. It goes part way to explaining why, aged 22 – despite the fact acting was all Knightley ever wanted to do, so much so that she infamously asked for an agent at the age of three, and was six when her parents said yes as a bribe of sorts to make her study – and after appearing in a succession of giant films including Bend It Like Beckham, Love Actually and Pirates Of The Caribbean, Knightley, now 33, had to take a step back from the industry after suffering a breakdown and PTSD. She went travelling for a year before coming back to acting, but on her terms, including scaling back on the big studio films.
And now there’s The Aftermath, set in post-Second World War Hamburg, where her character Rachael has moved with her army colonel husband to share a home with a grieving widower (played by Alexander Skarsgård). It’s a film about forbidden love, grief, life beginning anew and people coming together. “The themes are universal and timeless,” she tells Stylist. “I think that’s probably what drew me to the film; at this point we all need a bit of unity, don’t we?”
It’s exactly the sort of wry comment you get during a conversation with Knightley. She’s open, funny, passionate, sweary… I’m not going to say normal, because what does that even mean? But for someone who has been through what she has, she comes across as remarkably well-balanced; she clearly knows what she needs to ensure good mental health.
When we meet she’s just been on Lauren Laverne’s radio show on BBC 6 Music. Given that her husband, James Righton, is a musician (he was the keyboard player and singer in Klaxons), I assume she’ll be clued up on that world. I assumed wrong…
What’s the last album you listened to?
I know nothing about music whatsoever. It’s on all the time in the house and [James] always asks, “Who are we listening to?” and I say, “I don’t know,” then he replies, “It’s the album I’ve been playing all week.” It’s got to be really specific for me to even hear it, which is very weird given that I’m married to a musician. I don’t even know how to put music on in our house: no clue.
I like that you’re not pretending to hide it…
I know I like to dance to Beyoncé, that’s always fun. You know when you have even just a little bit of knowledge and think, ‘I can get away with this.’ With [music], I can’t.
One of the themes of The Aftermath I found the most compelling is the importance of building bridges…
Also, the consequences of a divisive rhetoric. When you think about the Second World War, you never actually think about – or I didn’t – that bit directly after the conflict and how on earth they actually managed to rebuild themselves.
The film also makes interesting points about pent-up emotions. Have we got better at dealing with them?
That generation was particularly known as the silent generation, so we have moved on a lot from then… but do people still [repress feelings]? Of course they do. And is there still that idea of masculinity that says you’re meant to ‘man up’? That, as we know, has led to a mental health crisis.
You have become increasingly vocal yourself about everything from childbirth to Disney princesses. Was there a switch that made you more confident?
I don’t think so. There were many of us saying things like that 10, 15 years ago but it was not being reported. It’s more there was this realisation that we’d been gaslighted. We were told, “It’s fine, we’ve figured it out,” and then suddenly realising, actually, it’s really not fine. With #MeToo and Time’s Up, there’s a real push from everybody to say, “Can we use this to move things forward?”
I read an interview from 2004 where you were asked, “What’s the weirdest thing a fan has ever said to you?” You replied: “A guy in Glasgow airport came up to me and said, ‘I’m really sorry but can I kiss you?’ I let him.” What would you do if that happened now?
No, fuck no. I’d be like, get the hell off me. I have no memory of the interview and no memory of that happening in Glasgow. Something lost in the brain somewhere.
Do you have a good memory generally?
I remember whole scripts – but as soon as it’s finished, there’s a delete button. Faces I’m good at, but names I’m terrible. It’s embarrassing isn’t it? Particularly when you’ve let it go on too long and you’re like, “Well I can’t ask [your name] now, it’s been too long.”
Back to being vocal, when you were young you led a protest at school because girls weren’t allowed to play football…
The boys wouldn’t let us play with them, so me and a group of girls sat on the playground not allowing them to play until we were allowed.
And did they let you join in?
No, we got bored. I was fucking cold sitting on the ground – I’d made my point. But the teacher asked if we wanted to start a girl’s team, which we did. We were terrible.
What would you protest for now?
What would I sit across a cold playground for? [Laughs]. Equal pay. That’s an important one. Women’s rights in general I’d stake my claim to. I’d quite like a second [Brexit] referendum. I’d like to vote on this deal now we know what it is.
You took a step back from the industry in your early 20s. Was it a difficult decision to open up about that time?
It’s an easy decision now because the point when it was really difficult was over a decade ago. It’s difficult to do a million interviews about your life and not talk about a fundamental part of it. [A lot of my reason for opening up was] footballers [such as Rio Ferdinand] coming out and saying, “I’ve had a tough time.” In what I do – and this is painting a dramatic picture – you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. You can say nothing and you’ll be despised. Or you can say something and many people will go, “Oh fuck you, you’re oversharing. Piss off.” But [ultimately] if there is a kid out there who feels like they are breaking, who might think it’s helpful to know that that shiny person felt like she was on the floor and in pieces at some point… It’s horrific, and it is very difficult, but there is the possibility of getting through it. But I had the money to get through it and that’s not the position a lot of people find themselves in. We have a government that hasn’t ring-fenced mental health care.
Do you think there’s a misunderstanding about PTSD?
A phenomenally high number of women have suffered from PTSD. We need to do more to tackle it – we have to look after the most vulnerable members of society. Particularly when you’re looking at one in 10 children suffering from mental health problems. As a voting public, we’re not doing enough particularly for our young people, but actually for everybody.
And we have no idea of the long-term effects of social media…
It does seem like the studies that are coming out now are saying there is a particular effect on young women. We can’t lose a generation because we haven’t put things in place. But what do I know?
You know what you’ve experienced. It seemed like a bold move to walk away from your career at that point.
It was the only decision. It was either that or give up, so I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to try and get [my career] to where I want it and see if I can make something sustainable and if I don’t then I’ll have to do something else.’ We are all trying to make our life the best we can, and for me it’s not going to be the best it can be if I’m doing massive studio films. The press around them is way too much for me. That’s not the lifestyle I want.
So was there a Plan B? To move to the countryside, raise chickens and make jam?
No, I’ve still not got a Plan B. And I’d be terrible at making jam. I made a lot recently – I have a plum tree and had a glut – and it wasn’t very good. We’ve still got jars in the house. No one eats it.
I read a tweet the other day that said: “How is Keira Knightley only 33? She’s been around for a thousand years.” Can you relate?
She’s a dinosaur… When did I start acting? When I was six? I can’t do the maths… [We try to work out how long she’s been acting for.]
27 years I’ve been working…
Will you get an award when you get to 30?
I might have to tell my husband to present me with an award.
Do you look to the future or live in the present?
The now. But I don’t think that’s necessarily positive; I feel very claustrophobic if I have a plan. Everything’s last-minute. How do I know what I want to do in a year? How do I know what I’ll be interested in?
In your essay in the book Feminists Don’t Wear Pink you made a point about men: “They worry that I don’t like them. It drives them mad. They belittle me, they try not to listen to me, they don’t talk to me, they don’t want to hear my voice…” How did you reach the point where what people think about you doesn’t concern you?
There was a point in my life when I was terribly nice. I was always on time, I was always Little Miss Perfect, and even then the public [attitude] was that most people hated me. You go through that and start to think, ‘There’s no winning here.’ So you begin to say, “OK. How do I feel? Do I like you?” and is that not the more important question? It takes a long time to be able to say, “Can I stop worrying about whether people like me or not?” Because I have no control over that. Most of the time I’m not causing any harm – unless I’m having a major argument with my husband, but that’s fine and that’s what people do. But most of the time I’m an alright member of society. It’s not something I achieve every day, by the way. Of course I still think, ‘Oh my god, that person didn’t seem to like me at all!’
And historically, women have been told that being liked, particularly by men, is the most important thing…
You look at America now and there are a lot of women in the Democratic race for president and the question is still: are they likeable? “Oh, she’s a bit shrill when she speaks.” If you really try to be likeable, what part of yourself are you having to kill off? What opinions are you having to silence to appeal to this faceless mass? So the only thing that you can do is go, actually, what do I think? How do I feel?
I feel like you’d be a very good therapist.
Really? I talk too much to be a therapist! I don’t know how to listen.
Which areas of popular culture do you like now? Films? Books? Theatre?
I used to see everything at the cinema, and lots of theatre and gigs. Since having a child we’ve been so sleep-deprived that as soon as I go into a dark room I fall asleep. Now it’s more TV because we can’t leave the house.
What have you enjoyed recently?
We’ve just finished Succession, which is great fun. My daughter is finally sleeping through the night, which means I can read a book and not fall asleep after three pages. I just read The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker and now my plan is to read everything she’s written. And I’ve just started Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. Fuck me, it’s good.
Has reading always been a big part of your life?
I made a big point of it because I left school when I was 17 and felt really stupid. The first thing I did was try and read War And Peace. I had to prove I still had a brain in my head because everybody thinks I haven’t.
Who were you proving that to?
Myself, and the voices, the demons everywhere! I’m dyslexic so I have a tricky past with reading. I know I’m in a good headspace if I am able to concentrate on a book. I must be in a really good headspace at the moment because I’m having a run.
Do you listen to podcasts?
I’d like to get into them but I just don’t know where to find the good ones. I love audiobooks though. I listened to Sapiens on audiobook – I tried reading it a million times and couldn’t do it so I was like, fuck it, audiobook. And I had The Silk Roads on audiobook. It’s the books I cannot handle actually reading that I listen to. I forget all of it as soon as I’ve listened to it, but I like it at the time.
What is your biggest irrational fear?
I always say, “Good morning, captain” to a single magpie, and no new shoes on the table. I hate when anyone tells me a new superstition because then I’ll have to take it on. Like that thing when you have to look someone in the eye when you cheers otherwise you’ll have seven years of bad sex. I’ve become obsessed with it.
You once described yourself as having a ‘fuck you’ button. Do you still have that?
It’s always going to be there. It gets pushed in the characters that I play who might be unlikeable and horrific. And then that essay was also a sort of ‘Oh fuck it’ button. One day it’ll really bite me in the ass.
What’s your favourite swear word?
Have you always been a good swearer?
Yeah, a solid swearer. My mum’s a good, solid swearer. Less actually as she’s got older. Do you think it’s something to do with, you know, you’re the girl? Maybe it’s your subconscious going, ‘I’m not what you think I am – fuck off!’
The Aftermath is in cinemas now.