“What are you meant to aim for as a woman?” asks Keira Knightley, throwing up her hands imploringly. Rhetorical, yes, but the question underpins much of what we are here – in an east London café, the kind where the lighting is atmospheric enough that you might not spot a two-time Oscar nominee sitting in the corner – to discuss. Whether it’s the feminist narrative of her latest movie, the importance of championing female storytellers or raising two daughters, women are at the forefront of today’s conversation.
Growing up in the suburbs of south-west London with her actor father, playwright mother and older brother, equality was the norm for Knightley at home. “A lot of the time, my mum was earning more than my dad and that was never an issue,” she shrugs. “I mean, sometimes he earned more, sometimes she earned more. I was not raised to think that was anything other than normal.”
The 34-year-old actor – whose career took off stratospherically in her teenage years – found it a shock, then, “coming into the world where there are actually articles saying how much [my partner] earned and how much I earned, because it’s newsworthy that a woman could possibly earn more.”
“That’s what NEWSPAPERS are telling girls – to feel GUILTY about doing well if it makes a MAN uncomfortable”
Knightley married musician James Righton in 2013, and the couple welcomed their first daughter, Edie, in 2015, then Delilah was born last September. Still technically on maternity leave, she is delighted to note the absence of baby sick on her sweater today.
She seems less shocked by the intrusive interest in her family’s finances than the broader message such articles send. “That’s what our national newspapers are telling girls – that you have to feel guilty about doing well if it’s making a man feel uncomfortable, which it doesn’t with my husband and it didn’t with my dad. But yet our society is telling us that’s what it should be.”
With a warm and self-effacing sense of humor, Knightley’s approach to talking about the highs and lows of parenthood is refreshingly upfront. And it runs deeper than baby sick on a sweater. In 2018, she wrote a visceral description of birth, breastfeeding and the fortitude of women’s bodies as part of a personal essay entitled The Weaker Sex, for the collection Feminists Don’t Wear Pink – and Other Lies by Scarlett Curtis. Does she feel it’s necessary to challenge the Instagram-filtered perception of motherhood often presented in the media? “I think it’s important to counter a single narrative,” she considers. “I don’t think you shouldn’t present the perfect side of [motherhood] because, every so often, you might have the perfect side of it and you should celebrate that. But the rest of it also exists. The first time round, I just felt that all I could see was this one narrative and it made me feel totally alone,” she recalls. “And then after whispered conversations with other mothers, I realized this is actually about our lives and our experiences not being told fully. That’s where I had a problem with it.”
“You need to hear EVERYBODY’S stories to understand what would be helpful to make lives BETTER. The whole point of film is to try to walk in OTHER people’s shoes”
Knightley’s latest movie is Misbehaviour, in which she plays feminist activist Sally Alexander, one of the Women’s Liberation Movement members who stormed the stage at the 1970 Miss World pageant. Directed by Phillipa Lowthorpe, the drama-comedy depicts the real-life events and characters from the protests surrounding the contest, presenting a juxtaposition of female narratives and socio-political eras. Members of the Women’s Liberation Movement demonstrated at the event, which was also the first time in its history that a woman of color – Jennifer Hosten of Grenada (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – won the competition. In the era of apartheid, Pearl Jansen – who had to be referred to as Miss Africa South, because there was a white Miss South Africa already in the contest – was a runner-up.
The story feels particularly relevant now because it is “continuing the conversation that seems to have come to the forefront in the past couple of years,” says Knightley. “I read [the script] and thought, this is exactly what we’re still talking about; we’re talking about our space in the world, trying to do it with children, but also the intersectional racism that was part of it. I thought, this is an extraordinary story that doesn’t try to preach. It actually has the conversation.”
The issues raised in the film speak to the importance of increasing representation across the industry. “You need to hear everybody’s stories to understand what would be helpful to make lives better. The whole point of film and culture is to try to walk in other people’s shoes, to understand our similarities and our differences, and if we’re not doing that as an industry, then escapism is great, but it’s only one part of the point of storytelling,” says Knightley. “People need to feel heard; they need their experiences to be seen and heard.”
While patriarchal structures and misogynistic attitudes underly the tensions of Misbehaviour’s plot, female characters are pitted against one another throughout. Knightley is reflective about the double standards that women can hold themselves and each other to, meaning that “maybe we judge each other more harshly sometimes”, which is something she thinks is important to question. “It’s an uncomfortable thing to address, particularly within yourself,” she says. “You can suddenly think, ‘Oh my god, where did that come from? I would never have done that to a man’.”
“When [my daughter and I] watched Sleeping Beauty, she said, ‘It’s not OK that man KISSED her without HER permission!’ I can’t tell you how PLEASED I was”
She was particularly taken with a scene in the film showing a crèche at a Women’s Lib meeting filled with fathers (not the norm even now, she says, where ‘mother and baby’ groups are still just that, with the addition of a few dads). “It’s not expected that men should look after their children; it’s seen as a bonus,” she rolls her eyes. “Even in the workplace, my husband is never asked about childcare, whereas that would be asked of me: ‘So what are you doing with the kids?’”
In another scene in the movie, Knightley’s character Sally is horrified to witness her daughter’s interest in beauty-pageant contestants on television. The unhealthy influence of the media is something Knightley has spoken about previously; her decision to ban certain fairytale films in her household (Cinderella and The Little Mermaid among them) for not setting a positive example to her elder daughter made headlines in 2018. “She’s watched them all now,” the actor faux groans. But it seems Knightley’s point still made its mark. “When we watched Sleeping Beauty, she said, ‘It’s not OK that man kissed her without her permission!’ I can’t tell you how pleased I was. If I don’t do anything else, I’ve managed to drum that in!”
Throughout Knightley’s near three decades in the movie industry (she signed to her first agent aged six), defying gender norms has been a recurring theme in the roles that populate her resumé – from her breakthrough in Bend It Like Beckham at 17 to the affair of Anna Karenina and the taboo-breaking author Colette. “As I grew up within the media, the crazy difference between how women were allowed to behave versus how men were allowed to behave was so huge. In a lot of my films, I looked for things that reflected that barrier we come up against,” she says.
A part she hasn’t ever signed up for is that of being a role model, something she feels was foisted upon her early in her career. “People are flawed, people make mistakes because we’re human and that’s what we do. So, I always thought the idea of a role model was quite dangerous, especially for teenagers,” she determines. “When I was a teenager, I think that was put on me quite a lot, and I always thought it felt inherently wrong.”
Whether she’s discussing continuity of care for mothers or shared parental responsibilities, Knightley is knowledgeable and thoughtful in her exploration of how to improve gender parity across society. However, she doesn’t feel best placed to comment on the current state of equality in the film industry – in part because she’s “been off for about a year, in babyland!” She is glad to note that her next few projects, starting with Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour, are all directed by women. “That’s not from me deciding I’m only working with women. That’s simply from thinking, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’,” she says of the scripts that have been coming her way. The feeling is mutually complimentary from Lowthorpe, who says that she was “jumping for joy” when Knightley accepted the role. “[She is] a truly creative and instinctively intelligent actor. On set, she would often come up with a great idea or an insightful question,” says the English director.
Knightley is well aware of the pressures that women working across the industry can face compared to their male counterparts. “You have to give female filmmakers the chance to fail, because men are given that chance and then they come back and make amazing films, but female directors are not. They are expected to be perfect, right from the get-go.”
“You need to have women telling their experiences, [which] don’t all stop at happily ever after. What the f*** happens after happily ever after?” Knightley might not have all the answers, but she certainly doesn’t shy away from asking the pressing questions and driving the conversation forward.
Misbehaviour is in UK cinemas March 13