It is an eye-opening experience, going for a stroll with Keira Knightley, a bit like doing a walkabout with the Queen. When we meet, it’s still not possible to gather indoors, so our interview is conducted wandering the streets of the north-London neighbourhood where we both live. As we walk past, people call out greetings to her, and when we stop for a takeaway coffee, the barista hands over her favourite brew unasked. Being world-famous doesn’t seem so bad, I say. Knightley looks surprised.
“Oh, I know them all,” she explains, waving at another passer-by. “That’s Chris, my lovely neighbour…” I have lived in this area for decades longer than she, but I still have to specify how I like my cappuccino, I reflect; it must be both because she’s exceptionally friendly, and even dressed down in black jeans, DM boots, a beanie hat and a mask, remains dramatically beautiful.
This interview, like so much else over the past year, has been deferred several times. We had initially planned to meet in 2020 to discuss her new film Silent Night, which has since been scheduled for release this Christmas. Now it is her role as the face of Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle that is top of the agenda, with the launch of the limited-edition Collection Eté, and its accompanying campaign showing her looking ethereal in white gauze and pearls.
Knightley has been fronting the campaigns since 2007, when she was in her early twenties, and starring in the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. She was flown from LA to Paris to meet Karl Lagerfeld, and principally remembers how jet-lagged she felt at the time. “I was probably too young to be terrified of him, and I didn’t know enough about fashion,” she recalls, laughing. “I was staying at the Ritz, and when I opened the wardrobe, I found all these Chanel clothes in there. I just thought the room hadn’t been cleaned, so I phoned down to reception to say someone had left their clothes behind, and they said they were for my stay. But not to keep,” she sighs. “It’s always a Cinderella moment.”
Today, Knightley has plenty of Chanel of her own, but rather fewer opportunities to put it on. “I am looking forward to wearing lovely clothes again,” she says. In the early days of the first lockdown, she decided to boost family morale by dressing up on a daily basis. “We have a trampoline in our garden, and we decided we were only allowed to wear dresses on it. I put on red lipstick every day, and every bit of Chanel that I have in my cupboard, and my daughter Edie had Chanel ribbons plaited into her hair and fairy wings.” Knightley’s husband, the former Klaxons keyboard player James Righton, was allowed to join in and bounce only when wearing one of his “array of peacock-coloured Gucci suits”.
“I thought, ‘What is the point of these lovely things sitting in the wardrobe, when it feels quite apocalyptic and scary outside?’ It felt so important to be really happy for the kids! And so you’d do it, and you’d forget – and then the shopping would arrive and you’d have to wipe it all down before you put it away, do you remember? It got to an extreme when I found these weird, brown apples and my husband said he’d boiled them, because people might have touched them. I said, ‘Right, but now we can’t eat them!'” She starts to laugh, helplessly. “That was a really weird time, us dressed in really bright clothes, boiling apples!”
Knightley is at pains to emphasise that she appreciates her comparative good fortune. “When you’re in a scenario like this, and you know there’s nothing you can do but stay at home, you realise the utter frivolousness of your existence – and the utter awe for nurses. How could you give them only a one per cent pay rise?” she fires up. “That’s a feminist issue!” Still, like everyone, she has experienced “an emotional rollercoaster” over the past few months.
The couple lost friends to Covid-19, and Knightley has had to juggle home-schooling Edie, and taking care of the toddler, Delilah. Food also seems to have been a particular source of domestic tension over the past year. Righton, says his spouse, is “quite extreme, vaguely OCD – it’s what makes him a really good cook.” Having read a slew of environmental books over the first lockdown, he decided that the whole family should eat only vegetables sourced from regenerative farms during the second. “But I’m not a big root-veg fan, and in these regenerative boxes we were getting – this is so middle-class, I can’t bear it – there were four celeriac. And I hate celeriac! I didn’t realise I could feel so strongly about a vegetable…” When Righton offered to whip one up for supper, in place of a much-longed-for takeaway, she lost her temper and threw it at the kitchen floor – “it made quite a thunk.” The week we meet, she admits to having had another wobble at the thought of a second lockdown birthday. “I ended up sounding like a five-year-old, saying ‘But I want to see my friends.’ And my actual five-year-old gave me a big hug…”
So she is greatly looking forward to the world opening up again, not least because she can restart her career. “I haven’t worked for a year,’ she says, as we settle with our coffees onto a bench outside the local school. “I had just finished filming Silent Night in London on
the Wednesday, and we went into lockdown on Friday.” That was also the day that Misbehaviour, a drama about the women activists who disrupted the 1970 Miss World contest, was meant to come out. “I saw my face stuck up on a poster for it, and I thought, ‘Oh dear, that nearly happened…’ Then I was meant to be doing a TV show in September for four or five months, but I couldn’t make it work with lockdowns and childcare. I was
very lucky to be able, financially, to make that decision, so it felt like it was a choice, but it was a crap choice.”
Now, though, she is deep in research for a new project based on the bestselling sci-fi novel Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which is set to start shooting later in the year, pandemic permitting. “It’s about power. The questions within my character are, ‘What is the purpose of conquest? What are the motivations to rule?’ So I’m reading lots of books about dictators, and fantasising about intergalactic domination while I’m doing the washing-up and changing the baby’s nappy…” She is also deep into the audiobooks of Manda Scott’s Boudica series, which she has found particularly consoling in the wake of the death of Sarah Everard and the grim revelations of misogyny and sexual assault in schools revealed on the Everyone’s Invited forum. “Something very pagan and powerfully female feels nice to listen to right now,” she says.
Knightley was brought up to be a feminist by her mother, the playwright Sharman MacDonald, the author of When I was a Girl, I used to Scream and Shout…. Her interest, she says, “was hugely encouraged by the fact that I was very sporty as a kid, but being a footballer wasn’t an option for me, whereas it was – in their heads– for all of the boys. That really struck me from a very young age.” Throughout her career, the characters she has portrayed have been notably strong and independent, from her breakout role, playing to type as a football-mad teenager in Bend it Like Beckham in 2002, to an unforgettable Lizzy Bennet in Joe Wright’s 2005 take on Pride & Prejudice, the iconoclastic French writer Colette in 2018, a whistleblower in Official Secrets, and most recently, the activist Sally Alexander in Misbehaviour.
Yet now she wonders out loud why it never occurred to her before to call out the misogyny she has personally experienced. “It was when women started listing all the precautions they take when they walk home to make sure they’re safe, and I thought, I do every single one of them, and I don’t even think about it. It’s fucking depressing,” she sighs. “I think that’s why I’m enjoying listening to Boudica.”
With immaculate timing, a lone male stranger wanders down the street towards us and starts shouting at her. “Do you go to this school? You look very young!” “Thank you,” she says politely, as we hastily depart to find sanctuary in a nearby garden square; he follows us there a few minutes later. “I think it’s quite interesting talking about this while being chased around,” she observes philosophically. “I love that politician who said there ought to be a curfew for men and men were outraged, and you think – but there’s a curfew for women and there always has been.” Has she experienced harassment herself? “Yes! I mean, everybody has. Literally, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been, in some way, whether it’s being flashed at, or groped, or some guy saying they’re going to slit your throat, or punching you in the face, or whatever it is, everybody has.”
Unsurprisingly, she says wearing a mask over the past year has been quite a liberating experience. And given that most of us feel a little trepidation at resuming normal life, how much harder must it be to have to step back into the spotlight in front of the world’s media? “Make-up is an armour,” she says. She quite enjoys the process of getting dressed and glammed up, “but my husband and my elder kid don’t like it at all. My husband says, ‘Oh, you’re her.’ They don’t see it as me – and I don’t either. It’s something other, like a character.” A nice one? “Not particularly. No, she can’t be. She’s got to be quite fierce. It’s an armour, and I think that’s how it has to be.”
A few days later, I am walking back from the shops with one daughter, the dog and an armload of dry cleaning, when Knightley and Righton walk past. She is wearing a mask, and she is looking… quite fierce. But when our eyes meet across the street, she smiles and calls out a greeting, and I think: no wonder the whole neighbourhood is her friend.
Keira Knightley is a Chanel Beauty ambassador. The July issue of Harper’s Bazaar UK is out now.
Photography Boo George and styling by Leith Clark.
Hair by Luke Hersheson.
Make-up by Lisa Eldridge
Nails by Sabrina Gayle.
Set design by Jacki Castelli.
Shot on location at Wilderness Reserve.
This article first appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR UK
- Keira Knightley