“The war zone over women’s bodies is something that rages and I’m sure will continue to rage”

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
img_keiraknightley-hikaluclarkeAn encounter with Keira Knightley at the Toronto International Film Festival. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke.

Keira Knightley bursts into room 2314 at Toronto’s Trump Hotel, bringing Bend It Like Beckham’s vibrancy to mind. The lissome actress plays Joan Clarke in The Imitation Game, opening in New Zealand cinemas on New Year’s day. Confident and forthcoming, she’s passionate about feminist issues. It’s why she did a topless cover shoot for Interview magazine. “My body’s been manipulated in so many different ways, particularly my breasts… in so many posters they’d been enhanced and it hasn’t been me.”

The mediocre King Arthur’s advertising particularly annoyed the star of Pirates of the Caribbean and Pride and Prejudice. “They were like floppy enormous kind of things. I was always just like—if you’re going to give me fake tits, give perky ones. Why do they have to be on the floor? I think quite a few of my friends suddenly have been cat-called in the street about how crap they look because they don’t have big enough tits. I was like: ‘Wait a minute, there’s this view of femininity where you can’t be attractive if you don’t have the right breast size?’ I thought ‘you can have them as small as they are.’”

“They’re always such a huge topic of conversation. I think I’m asked in every single interview that I do about how come they’re so small. ‘Have you never thought of getting them enhanced?’”

Unfortunately, the crisp-speaking 29-year-old in the colourful Chanel dress doesn’t think her protest will have the hoped result. “I should imagine the breast size [issue] will continue. When you’re in a position when you have a lot of pictures taken, you can walk out your front door in your jeans and a T-shirt trying to get some toilet paper and your body can become an issue… The war zone over women’s bodies is something that rages and I’m sure will continue to rage.”

Knightley became ardent about the film’s enigma-code cracker Alan Turing’s story after reading an article on him, she recalls, drinking a coffee. “Fuck, how did I not know about this guy; how did I not know what happened?”

She sees a salient feminist dimension to Joan Clarke, Turing’s close friend and colleague. “You can see it in the role, there’s no room at the table for a woman, she finds it really difficult to get in. She was at Bletchley for a year working in a more secretarial capacity, before she could get into the room that she was meant to be in, even though she was easily as qualified as the other guys and absolutely should have been there.”

Though it’s not in the film, the real Clarke fought for equal pay, “which is obviously still the feminist thing, because once she was in the room doing exactly the same job as everybody else and she was being paid a fraction of what the guys were being paid.”

Knightley thinks Turing (played memorably here by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Clarke loved each other, just not in a sexual way. “I think she was almost like a translator for him. She was the one pointing out that he needed other people’s help, that there were brilliant minds around him and he couldn’t do it on his own and he needed to be able to communicate. I think, also, he encouraged her at a point where it was obviously very difficult for women to be in any professional field. He completely appreciated how brilliant she was and saw her for who she was. I think that’s an extraordinary thing for anybody.”

Director Morten Tyldum sees similarities between Clarke’s story and the ‘just a pretty face’ disrespect Knightley has faced. “Keira could so relate to this woman who wasn’t being taken seriously, which I think is something she’s experienced a lot, because she’s an extremely talented actor but she’s so beautiful. She really brought so much humanity.”

Benedict Cumberbatch also tells me he is very fond of Knightley, since collaborating on Atonement. “It was wonderful to work with someone, who I’ve seen from afar being extraordinary at such a young age and having such pressures on her, being completely down to earth, be really focused on her work, and,” he emphasises, “a really good laugh.”

Playing an emerging musician scouted by Mark Ruffalo’s unconventional studio executive in Begin Again was “a million times” more uncomfortable than doing the W shoot, Knightley says. “The actors’ tool is their body and their voice, but not in a singing way… singing’s a bit like the maths, it’s not the way I think, it’s not the way I come to something. It’s not my space. I’m not part of it. I don’t go to music studios. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know how to work in them. I don’t know what to do with the microphone…I can fake in front of the camera.”

She says the music studio is frightening, but not in a good way. “[Creativity] should always be frightening otherwise it’s boring and otherwise you’re doing the same thing and its stagnation. But I suppose it’s a different sort of fear.”

Any trepidation playing a mathematician in The Imitation Game? “Don’t really understand maths, so it was fine,” she shrugs insouciantly. “Fortunately Morten didn’t require it because I don’t think he understands the math either… I’ve actually got a couple of really good mates who are mathematicians. I love hearing them talk about it and I did try to get them to explain it to me and that didn’t work either. But I love hearing them talk about what they do because they talk about it as something incredibly creative and incredibly romantic. I think I can get into it from that side of understanding how passionate you can be about something, and how creative and how absolutely consuming it is for all of the characters.”

Knightley had a second good role at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival: Jeff Garlin’s recalcitrant daughter in Laggies. She has a New Zealand connection, too. She’s playing Rob Hall’s widow Jan Arnold in 2015 release Everest. “I can’t wait to see the film because what I’ve seen looks extraordinary… She’s an incredible woman, Jan Arnold.”

Arnold was meant to be on the expedition, “but, as she was seven months pregnant, couldn’t go. And they spoke when he was trapped at the top on the phone and she was back in New Zealand. It’s a very, very moving, horrendous story. It was amazing meeting the survivors including Jan. I’m not a climber… Fuck me, it’s such an insane [pursuit], but they’re completely obsessed… I never get it. But Jan’s completed the seven summits. I think she did at least a couple of them after Rob Hall died.”

After some issues with the public and the press in the Pirates era, she seems in a very good place now. “I’m faking it so well,” she jokes, moving her mouth alluringly, long eye-lashes fluttering. “I had a five or six year run right in the beginning where I worked non-stop and it was a lot. I definitely had a couple of years of not being able to find my feet and finding it tricky. I don’t anymore. Like everything in life you just take time to get used to things, you take time to figure out what makes you happy, how you work, who your people are and all the rest of that. I obviously did that very publicly but after 25, great!”

What fascinates her about the job is seeing the world through others’ eyes. “I think empathy is a very important human quality and I don’t always manage it. With my job that’s what you have to do and I love that. Not to sound like a wanker, but I think it’s a great privilege as well, particularly when you’re forced to think about people you don’t necessarily like, or a point of view that is absolutely not your own, but you have to totally understand it.”

‘Lizzie Bennet’ doesn’t think of period drama as a genre, doesn’t think she should be pigeonholed like that. “I don’t think Pride and Prejudice is the same as A Dangerous Method,” Knightley smiles. “Anyway, I’ve always gone for the stories that have really interested me and the characters have really interested me and I’m going to continue to do that.”

ILLUSTRATION © Hikalu Clarke 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Thanks to Ksenia Khor for transcription assistance on this article.