Princess of period films like Pride & Prejudice, Oscar nominee Keira Knightley leaves the past behind to play a struggling singer-songwriter in Begin Again, a modern-day rom-com now in theaters. But when it comes to gay pride and prejudice, the 29-year-old Bend It Like Beckham beauty goes way back.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: After so many corseted costume dramas, how did it feel to strum a guitar in street clothes as Gretta in Begin Again?
Keira Knightley: I only had to come in half an hour before shooting, as opposed to, like, two hours to get into wigs and makeup. It was great.
Did you feel more vulnerable without those ruffled petticoats to hide behind?
It’s true that the more stylized a character, the further and further it gets away from you. That’s what many actors enjoy about acting — disappearing into someone else. This was definitely the opposite of that, and it was quite scary. There was also a lot of improvisation, which I’ve never done before, but that was very exciting.
You also got to kiss Adam Levine, People’s reigning “Sexiest Man Alive,” who plays Gretta’s boyfriend and songwriting partner.
Yeah, he’s a pretty sexy dude. He’s got a good body on him. He’s also very funny, which is always the most attractive thing about anybody. He had so much energy that he was literally bouncing off the walls, so it was great fun to work with him. He had never acted before, so he was constantly going, “Oh, I don’t know how to do this.” He was a complete natural, of course, which is a bit annoying, really. But yeah, he certainly hasn’t been left short in the looks department.
Did you have any singer-songwriters on your iPod to help you get into character?
Not really. The director, John Carney, and I had emailed some ideas early on, but the character sort of went away from anything we’d talked about. We wanted to create her own thing, so I didn’t really take inspiration from anybody.
Now that you’ve discovered your vocal talent, do you have any aspirations to record your own album?
Not even remotely. [Laughs] But I have a whole new appreciation for people who can do that. You know, when I first read the Begin Again script, which I loved, the songs weren’t really in there. I just loved the character and the story, but I really didn’t think about the singing part until I was there in the studio and realized I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I’m not a musician or a singer. That’s not how I express myself creatively, so it was weird and quite terrifying.
Would you consider doing a Broadway musical?
In my head, I would love to do a Broadway musical. I’ve always loved musicals — they’re so fun — but I don’t think I’ve got the voice that could do a Broadway musical. You need a big fucking voice for one of those things.
In the upcoming biopic The Imitation Game you play Joan Clarke, a colleague briefly engaged to gay British mathematician Alan Turing, the heroic WWII code-breaker later convicted for “gross indecency.” Were you familiar with Turing?
I first read about him several years ago and I was appalled. It didn’t happen in my lifetime, but I felt quite ashamed. It’s an important story to tell. We have to look at what happened to this brilliant man because of his sexual orientation. He was destroyed, and we can’t allow that to happen again. We can’t let homophobia or bigotry take over and tear people apart. What was done to this great intellect in a court of law is an absolute travesty. As much progress as we’ve made, we must continue to fight to make people understand and value each other.
How much did Clarke know about Turing’s sexuality before their engagement?
Well, in reality, I don’t know. But I suspect she knew. They were great, great friends and they loved each other, so I think she was willing to let him have his life on the side. Maybe they could’ve had a companionship that she would’ve liked, because if she married him, he would’ve let her still work. If she married someone else for a more sexual relationship, she might’ve been forced back into the kitchen. She was willing to sacrifice her sexual life to pursue her career, which was extraordinary. They had each other’s minds, and that was enough for her.
When did you become aware of the LGBT audience?
Quite a few lovely guys told me they enjoyed The Duchess in 2008, which was very nice. I have an awful lot of gay friends with incredible taste, and they’re hard to please. When they really like something, it means a hell of a lot.
In The Duchess you played 18th-century English aristocrat Georgiana Cavendish, who had an intimate friendship with her husband’s mistress, played by Hayley Atwell. Was Georgiana bisexual?
I think she was in love with that particular woman, and I think she could’ve had great sexual pleasure with a woman, as many women can. Sexuality is a funny thing, and sometimes labels don’t quite cover it.
Speaking of labels, you butched up to play English bounty hunter Domino Harvey in the action flick Domino. Some reports claimed that the real Domino, who died shortly before the film’s 2005 release, was a proud lesbian who was annoyed that the film depicted her as straight. Other reports claimed that she was a straight woman who supported the film and considered suing the publications that called her a lesbian.
I don’t think anything about her or the way she felt about the film could be put into a newspaper article. Nothing about her was black and white. I met her a couple of times when she came to the set. She was an extraordinary individual who lived an extraordinary life by her own rules. Sometimes things just don’t fit in the mainstream media, and she definitely didn’t.
Your breakout Bend It Like Beckham role was Jules, a soccer player mistaken for a lesbian because she’s so sporty and so close to her friend Jess, played by Parminder Nagra. You must know it has a big gay following as well.
Sure. I was only about 16 when I did that film, so I didn’t realize until later the impact that it had on women, gay and straight. So many women come up and tell me how much that movie meant to them. I’m quite proud of its feminist message.
Why do you think the film resonated with so many people?
It was about forging your own path and breaking norms, whether they’re racial, sexual, or gender-specific. That movie has incredible energy and positivity. I’ll never forget what my mum said after she came out of the screening. She said, “That’s one of the only films I’ve ever seen that made me want to be young again.”
Rumor has it that writer-director Gurinder Chadha originally envisioned Bend It Like Beckham as a lesbian love story.
This is the first I’ve heard of it, but that would’ve been exciting. It also would’ve meant a lot to so many young gay people. I’d love to see Jules and Jess get together. Hey, maybe we can do a sequel and make it happen!
What was your introduction to gay people?
A lot of my mum’s and my dad’s friends are gay, so I’ve been around gay men and women for as long as I can remember. My mum actually used to march in support of gay people in Scotland in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s always been the complete norm for me, like a wonderful fact of life.
So you were prepared to play the daughter of a woman having a same-sex fling in the 1995 TV movie A Village Affair.
Yeah, I didn’t find it shocking at all. I was about nine or ten when I told people about the story at school, and I remember some of the kids looking quite vexed. That was the first time I realized that gay wasn’t the norm for everyone. I was shocked by that, because it’s not how I was brought up.
You starred as Karen Wright, a schoolmistress accused of having a lesbian affair with another schoolmistress, in a 2011 West End revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. What did you take away from the experience?
Audiences were very moved, and I felt quite stupid for not knowing it was such a seminal piece that meant so much to the gay community. It was a privilege to be a part of it.
It’s too bad that you and costar Elisabeth Moss couldn’t bring the production to Broadway.
We tried to make it happen, but our scheduling didn’t work out. Neither of us wanted to do it without the other. It was a real shame, because it would be great doing it on Broadway.
Your films Never Let Me Go and The Edge of Love also explore sexual tension between girlfriends. Are you drawn to those complicated relationships?
Well, female friendships are fucking extraordinary. They don’t have to be sexual to be intense love affairs. A breakup with a female friend can be more traumatic than a breakup with a lover. I’ve always been attracted to stories that look at the love-hate complexity of close female friendships. It’s ripe for drama. Did you see Frances Ha? That portrayed a female friendship I really understood.
In Never Let Me Go you played Ruth, a vindictive clone who seems more in love with her friend Kathy, a clone played by Carey Mulligan, than with the guy who comes between them.
Part of Ruth’s jealousy stems from that love, which she can’t express or understand. When she sees that the attention she needs from Kathy is going in another direction, she decides to destroy it. Yeah, it had nothing to do with the guy.
The Edge of Love got a lot of buzz for your intimate bathtub scene with Sienna Miller. No wonder you were rumored to have a sex scene with Chloë Grace Moretz in your upcoming film Laggies.
That happens literally every time I’m in a film with another woman. I don’t think it has anything to do with my past work. The media uses the idea of two women having sex because it sells. It’s funny, isn’t it, that you can’t have a movie about a female relationship without people assuming there’s going to be a hot love scene. It’s slightly derogatory, really.
You’ve worked with some of the most beautiful actresses in the world. Who’s your girl crush?
I just watched The Punk Singer, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill, so I actually have to go with her. She might be my top girl crush of all time, really. I love a riot grrrl.
The Advocate, August/September 2014 issue; extended online version.