Keira Knightley’s New Movie Tackles The Objectification Of Women — She Knows All About That

Photo: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for BFI.
This interview contains mild spoilers for Misbehaviour, available on VOD September 25. 
As a 17-year-old on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, Keira Knightley would get her boobs contoured every morning, in order to give her the kind of cleavage expected from the romantic lead of an adventure movie. 
“They literally painted them on,” Knightley told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the release of her latest film, Misbehaviour. “I had to go to makeup, where they’d do my face, and then I’d go to a different place where they were doing all the body paint downs. The woman who did my boobs every day was the body makeup person for all the big female movie stars in the ‘90s. At the time, I was like Oh, this is just Hollywood.”
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It’s exactly the kind of sexist double standard that her Misbehaviour character, activist Sally Alexander, would be up in arms about. Directed by Phillipa Lowthorpe (Call The Midwife), Misbehaviour is based on the real-life protest staged by the burgeoning women’s liberation movement at the 1970 Miss World pageant in London. Dozens of women — Alexander included — stormed the stage where comedian Bob Hope (played here by Greg Kinnear) was performing in front of 100 million live viewers, to take a stand against the objectification of women. 

With a heavy-hitting cast that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Rhys Ifans, Keeley Hawes, and Lesley Manville, Misbehaviour keeps the tone light and snappy enough to avoid preaching, while still honing in on the serious issues at stake. But the film really differs from its more earnest peers in delivering a surprisingly nuanced take on the early history of feminism. Misbehaviour doesn’t shy away from a difficult conversation about intersectionality, specifically the movement’s rocky relationship with race. Among the Miss World contestants that year were Jennifer Hosten (Mbatha-Raw, devastatingly good as always), the first-ever Miss Granada, and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), the first Black contestant from South Africa to compete in the pageant. By appearing in what the movie’s white feminists call a sexist spectacle, they’re shattering myths about white beauty standards, and giving hope to young women of color worldwide. By presenting both sides of this story, the movie illuminates a lesser-known facet of history, but also anchors the action in ongoing debates. 
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Photo: Courtesy of Shout! Studios.
“You have this movie set in 1970 and it encompasses a conversation that we’re still having today about feminism and the intersection with racism,” Knightley said. “I particularly liked the fact that I went into it thinking that I knew what the story was going to be, and the point of view that it would have, and actually it had a much more nuanced point of view. It felt more like a discussion.”
That sense of timely urgency is what initially drew her to the film, which premieres on VOD September 25. As someone who has been vocal about her own struggle for equal pay, she was uniquely positioned to take on the role of Sally, an aspiring history student and working mother juggling guilt, ambition, and outrage at being a second-class citizen. But this project has also challenged Knightley’s personal stake in this fight, and provided an opportunity for her to reflect on her own success in an industry that often still treats women as disposable canvases for men’s fantasies. 
Refinery29: I read an interview where you called yourself a hypocrite for acting in this movie. Why?
Keira Knightley: “It made me question myself because I went in thinking 100% I’m on the side of the feminists — and I still am, really — and yet you come out of it and you think about white privilege, and you also think about your actions in the world. Most of my money is earned doing modeling and walking the red carpet. So, as much as you think you’re on the right side, you’re actually not. The world is a nuanced and complicated place, and I really liked the fact that they presented those other arguments.
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“It’s the same with climate change. I read it all and I go, ‘Yes, yes yes, I’m going to that!’ And then there I am eating a steak. Within all of this, it’s all about the journey and learning. But what I was really impressed by in Sally Alexander is that she’s a woman who did live by her principles. She did try to live a different life, and fought for what she really believed in. I found that to be incredibly inspiring.”
There’s something a little depressing about the fact that these women changed the world, and yet you and I had never heard of them before this. 
“I’ve always been interested in feminism, and I didn’t know about these women. I really don’t know a lot about the early history of feminism in the 20th century. If a group of men had managed to get into an event that was the most high-profile event in the world — it had more viewers than the Olympics and the World Cup — I’m absolutely sure that there’d have been a film before this, and I’m absolutely sure we’d have been aware of that protest. The story of the movement is still largely untold, and it seems very important to try to shine a light on it. We need to know where we come from and how far we’ve come to know how far we have to go, and the route to get there.”
There’s a lot in the film about how we value women based on their looks. You started out in Hollywood as a teenager, literally having your boobs painted on for Pirates of the Caribbean. How did that impact you?
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“I have to say at the time I did find it really funny. I remember I did a magazine cover at that time, and they enhanced my boobs. What you’re really aware of is that there is a standard of beauty that you are not meeting. Even though I thought it was funny and it didn’t majorly affect me, we all know the standard of beauty that we’re meant to be reaching are as women from a really young age. Me, in a very literal sense, because they’re enhancing my boobs. I’m not sure how much has changed now — the new generation of teenagers are absolutely aware of it. We’re still very much living within that. And that’s what the movie shows as well — the reading out of the measurements, they have to be a certain size to be in beauty pageants. Even though they’re not as overt about it now, it is always lurking in the background.”
Photo: Courtesy of Shout! Studios.
There’s a particularly jarring scene in the movie where all the contestants are asked to turn around so the audience can judge their butts. But after really thinking about it, I started wondering whether we’ve really moved past that, or if it’s just less overt. 
“I read it and was like, Oh my god, that’s shocking. And then I thought about myself on the red carpet. You think about those shots where the cameras are going up and down the body, and they’re giving marks out of 10. The over the shoulder shot basically means the ass shot. What changed? We’re not having women stand there in a bathing costume —  but you know,  if you wanted to stand there in a bathing costume, you could. There isn’t much that’s different.”
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You wrote an essay in 2018 about your experience giving birth and the need for better representations of motherhood on-screen. How did Misbehaviour fit into that vision?
“That was a huge part of the reason I was so interested in playing Sally. I was interested in the fact that she had a 7-year-old daughter when she did this, and she was willing to get arrested. And then there’s the difficulty of going out to try to get a degree, the way people look at you when somebody else is with your kid. If you don’t have the money for childcare, you’re constantly asking for favors from family that can create difficulty within the family. 
“I think motherhood in general is something that hasn’t been properly looked at in film and television. Getting the nuances and the deep-seated guilt that is constantly at play when you’re a working mother, or the mother of a kid while you’re in a big political movement, or a protest movement — there’s a wealth of stories to be mined there. The difficult part of it is literally working with child actors. It’s difficult to find one that’s really good, and it’s difficult because the working hours have to be very short. Now being a mom, I read scripts where you have these magic children who don’t make a peep, and of course that’s not in any way the reality of being a working parent.”
A while back, you said you mostly took on historical roles because so many of the modern scripts you got had you playing the wife, or were subjected to some form of violence. Have you seen a shift in the kind of roles you’ve been offered as Hollywood pays more lip service to representation?
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“There are definitely actresses acting in modern things and playing much more interesting and nuanced characters than the wife and girlfriend. I think that was also particular to my career in Europe. I can’t really comment on the whole industry. I still often find more interesting stuff in period films, but not always. My next movie coming out is set in modern day.”
Speaking of period films, have you been following the renewed obsession with your version of Pride & Prejudice now that Succession fans have discovered that Tom Wambsgans is Mr. Darcy?
“I love that! I fucking love Succession so much. It’s so genius. But the thing about Matthew Macfadyen is that he is literally one of the nicest guys in the entire world. That character is so fucking creepy, and so awful, that knowing him, I’m like Wow, he is a genius in that show. So brilliant.” 
It’s the best show on TV!
“Oh my god, it’s Shakespearean. It’s a joy. I can’t fucking wait for the next [season].”
Do you have a favorite memory of filming with him?
“I’ve worked with Matthew three times, and twice we’ve had these major dancing scenes together. And he’s a fucking big dude, and rather a good dancer, but when he’s really thinking about it — right hand, left hand — he makes like... a claw?! And so in Anna Karenina we literally ended up just weeping with laughter over the resurgence of claw hands.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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