To be completely honest, it's rather intense to interview someone as famous as the formidable Ms. Knightley. Standing outside her suite, this writer's palms went clammy, lips dried up, butterflies fluttered while images of gigantic wigs and pursed lips flashed through my head. Incidentally, she keeps a butterfly framed above her sofa, which we decided died of old age before being pinned under glass ... but on to the important stuff. In her latest film, she stars opposite Benedict Cumberbatch (read our interview here), in The Imitation Game , which tells the story of English war hero Alan Turing who cracked the Nazis' coding system, 'Enigma', and was later chemically castrated by the British government for being homosexual. Nice, right? Our friends at BAFTA New York invited Keira for a talk at The Standard, High Line where we had a chance for a tête-à-tête. We talked about the pseudo-scandalous Interview Magazine shoot, cracking codes, Tolstoy's misogyny, and her enorrrrmmmmousssss bookshelves.
Standard Culture: Tell us about your character Joan Clark.
Keira Knightley: Joan Clark was the only female member of the team who broke the Enigma Code during the Second World War. She was also very briefly engaged to Alan Turing. It didn’t last because he was ... gay.
What kind of brain did Joan have to be able to be a master codebreaker?
The opposite sort of brain to me. It was actually interesting though during that period, Mathematics weren’t seen as a masculine occupation. It was seen as more feminine so they were actually quite a lot of female mathematicians.
As far as the relationship with Alan Turing, she was absolutely obsessed with the world and romance of mathematics and wanted to dedicate her life to that. I can completely understand choosing partnership and friendship – that meeting of the minds – where they both had exactly the same passion. Even though it wasn’t a sexual passion.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game (Miramax)
So if you weren’t an actor I imagine cryptanalysis would not be your line of work.
It definitely wouldn’t be my line of work. I did spend about two weeks desperately going through all of the mathematics behind the Turing Machine [That's what they called the machine that broke the Nazi codes.] After two solid weeks, I knew absolutely nothing and deduced that I was just going to say the words and pretend.
Had you heard of his story before becoming involved in the project?
Yes, in 2009 Gordon Brown gave a big speech and the media made a big push to get him pardoned. It is a shocking story, not only because of what he had done during the Second World War, but absolutely shocking for a government to prosecute a national (and world) hero.
Just when you think you’ve heard every amazing story coming out of World War Two ...
It’s such an incredible generation because they really didn’t talk about it. They took their secrets to the grave and particularly this one because most of the things that came out of Bletchley Park were kept secret until the ‘70s, or even the ‘90s.
How would you sum up the professional ethos of your co-star, Benedict Cumberbatch, in three words?
Keira as Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice (2005)
If you had to be reincarnated as one of your characters, fictional or non, which character would you choose?
Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice because you get the really rich dude with the really big house. She got the best ending. Most of them haven’t ended up that well.
You’ve played probably two of the biggest heroines in literature: Anna Karenina and Elizabeth Bennet, both strong, defiant women – as are many of your characters. What did you learn from these iconic women?
Don’t be like Anna Karenina [laughs]! It’s totally understandable, but just don’t do it. The train is not worth it. The man is not worth it. Don’t do it.
Left to Right: Pirates of the Caribbean, The Duchess, Anna Karenina, Atonement
I think I like the sense of rebellion in all of them and whether they’ve managed it or whether they haven’t or whether it’s destroyed them or whether they haven’t. I think that sense of rebellion is what life is about. I think that’s sort of the main thing that I enjoy in all of them, whether it’s to their destruction or to their making.
Do you think because Anna Karenina was written by a man and Pride and Prejudice was written by a woman that one female protagonist ends up happy and the other ends up punished?
Yes, possibly. You read Anna Karenina and you go, “I think he hates her,” a lot of the time. In fact, he set out to make her the villain of the piece. He set out to make a piece of work about a noble man who was wronged by his wife and I think when you read it you can see the hatred quite a lot of the time.
Speaking of books, how would you describe your bookshelf at home?
It’s a whole room. I’ve got a lot of books. It’s filled to the brim. In fact, it was the only thing that we actually did to the house when we moved in because my husband has millions of books and I have millions of books. So already we have too many books for the bookshelves that we made.
Would you ever let anyone take a photograph of it?
Nope. It’s the best room in the house though. It’s amazing.
What are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading Nana by Émile Zola, which I’d read before and I’m rereading because I’m going through his works. I’m doing Thérèse Raquin on Broadway next year, so I wanted to immerse myself in a bit of a Zola moment. I’m planning to do as many Zola books as I can possibly do by next September.
When you did the Interview Magazine shoot, did that feel like a big decision at the time?
No, it didn’t feel like a big decision at all. I’d done quite a lot of topless either in photo shoots or in films. I’ve always been quite comfortable with that. I’ve said no to a lot of them, but this one I happened to say, “You’re not allowed to airbrush and you’re not allowed to make them any bigger.”
Were you expecting any reaction from that?
No because again, I’ve done them before and I’ve made that kind of statement before so it’s interesting that now it gets picked up. I think there’s a big question over how much flesh should be shown as far as women’s bodies go. There’s a big question of feminism that’s suddenly come back, which is fantastic because for years you couldn’t actually talk about it. It wasn’t allowed to be mentioned. So it’s great that it’s come to the forefront ... the discussion over the objectification and the sexualization of women, and then – going back to The Imitation Game – the place at the table.
There was another famous K.K. making headlines this week with a photo shoot...
I know! [laughs] I’m so pissed off that she’s got my initials. Like, wait a minute! And she’s so much richer than I am ... Damn!
Did you have any reaction to her Paper cover?
I don’t at all. I’m not into women-hating. I think people should make their own decisions, so no reaction at all.
The Imitation Game opens November 28th.
The BAFTA New York In Conversation Series is a celebration of British talent held at The Standard, High Line. Read our other Interviews:
• Benedict Cumberbatch, "I Bore Myself Listening to Myself"
• Hello, Mr. Hugh Dancy
• Eddie Redmayne on Kissing Etiquette and the Colorful Life of Acting
Watch the talks here.