In a north London photography studio, beside racks of clothes and shoes, a dragon’s hoard of Chanel haute joaillerie is glittering in the morning sunlight. These pieces are one-offs, crafted in an atelier on the Place Vendôme, where restlessly creative elves have been literally weaving with jewels, creating a precious weft and warp ‘sewn’ with links of 18ct gold. The pieces are audacious, tactile and decadent, and now all they need is Keira Knightley to bring them to life.
She breezes in wearing her off-duty uniform of wide-leg Chanel denims and flat sandals. She’s just seen her two daughters, Edie, eight, and Delilah, nearly four, off to school and nursery: ‘No one had a tantrum, this is a good day, I’m winning at life…’
Then she notices the jewels. ‘Oh, come on!’ she exclaims delightedly, as if calling them out for their outrageous beauty. ‘This is so much fun… Is the big sapphire ring here, or has that sold…?’
When creating roles for cinema, Knightley goes to Chanel for jewellery. It being Keira, they lend her the good stuff: for Atonement in 2007, she and costume designer Jacqueline Durran chose a Chanel deco-style haute joallerie diamond cuff to go with her livid green silk gown – now one of the most famous outfits in recent screen history.
‘I do love the costume aspect,’ she tells me. ‘Especially period costume.’ Her Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012, screenplay by Tom Stoppard) was bedecked, even bedizened, in diamonds. ‘We layered them on as she began to be ostracised, at home on her own, getting more and more tense,’ – she relishes the understatement – ‘and the jewellery was armour,’ though death still came for her despite the Chanel camellias.
White gold, diamond and pearl Tweed Pastel necklace. Keira Knightley’s full outfit details here.
Knightley also wears such magnificent pieces for fun, at galas such as the Tweed de Chanel high jewellery collection dinner at the British Museum this summer, where Kylie Minogue was among the special guests performing. As a global Chanel ambassador, Knightley was adorned with five strands of cabochon-cut gems set in an 18ct white gold necklace. ‘Dancing to Kylie with diamonds on, I mean! It’s dreamy. There’s something amazing about seeing these extraordinary pieces dancing.’
Knightley’s husband, the musician James Righton, formerly of the band Klaxons, was with her on the dance floor. ‘He wore a diamond brooch on his lapel.’ Does she style him? ‘No, he likes dressing up, so I don’t need to style him at all. He’s got an eye for it, he’s a bit of a peacock… He has an array of multicoloured suits. I like that in a man: why shouldn’t they?’
Come midnight, it was a different story. ‘Mmmm, Cinderella vibes,’ says Knightley. ‘The jewels were literally whisked off me as I left.’
‘You looked so comfortable wearing them,’ suggests someone from Chanel. ‘Oh, I was,’ sighs Knightley. ‘Incredibly comfortable.’
She’s funny. She’s frank, and she’s easy to talk to, sitting opposite me, wearing her fashion insider’s Harley Viera-Newton loose-cut black silk shirt, with no make-up, no jewellery – a blank canvas for today’s shoot.
White gold and diamond Tweed Mademoiselle earrings, and white gold, diamond and pearl Tweed Icône Ruban ring
‘I didn’t wear my engagement ring, because last time I did a shoot I lost it… It came back to me, fortuitously, the next day, but that night I was lying next to James and we were watching TV and I was on my phone desperately texting everyone and emailing the insurance company and looking surreptitiously to see if I could get a cheaper version….’ It was considerate of you not to tell him, I say. ‘He could sense something was up. He kept saying, “Why are you texting?”’
Her glossy hair is unbrushed, a bed-head that she flicks forward and hides behind a little. If you passed her in the street, you’d think, there’s a girl who looks a bit like Keira Knightley. But once we start talking, she has a powerful focus. She strikes an elegant pose, arm draped over the back of the chair, and holds it, stock still, for what seems like half the interview.
She’s developed huge star power. Camille Griffin, who directed her in the 2021 black comedy Silent Night, describes the ‘Keira effect’, whereby once she signs up for a film, a whole host of other talents also come on board. She can transform the projects she takes on, I suggest. ‘I’ve got a thing,’ she concedes modestly. ‘A thing that I do. I just look for what I’m interested in, themes or people…’
What drew her to her most recent film, Boston Strangler, produced by Ridley Scott? We both shudder spontaneously, remembering the film’s tableaux of some of the 13 real-life murder victims’ death scenes, garrotted by silk stockings.
‘Ugh, it was horrible. If you were playing the part of a killer, you would have to do a lot of research into that psychological state, which would be horrific and very interesting, but as it was, I didn’t have to go there, I didn’t research that side of it at all. You meet a darkness and – nope!’
Why did she do it, then?
‘What interested me with that film was that it was about what it all meant from a female perspective, not the usual cat-and-mouse game.’
She plays Loretta McLaughlin, a real-life investigative journalist who covered the murders, and she owns the movie, heart and soul. McLaughlin’s care for younger and older family members, her determination, her thought processes: it’s her film.
The strangler himself barely gets a look-in, a big reversal from the Tony Curtis version of 1968, where he was the charming psycho lead. It’s explicitly about female-led storytelling. ‘I was interested in how Loretta pushed through that male-dominated newsroom,’ she says. ‘At the premiere I met a woman who was one of Loretta’s friends, an amazing journalist, who said we really captured it.’
Her next project is Black Doves, a psychological spy thriller by Netflix Original. It will be Knightley’s first television outing since 2002, when as a rising star she played Lara in Doctor Zhivago on ITV. Is this a sign of how the cultural dial has shifted towards television – or how tempting this particular part is?
‘I find the whole story incredibly interesting. I can’t wait. It’s about a passionate affair, and subterfuge, double lives and duplicity. Maybe we’re all two people, right? We go to work and we’re one thing, we come home and we’re another. We’re all different things to different people, and this looks at that in a more extreme way, where the stakes are incredibly high. And –’ her voice reaches a slightly ironic pitch – ‘it’s filming in the UK, most of it in London, so the kids get to go to school. And it’s modern, and there are guns. Lovely. Haven’t done guns for a while.’
Modern costumes, on the other hand, she finds slightly less fun: ‘You’re more restricted, the clothes are all off the rack; you’re thinking, where would the character shop? Because we all know what the rules of today are. Whereas with a period film, it’s a reinterpretation of an imagined past. You get to make up the rules.’
For example, Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, for which her wonderful Elizabeth Bennet won an Oscar nomination: ‘We got really obsessed with a stripe, which was part of the line of the character, so if I wasn’t wearing a striped dress, there would be a stripe on the stocking.’
At 38, Knightley has about 55 films under her belt. ‘Yes, it feels nice to be able to say there’s a good bank of interesting things there.’ She was highly motivated from the beginning – she asked her actor parents for an agent at the age of three – and at 17 she broke through with Bend It Like Beckham. She worked with an extraordinary zeal, constantly pushing herself.
But recently there has been a change of pace. Slated to star as Cora Seaborne in the Apple TV adaptation of Sarah Perry’s historical novel The Essex Serpent, she dropped out in order to be with her family when Covid regulations made childcare nigh-on impossible. (Claire Danes took over.) ‘I’ve taken some time off, yes,’ she says, smiling.
It’s an article of faith with her to talk openly about her experience of motherhood. Why?
‘As soon as I became a mother, I was absolutely shocked at how alone we all felt, and how far the experiences of me and my friends were from what was being represented publicly.’
The myth that it’s idyllic, that it’s easy? ‘That felt like a shame and a waste and unhelpful. Because part of the beauty, I think personally, in motherhood, is the mess, and the fact that everybody is in constant crisis. Motherhood can be amazing and heroic but it can only be all of those things if you admit that it’s the most difficult thing you’re ever going to do. And that it’s a mess most of the time, and there is heroism and beauty in that, but only if you accept it for what it is.’
White gold, diamond and pearl Tweed Perlé necklace
Soon after her first daughter was born, she wrote passionately for a book of feminist essays, detailing the agony of giving birth and asking, ‘And you say I am the weaker sex?’ She has continued to tell the truth about her life in a way that other women recognise and relate to.
We laugh, recalling the amazingly impractical outfit she wore astride a beige motorbike in 2011’s Coco Mademoiselle advertisement: ‘I was quite happy when, a few years ago, I could still fit into it.’ Does she own it? ‘No, a cream suede catsuit – I can’t imagine that with children. Suddenly there would be a buttery hand reaching up…’
This morning her younger daughter found her way into Knightley’s make-up drawer and applied lipstick ‘everywhere over her face but not the lips’.
Knightley thought that she and James might be bohemian parents, but they have found they like family life to be ‘quite structured’, she says. ‘The children seem to like that. We all deal better.’ James tends to be more disciplinarian than her, ‘which is a surprise. I say, “Ask your father,” when they want something.’
Her elder daughter knows all Lizzo’s lyrics: ‘She’s obsessed, but she avoids the swearwords.’ Does Knightley swear in front of her girls? ‘Apparently not, although I’m famously sweary, I must have managed not to, because we get told off by them when we do swear. “Mummy! You must not say that!” and, “Daddy swore in the car!” And then he has to apologise.’
She’s chuckling. Righton, when not being chastised for swearing in the car, is a pop star, sometime collaborator with Arctic Monkeys, Honeyblood and The Chemical Brothers; most recently he helped Benny and Björn of Abba as they put together Abba Voyage. ‘He put the band together for it. George Lucas’s company did the CGI. It’s an amazing show.’
The current Hollywood writers’ strike is partly about getting protection from AI. Is she working on copyrighting her image?
‘At the moment for actresses the concern is about the voice, and they’re trying to protect the voice-over industry. I don’t know where that’s at, but I know that’s in negotiation. But I imagine you’re right, the next step will be to copyright my face. AI has the potential to be catastrophic – I hope governments come in and regulate it. I’m a big one for internet regulation too. One hundred per cent. Social media needs to be regulated. I’m not on it, but I’ve got two girls and it’s chilling – I want them to be able to use that space to connect and be creative, but in a safe way.’
Gold, white gold, diamond, yellow diamond and rock crystal Tweed Cambon necklace, and gold, white gold, diamond and yellow diamond Tweed Cambon ring
Edie, at eight, is asking for a phone. At what age will she let her have one? ‘Twenty-five,’ she deadpans. ‘I think them not being protected is ridiculous, we protect them everywhere else, why not online as well?’
Knightley has been in the Chanel family since she signed as the face of Coco Mademoiselle, aged 20. Does she now find herself giving advice to newer recruits Lily-Rose Depp, and the new face of Coco Mademoiselle, Gossip Girl’s Whitney Peak? ‘F—k no. Lily-Rose, you take the wisdom from her. She’s fabulous, I think she’s a wonderful actress and so lovely to work with and unbelievably professional. I’ve not met Whitney Peak.’
But Knightley has connected through Chanel with Ali MacGraw, the Hollywood star best known for Love Story (1970).
‘I mean: legend. That’s an overused word, but she is. When I met her, she was about to run away to join the circus. I think that didn’t happen because of the pandemic. I remember exactly what she was wearing: these high-waisted sparkly Chanel trousers – I bought them – with a shirt and a small jacket and kohl on her eye.’ A vision of how to be cool in later in life? ‘Just: yes…’
With a detailed fashion retrospective of the work of Gabrielle Chanel coming to the V&A, the house is again, after Lagerfeld’s long tenure, under female leadership, with Virginie Viard. ‘She’s almost the opposite of Karl in that she’s very quiet, very discreet,’ says Knightley. ‘She’s taking the house her own way, and what she’s doing is by women, for women, it’s very wearable.’
That’s hardly the word for the Tweed Cambon necklace, with its gold lattice and opulent pear-cut diamonds, but Chanel’s haute joaillerie is about dreams, a spur to the imagination, as this uniquely grounded superstar is well aware.
‘They’re just extraordinary, aren’t they? A flight of fantasy.’
All jewellery, price on request, Chanel High Jewellery Tweed Collection, and all clothing Chanel ready to wear.
Styling: Leith Clark. Hair: Luke Hersheson. Make-up: Georgina Graham at Management Artists, using Chanel 31 Le Rouge and No 1 de Chanel Revitalizing Serum