Keira Knightley on Laggies, Imitation Game, and Hating High School

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Photo: Fred Duval/FilmMagic

Keira Knightley can’t help it, really, but she doesn’t quite come across like “one of us.” Which is why it’s such a treat to see her in Laggies, Lynn Shelton’s latest comedy about adults failing miserably at adulthood. Brandishing a decent American accent, the willowy Brit plays a woman adrift in her late 20s who takes a weeklong break from her life to live with a high-school girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) she met while buying her alcohol and her divorcée lawyer dad (Sam Rockwell at his funny, sexy best). It may well be Knightley’s most relatable performance since Bend It Like Beckham. Vulture caught up with her at the Toronto Film Festival, where she was also promoting her role as pioneering WWI math genius and WWII code-breaker Joan Clarke, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing, in the historical thriller The Imitation Game, which has her on Vulture Kyle’s picks for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Below, Knightley talks about hating high school, Sam Rockwell’s dance moves, and, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch’s yumminess.

I love that your dress has rockets and spaceships on it. Where is it from?
It’s Stella McCartney. Yeah, I’m really enjoying it because I’m pretty sure that my brother had a bedspread that was like this when he was about 11. It’s making me really happy.

Are you doing all your interviews barefoot?
I do have shoes. It’s just my feet are so fucking sore that I can’t walk in high heels, that I’ve just given up.

So, I was at the Toronto premiere when that woman asked Benedict Cumberbatch to taste his yumminess.
Oh, the yumminess! What is it? Do you taste the delicious yumminess or something? Amazing.

Seems like you guys are old friends.
We are. We met on Atonement, and we’ve been mates ever since. We sort of lived together when we were shooting Atonement. Well, a bunch of us — me and Ben and Patrick [Kennedy] and [director] Joe [Wright], so there was a bunch of us in the same house. So even though [Benedict and I] actually only had one or two scenes, I think, in Atonement together, we were sort of together for months and we’ve been friends ever since.

What’s it been like to come back together and work together again?
Lovely, yeah. It’s always nice to work with friends, and it happens rarely. Because you’ve got shorthand and you trust each other, and obviously there’s a chemistry there anyway because you have the chemistry of two people that get on with each other, so that’s always kind of a nice thing to put on the screen.

Why were you so interested in playing Joan in The Imitation Game?
I read an article in The Guardian, probably about five years ago, about Alan Turing, and I was totally shocked by the story. I had never [read] about him, I’d never heard of him, I didn’t know his work, and I didn’t know what happened to him. And I think you can see it — the whole film has this kind of incredible ensemble cast of actors that normally play lead roles who are coming in to do tiny little bits, and I think everyone, for exactly the same reason, just sort of felt that this was an important story to tell.

Joan is kind of a badass and a pioneer.
Yeah, she is. Though there’s a lot of historical discrepancy, actually, in the film version of her. I mean, she was there, she was one of the people that broke the [Nazi] Enigma code, she was briefly engaged to Alan Turing [Ed note: who tells Joan he’s gay] — that’s all true. But how she got to Bletchley [Park, and was convinced to work on this top-secret code breaking project], that’s not true, and kind of the whole thing with the parents [being strict and wanting her to come back home] isn’t true. I think the reason that everybody did this was the Alan Turing thing. I think you could do an amazing TV thing following all of the characters and all their stories because actually, if you look into any of them, they’re totally fascinating.

Did you learn math for the film?
No, no. No capacity whatsoever.

Laggies, I loved.
Great! That’s good, that’s always helpful. [Laughs.]

It felt a little more scripted than a normal Lynn Shelton movie. Usually she writes an outline and the actors improvise. Was that the case?
It was more scripted than normal Lynn Shelton things and less scripted than most things that I do. I think we did play around a bit. Sam [Rockwell] played around a lot, but mostly sort of around the script. We didn’t change anything. But yeah, I think for Lynn it was really interesting because it’s normally completely improvised. This is the first time, I think, that she’s worked on a script that wasn’t her own.

Did you have to get used to improvising?
Well, I’d done it before on Begin Again, which is the first time that I’d done it, and it was actually one of the other reasons that I was sort of interested in doing this. I knew that Lynn’s whole approach was a totally different one than I normally do. On Begin Again, I had just been completely terrified of it, because I didn’t realize that’s how [director] John [Carney] worked. He certainly didn’t tell me until about two days before we started shooting on Begin Again that he was going to get rid of it, so there was always of level of angst about the whole thing with him, whereas this, I was very much going, “Oooh, actually, that was a really interesting whole approach and way of working, which I’d never done before.”

Was there a good moment you can tell me about improvising with Sam? Did it go wrong?
No, I think he has a great moment where — I think it’s still in the film — where he’s telling one of Chloë’s friends that we’ve [toilet-]papered the house, and he’s telling them not to do that, and he turns himself into Darth Vader, and that was completely him, spur of the moment. And I think the reactions to that are quite genuine, going, “Wow, that was such a weird choice, but so brilliant.”

He’s incredibly sexy in this movie.
Yeah, yeah, he always is. He’s amazing. Actually, he’s not when he’s playing complete psychopaths — then you sort of go, “Oh my God, you’re the creepiest person in the world.” But apart from that, he’s really sexy. He’s very sexy in Moon, too, he’s got that kind of ability. He’s a chameleon, he can just do whatever.

And an excellent dancer. 
An amazing dancer, yeah. I mean, I didn’t see it personally, but I saw the YouTube clip. I think it’s his audition for … oh God, what was the George Clooney movie he was amazing in? [Ed Note: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.] Anyway, it’s his audition for that, and he does this incredible dance routine, I think it’s online. It’s absolutely amazing.

What appealed to you about playing an adult woman who hangs out with high-school kids?
I think it was just something that was really different for me. I’ve never done, really, anything like this, and I’m certainly not at the top of anybody’s list for this type of role, so I was really sort of touched when Lynn kind of got in touch and said, “Hey, I think that you could do this really well.”

What do you mean “this kind of role”?
Well, I think modern, American romantic comedy, very loose. I’m much more known for kind of quite taut, British, obviously, but neurotic kind of thing I’ve been doing over years — darker kind of characters. And I’ve never played anything like this before, so it was kind of a leap of faith for her, and it’s very lovely when somebody sort of says, “I think you’d be really good and this could really work.” It was just a lovely challenge, and I really loved the script. I think you see that sort of mid-life crisis sort of thing a lot with male characters, but you don’t often see it — well, you’re seeing it more now with female characters, but it’s always been interesting that there weren’t more stories like this kind of out there, so I really sort of connected to it.

She’s very young to be having a midlife crisis.
Well, she’s having a quarter-life crisis. Who knows when she dies, so it could … if she gets struck down by something, you never know what part of life she’s at. But no, Generation Y is quite famous for having a crisis of, like … aren’t they? I mean, the New York Times is writing about it all the time. I’m sure I read something in the New York Times about Generation Y and their crises.

Have you had one? Or had a feeling of being lost or an outsider?
I think it’s impossible for any human being not to have had moments of going, “Am I in the right the place? Am I doing the right thing? Am I behaving in the right way?” I mean, you know, you question all the time. No, I’ve never had it to the extent of going, “I’m with the wrong friends, I’m with the wrong person, I don’t have a job.” You know, she’s having quite an extreme moment. So, no, I’ve never had it to that extreme, but I think this is a story that anybody at any different point in life and any different walk of life, you’re a human being. Of course you kind of question where you’re at or where you’re going.

If you had to revert to high school …
I fucking hated high school, so I wouldn’t revert to high school ever. I don’t know, I’m not that kind of gal. Teenage girls and that scream pitch, even when I was a teenage girl, I was like, “Ugh, I really don’t like this,” so that’s never been my place in time.

Did you go to your prom?
Yeah, I went to prom with my best mate, Emily. We both turned up an hour late, and I’d been filming Bend It Like Beckham, and I turned up in leather pants and a crop top, and she was a model for a while, and she’d been in Paris shooting something, and she turned up as the boy, so she had a black tie with ripped jeans on, and everybody else was completely dressed up, obviously, in that kind of finery, and then we had our picture taken underneath the thing, and she’s kissing me, and we were told that that was disgusting. And one of the teachers took us both aside and said we were never going to come to anything if we didn’t know how to dress appropriately for events like that. So that was my prom. We had a great time!

Our photograph, though, wasn’t allowed — you know when you get up and, I don’t know if this is in America, but you collect all the photographs of prom and you buy whatever ones you want. Ours wasn’t allowed to be displayed on that because it wasn’t appropriate.