At first, Keira Knightley thought everything was going to be fine.
Her pregnancy had been delightful, so she figured that she’d give birth to her first child and then continue working at her normal pace. A Broadway show and two films in a year? Why not?
But after Knightley gave birth to her daughter, Edie, things didn’t go according to plan. She was hormonal, for one. And tired. Because Edie never seemed to sleep. Still, Knightley intended to keep her obligations. She performed eight times a week in a stage production of “Therese Raquin” and then filmed a supporting role in the drama “Collateral Beauty.”
But in the summer of 2016, staring down the lead role in the period drama “Colette,” which opened Friday, Knightley decided that she needed a break.
“I was like, ‘I can’t. I literally can’t,’ ” she said. “I am so tired. I am so hormonal. I can’t deal with this big character right now. So they very sweetly said, ‘We’ll put it off for a year.’ ”
Director Wash Westmoreland wasn’t exactly thrilled to push the start date on “Colette” — “No one welcomes that news,” he said — but the delay ended up being “the best thing that ever happened.” The filmmaker was able to spend the year finessing the script about Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the renowned French novelist who wrote under her husband’s name until her work became so successful in the early 1900s that she fought for recognition.
Alas, Edie — then 2 — still wasn’t sleeping regularly when production began in Budapest in 2017. But by then, Knightley had moved out of what she describes as the “Oh, my God, how am I a mother?” stage and into the “I am the mother” one.
“Edie was a fairly regular presence on set and a delightful presence, actually,” said Knightley’s co-star Dominic West, who plays Colette’s autocratic husband. “But I was very much aware of Keira having to juggle the two roles of mother and movie star. And she did it pretty well, because it didn’t affect the work at all. But it did involve a lot of struggling offset, I think.”
And it still does, Knightley said. On a flight from London to present the film at the Sundance Film Festival this year, she was seated next to fellow British actress Rosamund Pike, the mother of two children.
“And my first question was, ‘So, what the [expletive] do you do when they go to school? How are you dealing with this?’ ” Knightley said, peppering her speech with her favorite four-letter word. “I don’t think anybody’s got an answer to it. The answer to it is that it’s messy and really difficult, and somehow, you do it.”
Knightley is bothered by the societal norm that men serve predominantly as providers while women are expected to juggle maternal and career obligations. Her husband, musician James Righton, is constantly working in the studio, but he can do that “as and when he wants,” the 33-year-old said, “whereas I need a film set and have to go where the work is.”
For men “we go, ‘Oh, gosh, yes, absolutely, of course you don’t see your children when you work, because you’ve got to concentrate,’ ” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Can you imagine a woman saying that?”
In Colette, she saw courage and felt like she was “standing tall” when she embodied her.
“Women feel shame or that we should hide in so many ways — parts of our personality that aren’t feminine enough or what we’re meant to be,” she said. “And with Colette, she just went, ‘Boom, this is what I am.’ I love that. I don’t think I’m that strong. I think I’ve still got a bit of, ‘Oh, [expletive]. I want to say the right thing.’ ”
In the past year, in particular, Knightley said, she’s been grappling with how much to use her voice.
“The idea five years ago of being political in an interview — you would never,” she said. “And now suddenly, the world is a political place with Brexit in England, with Trump.”
She doesn’t use social media. Her nonwork days are “too [expletive] boring” to document on Instagram, she said, and the idea of sharing “this is what I think!” on Twitter without being asked makes her squeamish.
Then she chides herself for her hesitancy: “I’m obviously wrong, because everybody’s on it, and I should be.”
Asked if she’s felt an increasing sense of power in the industry as she’s aged, she said she’s noticed in the past five years that “people think I’m good at what I do.”
“Whereas before, it was like, ‘She’s just a pretty face and she can’t do that,’ ” said Knightley, who was nominated for a second Oscar in 2014 for her supporting turn in “The Imitation Game.” “There’s been a switch, and I feel quite good about that. There was a moment where it didn’t feel like that was gonna happen.”