Keira Knightley’s best-known roles feature the British actor playing strong women in critically-acclaimed period dramas, like the mid-aughts’ Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. She’s played leading love interests in rom-coms, including the divisive Love Actually and the musically-oriented Begin Again, and she’s been known to brandish a sword or two on the high seas in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But a new film sees Knightley stepping into a different realm entirely, for a thrilling tale of whistleblowing, espionage and political conspiracy, all rooted in real-life events.
In Official Secrets, Knightley plays Katharine Gun, a British intelligence operative who found herself at the center of an international political scandal in 2003. Gun, then 28, received an email about a U.S.-led operation enlisting the help of Britain to spy on other countries, in an attempt to blackmail them into supporting the Iraq War. Her decision to leak the information to the British press showed that there was a concerted effort by the U.S. and the U.K. to push for war, despite popular opinion leaning against the invasion in both countries. For Gun, whistleblowing would have severe consequences: her arrest, the loss of her job and her trial in 2004 under the Official Secrets Act, which carried a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison, though the charges were eventually dropped. The aftermath of the leak also affected Gun’s husband, a Turkish national who was threatened with deportation from the U.K.
As we know today, Gun’s actions did not prevent the Iraq War from going ahead, but her decision to leak the information exposed to the world the lengths to which the U.S. and U.K. were willing to go in order to justify the invasion. A United Nations resolution backing the invasion would have given the war legitimacy on the basis of international consensus. But the U.S. and the U.K. withdrew the resolution following the fallout of Gun’s revelations, and instead President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair relied on arguing that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, a claim later exposed to be false.
Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower behind the 1971 Pentagon Papers leak, has called Gun’s actions “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen. No one else — including myself — has ever done what Gun did: tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it.” TIME sat down with Knightley in London to talk about the importance of Gun’s story, the implications of her decision today and new roles she’s taking on, at work and at home.
TIME: The events Official Secrets is based on haven’t received quite as much attention as other instances of whistleblowing. Were you familiar with Katharine Gun’s story before taking on this role?
Knightley: I wasn’t aware of Katherine’s story. I do remember the lead-up to the war in Iraq, I think I was almost 18. I was a pretty politically engaged teenager, so I had read about it a lot, and yet I don’t remember this at all. I think that might partly be because when we invaded [Iraq], I was in America, and this didn’t get a lot of press at all there. The story came out the week before the invasion happened, so it got completely swallowed up by the actual invasion of Iraq.
Did anything surprise you while you were doing research for this role?
The government’s emails, where you could see that the public demonstrations actually were having an effect. I wasn’t on the big anti-war march [held in cities around the world including London in February 2003] because I was in America then, but I’d been on definitely one, if not two, before that. I remember the disillusionment after that huge protest — that feeling that although it’s so big and everyone’s out on the streets, what we do doesn’t have an effect. And when you read those emails, you realize that actually it did have an effect, and if as a public we had stayed out on the streets, and if we had continued to protest, then maybe — and I don’t know this for sure, but maybe — there would have been a very different history. And that’s, in one way, kind of a great tragedy, but it also filled me with hope. We need to keep being out on the streets, we mustn’t get disillusioned as a public, and we must keep engaged.
Do you think any movements today are similar to those anti-war demonstrations?
I think the climate change movement is the next big one, and if we lose, we’ll be extinct, so we better get out there — Greta [Thunberg] is right!
Did you get to spend time with Katharine? What about her did you want to convey?
It was really helpful meeting her, because her point of view really is absolutely clear. I asked her, “Would you do it again?” and she said “Yes, absolutely.” I thought that was extraordinary, that she believes absolutely in what she did, and that she did it to save lives, and I totally applaud her. As far as playing her, that was really important to see first-hand.
What were some of the most challenging aspects of filming Official Secrets, and playing this character?
The thing that was challenging was that I made the stupid decision to move my 3-year-old from a cot to a bed a night before I started playing a lead role in a film where there was a lot of words. As any person with a kid will know, that is a f-cking terrible idea! So she didn’t sleep, and was awake and walking around the whole night, during the whole of the filming, and so was I. So the most difficult thing was remembering words, because I had no sleep during pretty much the whole shoot.
In the past, you’ve taken on roles in many period films — but Official Secrets is set not that long ago, in 2003. Why do you think this story is important to tell today?
We’re still living in the consequences of that conflict. In Britain, and in many places in the world, it shaped our present. There was huge disillusionment after that war, and we’re still feeling the repercussions of that. The question of government accountability, of morality within our intelligence services, of what kind of society we as citizens really want to live in are still very relevant. In a funny way, we’re still living this film. It’s period, but it’s still very much present-day.
What kind of roles do you find yourself gravitating toward at this point in your career?
I’ve always loved political thrillers. They’ve always been the genre I’ve been interested in the most. This is the first time I’ve been offered one, and I was just really excited because it was a challenge that I hadn’t done. As a cinema-goer — actually, I’m not going to the cinema that much at the moment because I have a young child and I fall asleep every time I go into a dark room. But I like movies that challenge me. I’m not somebody that watches them to kind of switch off.
In an essay titled The Weaker Sex for the 2018 book Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies, you wrote in very candid, sometimes graphic terms about the birth of your first child, Evie. The essay got a very strong reaction. What were your reasons for writing it?
I wrote that essay in vagina-splitting terms, and I think it’s important for people to understand, because it’s part of feminism, and part of the female experience, that cannot be understood by men, in anyway whatsoever. I think women are hugely left alone to deal with the physical and emotional marathon that is childbirth and its aftermath.
It was also about the strength of women. We’re always told that we’re so weak, and we’re told that we forget childbirth, and that’s why you have other children. You don’t forget childbirth! I’m having another child, and that’s not weak. I felt that it was a taboo subject, and yet we all got here and half of us experienced this. But of course, because we are in a society where women’s voices and women’s experiences are not at the forefront, it’s still something that seems shocking to write about.
You’re now expecting your second child. What’s next on the horizon afterwards?
I’m definitely taking six months off to get into some kind of sleep routine and breastfeed and all the rest of it, and I’m looking for stuff for next year. I’m reading a lot and I haven’t completely found what I’m looking for yet. I’ll know it when I see it. The future is chaos, and how exciting.