Keira Knightley is never one to shy away from speaking her mind — but her latest role takes things to the next level as she portrays real-life British whistleblower Katharine Gun.
In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gun leaked a document to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation putting pressure on the UN Security Council to sanction a war. Official Secrets follows Gun as she decides to leak the NSA memo to the press and the explosive events that come in the wake of her decision, including an international firestorm and her possible imprisonment for treason.
Director Gavin Hood spent years interviewing the real Gun and journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who published Gun’s leaked memo, before bringing their story to the screen. Though the actions of whistleblowers often fall in a moral grey space, Gun is a rare figure in that she leaked a single memo in real-time in an attempt to save lives. Naturally then, the film comes down on her side — and Knightley as her portrayer does alongside her.
“If you’re telling somebody’s story then you are seeing the world through their eyes and my job absolutely as the actress was not to question her point of view,” Knightley tells EW. “But what was fascinating about whistleblowers, in general, is there’s huge arguments about whether they’re right or whether they’re wrong. This is a story from her point of view but you can still watch it and say ‘I don’t agree with anything you did.’ It’s all the more interesting for that.”
No matter your feelings on Gun’s actions, it’s undeniable that she took a massive risk in doing what she did, a fact played up in this exclusive clip above, featuring the only meeting between Katharine Gun and Martin Bright in the film. Their stories otherwise run in parallel to each other.
Ahead of its August 30 release, EW called up Knightley to talk about her own memories from this era of history, what it was like being able to interact with the real woman she was playing, and what she thinks the film has to say about the value of a free press.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When the events of this film were happening, you were in the early stages of your film career. Do you remember seeing any of this in the news and what your thoughts were on it?
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: I was quite a politically aware teenager. I definitely remember the run-up to the Iraq War. I wasn’t on the biggest march in London because that’s when I was in America shooting Pirates of the Caribbean, but I was on the anti-war marches before that. I remember being on the film set on Pirates in a pirate costume on the phone to my friends in London who were on the march, feeling like I was definitely in the wrong place.
It seems like Katharine’s story was swept under the rug in some ways. Were you familiar with her or what she’d done?
No, not at all. I think when that story hit I was in the States. To tell you the truth, even in England, I was talking to friends and none of them remembered it either. Because of when it came out, even in England, it was only about a week before the actual invasion started, so I think it got completely subsumed by the war itself.
You’ve played plenty of real people before, but the vast majority of them are long since dead. Did it change your process at all to be playing a woman still very much alive?
Certainly. Katharine came to set on the day when we were shooting all of the stuff when I was copying the email [to leak it], and I did have a sudden moment of going, “Oh f—, the person who actually did this is sitting over there and I hope I’m doing this right.” I suddenly got very self-conscious. Gavin said right at the start he didn’t want a characterization of Katharine. I look nothing like her…But what was super helpful was meeting her before. We had lunch beforehand. She’s very clear on what her motivations were; she’s very clear on why she did it; and she’s very clear on why she doesn’t regret having done it. As far as playing the character, her clarity, I found really helpful and that’s what I tried to put into the characterization.
Was there something she said that really unlocked the role for you or gave you your way in?
She said she didn’t regret it. Given what she went through afterwards, I was really interested by that. I said “Would you do it again?” And she said “Yes, absolutely.” I was very aware when talking to her [that] it was the first conversation I’d ever had where I was asking her questions and she legally could not answer them. That brought home the seriousness of the whole thing because she’s still bound by the Official Secrets Act. I didn’t feel like I wanted to trespass; everything I used was what’s in the public domain about Katharine. She has an absolute morality and that’s what she followed. That was what I used.
What about others in her life – her husband, the journalist Martin Bright, etc. — did you meet them?
Her husband and daughter came to set. They were all on set the same day. I had a long conversation with Martin while we were on set just because he’s fascinating to talk to. But it was already in the script because it was all in his writing and it was all from the extensive interviews that Gavin the director had done with both Katharine and Martin because he spent a lot of time with them. But talking to Martin about that whole period of time and about his process and all of that was fascinating. One of my main things, when I was thinking about doing this project, was do we have the real people on its side? Because actually if we don’t, I don’t think I really want to go into this. They were very, very supportive so that was hugely helpful.
Katharine goes through quite a lot here, but was there one bit that you found most challenging to either bring to screen or just to wrap your head around?
We always call characters like this Ivanhoe characters. You’ve got the lead but they spend a lot of time either regretting what they’ve done or they’re not actually the ones who are driving the action. She has three big scenes that I felt like were the pegs to the whole character, which were basically the two interview scenes and then the interview scene with her lawyer. Those were the three I was really pegging the whole thing on and that was where I wanted to get that defiance in her really coming through. So I thought those were both the most difficult and the most fun to play. Because it just the complexity of her — the fear being constantly there, the regret being constantly there, but this absolute moral certainty and Joan of Arc quality at the same time. I found those three scenes rather terrifying but totally great at the same time.
Has the project altered your view of journalists or whistleblowers or anything of that ilk in significant ways?
No, it didn’t. We’re living through a time where in so many parts of the world investigative journalism is massively under threat in very, very serious ways. I’m a great believer that it’s there for a very, very important reason. It’s there to keep power in check and that it’s part of all of our democracies that we have to protect. This is coming from somebody who has also suffered from press intrusion, so it’s not like I’m standing there on the side of journalists and going this is all fine. But I really believe in the necessity of investigative journalism. This film definitely is a celebration of that. Right now, that’s very important.
With a project like this, do you have to navigate the moral grey areas here on a personal level or is it just Katharine was doing what she knew was right so that’s what I have to go in with?
No, I didn’t because I was playing her and she’s very clear. If I’d tried to put in, not even my own opinion, but if I’d tried to dictate where the story should go as far as the conversation with the audience in that way, I don’t think it would have worked. Me and Gavin had big conversations about how intelligence services are meant to work. How does it work if people do give up secrets? With Katharine, this is all slightly different. She’s very particular about this — she’s one of the only whistleblowers who’s only ever leaked one very specific document. Normally when you’re talking about whistleblowers, they basically do a document dump where they release hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages. But she didn’t do that. And that’s very important to her. She wasn’t exposing absolutely everything she knew. She was exposing one illegal act that she felt was important enough to put her career and her life on the life [for], but it was a very specific act. She wasn’t putting field agents in danger. I understand the necessity for secrecy within intelligence services. But equally on the other side, what is the point of democracy if we hold our judicial systems up and yet the people in power are not following the laws? How do we hold people accountable? And what are our democracies worth if the people in charge are not held legally accountable? It’s super interesting questions that all of these [things] raise. I wouldn’t pretend to have an answer, and I could probably argue both sides, but that’s the sort of thing I find so interesting about films like this. It makes me realize my thinking isn’t black and white on this.
Did you look a lot at other films about whistleblowers or study real-life ones?
All the President’s Men was one we all used all the time because it’s one of the best films ever. I did look into other whistleblowers. [Daniel] Ellsberg, the one who did the Pentagon Papers, he actually came out and said that Katharine Gun was one of the most important whistleblowers in history because she actually did something to try and save lives, whereas generally speaking a lot of whistleblowers release documents after the fact. Hers was heroic in the fact that it was done at the time and could have possibly stopped a war.
You’ve acted opposite Ralph Fiennes before, but in a much more unpleasant dynamic in The Duchess. Was it fun or more rewarding this go-round to really have him on your character’s side?
I haven’t worked with Ralph for over a decade. The last time I worked with him I was about 22 and I remember sitting in scenes with him and watching him and just being like “Oh my god, how do I get there?” He seemed an ocean away. He was so mesmerizing to watch, and I couldn’t understand in any way how he was doing what he was doing. I felt like I was drowning. What was so nice coming back over a decade later, I was going, “Ok, he’s still unbelievably mesmerizing and volcanic and all the rest of it, but I actually feel like we’re playing a scene together and this is quite fun and I get what he’s doing now and I don’t feel like I’m drowning.” It was a nice benchmark for having learnt a lot in the last decade. To do a scene with him and feel like I can actually bring something to this as opposed to just apologizing the entire time.
Do you feel that Britain and the world at large has made significant, meaningful change from the hubris on display here and in terms of holding people accountable in the intervening years?
(Laughs) I think you know the answer to that. I don’t think so. I could obviously be wrong, but it doesn’t look like it. It looks like we’re in quite a similar situation. What’s interesting about this film is it’s set in 2003 — that’s a period film, that’s 16 years ago or something. Yet it still feels like we don’t have the conclusion of this story. We’re still very much living with it. You’re looking at a period of history that for many of us we can remember very well and yet we’re still living with the consequences. We don’t know how it ends. That always makes [for] very interesting work because you’re having a very personal and alive conversation with the film hopefully. But as far as where the planet goes after this, who knows? We live in exciting times. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was boring?