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Keira Knightley: ‘They are living in hell. What bloody right do I have to cry?’
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Keira Knightley’s eyes are welling up with big fat tears. The English rose actress blinks them away, fiercely, shaking her head, exasperated by herself. “I didn’t cry when I was there,” she says. “What bloody right would I have to cry when the people I met, who were living in as near to hell as I can imagine, weren’t crying?”

The “there” Knightley refers to is a refugee camp in South Sudan, where she was taken by Oxfam to see for herself the crisis taking place in the world’s youngest country, which marks its third anniversary of independence on Wednesday. The people she met were civilian victims of a civil war that has left five million people grief‑stricken, dispossessed and in urgent need of aid.

Hundreds of thousands are living in tents and beneath plastic sheeting, battling with disease, hunger and squalor. Malnutrition rates among little children are rising and, unless the world takes heed of their plight, the spectre of out-and-out famine looms large.

“I’d never been to a refugee camp before, but I’d seen images. I read newspapers, so I know what goes on in the world, don’t I?” says Knightley, 29, rhetorically. “But I’d never been in a post‑conflict zone, I’d never experienced the incredible, palpable atmosphere of terror or smelled the breathtaking stench of sewage from tens of thousands of people crammed together, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait.”

On her visit, Knightley spoke to Rebecca Karkwasni, a 25-year-old mother of five, whose husband had been killed in a raid at a previous camp. “To the horrendous question ‘What do you miss about your husband?’, she said. ‘I miss the way he holds me. I miss the way he makes my children laugh. I miss the way he makes me laugh. If I think about it too much my heart will break’,” says Knightley, eyes swimming over again.

“We look at people in faraway countries, on television and we can’t quite believe they are the same as us, but they are,” she stresses. “They love their children as we do, they want an education for them, they want to give them a secure home and the freedom to run about in safety. Instead, they watch, powerless, as their toddlers play by the sewage – there’s nowhere else for them.”

Oxfam has drafted in Knightley to help shine a light on a benighted region that could head off a humanitarian disaster – but only if the rest of mankind helps them, and helps them immediately. It seems inevitable, if discomfiting, that impassioned celebrity interventions will forever now be known as “doing an Angelina”, after Angelina Jolie’s milestone campaign to end rape as a weapon of war.

But, to her credit, Knightley is flattered, rather than piqued, by any such comparisons. “I admire Angelina Jolie hugely,” she says. “I don’t think I could ever be anything like as impressive or authoritative as she is on the world stage. She’s pretty much devoting her life to her causes, and that’s a great thing, a great message. I’m always happy to help in any small way I can.”

But Knightley’s reach in this sphere is greater than she might suppose. And when she speaks out – frivolously, about the strictures of a career lived in corsets, or gravely, about the war-torn and the traumatised – she has the credentials to make headlines.

Born to an actor father (Will Knightley) and playwright mother (Sharman Macdonald), she made her film debut aged nine, in A Village Affair. She has never been out of work since. From her Oscar-nominated performance in Pride and Prejudice, to the elegiac Atonement, her brittle, fever-bright Anna Karenina, and the satirical, knowing Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, she possesses a lambent radiance that fills the screen.

But in South Sudan nobody knew who she was. Nobody cared that she had won a Golden Globe and has graced the cover of Vogue many times and gets followed by photographers when she and her musician husband, James Righton, go out for an evening in the purlieus of west London.

“When those refugees asked me, ‘Who are you?’, I really, really wished I could have said, ‘I’m a doctor’, or something else useful,” Knightley says quietly, her eyes involuntarily glancing heavenwards, registering the moment’s mortification. “So instead I told them, ‘I am somebody who is going to ask people to give lots of money to Oxfam, so they can help you.’ ”

When we meet, Knightley is pale and jet-lagged. She wears no make-up on her fine-boned features and her hair falls free about her shoulders. She looks like a teenage ingenue; the very opposite of the poised, somewhat aloof Grace Kelly beauty she channels on red carpets. And yet in some respects her porcelain fragility today is every bit as mesmerising.

“Hey, I’ve gone to the trouble of wearing a skirt for you!” she says, larkily, although the fashion-forward J W Anderson skirt is teamed with a black roll-neck jumper in the height of a heat wave. I suspect the alternative outfit might have been her nightwear, but Knightley, who could pull even jimjams off with bien dans sa peau panache, is rather proud of her reputation as a scruff.

“My dungarees have been photographed too many times to be an effective disguise any more, but for a while they were a great friend,” she says with a nostalgic sigh. “I need another camouflage, but I don’t think you get stylists who find you clothes to blend in and disappear. Maybe there’s a gap in the market: if you’re out there, let me know!”

As attested by her recent appearance on The Graham Norton Show, when she and Samuel L Jackson riffed for almost an hour on the theme of no-show guest Jenson Button, there’s an impish sense of very British humour beneath Knightley’s A‑list aura. She even made fun of her extravagant pout in the Chanel adverts. When I confess to having previously poked fun at her pronounced philtrum, she laughs.

“But you have to pout!” she shrieks, pouting. “That’s the whole point of a Chanel advert! I also wore the most amazing chamois leather, which was so soft against the skin. It would have really brought the shine up on the bike if I’d rolled around on top and given it a good clean, but might not have been the look Chanel was after.”

Knightley’s figure was also perfect for that “career-making” green gown in Atonement – although at the mention of the phrase she flinches imperceptibly and swiftly interjects (half, but only half, jokingly): “I think you’ll find I had a career before the dress, actually.”

There was, she adds, more than one frock, because she “kept trashing them”. “The laser-cut edges were exquisite, but they couldn’t withstand being ravished, especially not against a bookcase, so copies had to be made.”

Having declared she was (temporarily) finished with costume dramas, as she wanted a break from faffing round in complicated wigs and underpinnings, Knightley’s latest film is Begin Again, a soulful rom-com drama that was released last week. The role proved challenging for a number of reasons, not least the requirement to play the guitar. Her husband of “one and a bit” years tried to teach her. The result (as anyone whose spouse has ever attempted to give them driving lessons could have predicted) was near carnage.

“I didn’t hit him over the head with a guitar or set fire to my wedding dress, but I did feel consumed by a rage I’d never felt before,” she says, sweetly. She learnt enough to busk it (literally and metaphorically) in the film, which sees her being “discovered” by a downbeat music industry executive, played by Mark Ruffalo, just as she’s on the brink of relinquishing her dream.

Knightley, who grew up in south‑west London, identified her own dream from an early age. Around the point most little girls ask for a Barbie, she asked for her own agent – aged three. By nine, she was keen to earn her living, but although she adored performing, initially her parents did all they could to put her off.

“My parents actively discouraged me from acting, until they found out I was dyslexic,” smiles Knightley. “The school said you need to bribe her with something to make her apply herself, so the obvious incentive was acting. These days, I read slowly but I think fast – maybe that’s what dyslexia is; we think a lot more than everybody else, which, when you think of it, is a gift, really.”

It’s a reflection of Knightley’s self-acceptance – she has declared in the past that when she hit 25, she stopped caring so much what people thought, which was very liberating – that she no longer gets exercised by commentators who probe her about weight matters.

“I once told an interviewer that my grandmother had anorexia in her teens. End of story. But the whole thing was blown out of such proportion that I heartily regret ever giving that information away. My mother’s family are Scottish and tall and thin. So I don’t get stressed about my size; it is what it is, I am the shape I am. There are more important matters in the world to worry about.”

She is right, of course, and after a brief but significant pause, we return to them. According to Oxfam, the most pressing need in South Sudan is for clean water.

“What could be a more fundamental human need, a more fundamental human right, than water that won’t make your children sick or kill your newborn baby?” asks Knightley. “I know things are difficult in this country for many people but if you can spare anything please, please do. In South Sudan they have nothing; the rains have just arrived, making disease more prevalent, and it’s so much harder to reach those who need help most.”

Knightley speaks of another refugee, Nyanyier Tuol Corker, aged 27, who lost her husband in the fighting and then two of her children to measles, a fatal hazard in the insanitary conditions of the camp.

“She told me, ‘I want to die, but God won’t let me. I have two children and I don’t know how we are going to survive’,” recounts Knightley. “How can we turn away from that sort of suffering?”

And then, urgently, straining to get the words out, she delivers the most powerful, most imperative line of her career. “Give. Give. Give. Please. The unfolding catastrophe is so much bigger than any one actress can solve.”

That is surely the case. But in Knightley, the refugees of South Sudan have found an ambassador who not only speaks out, but speaks from the heart.