Keira Knightley talks 'positives' of COVID isolation, Christmas doomsday movie 'Silent Night'

Brian Truitt

A recent bout with COVID-19 took away Keira Knightley’s smell, but not her storytelling sensibilities.

Four-letter words and excited laughter pepper the star's tale of how she signed on for “Silent Night,” the holiday-oriented polar opposite of "Love Actually," when she was in the later stages of “one hell of a pregnancy.” 

Camille Griffin’s new Christmas doomsday horror dramedy (in theaters and streaming on AMC+ Friday) centers on a British couple (Knightley and Matthew Goode) with three children who invite old college friends to their English countryside estate for a prosecco-fueled evening of revelry, bickering and preparing for an environmental apocalypse.

In 2019, an "incredibly pregnant" Knightley first read the screenplay while “really cross” dealing with sciatica, but found it “the most hilarious thing.” (Her agents had sent “Silent Night” to her with a note: “You might really hate this. So if you do, we're really sorry, but don't fire us. We kind of think this is amazing.”) She had the same reaction six weeks after daughter Delilah was born, when “I was super-hormonal.” Then, when Knightley went to film it when Delilah was 5 months old, “suddenly I went, ‘This is the most (messed-up) thing I've ever read in my life!’"

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Nell (Keira Knightley, center) toasts friends and family on their last Christmas together in the horror dramedy "Silent Night."

The actress, 36, kept up her spirits through a 10-day isolation last month after her family – including her husband, musician James Righton, and daughters Edie, 6, and Delilah, 2 – all tested positive for COVID-19, even though Knightley and Righton are vaccinated.

“We’re all fine,” says Knightley, whose spouse was asymptomatic. “I’ve got a kid who's still in nappies, so there's definite positives to not having a sense of smell.”

While one parenting lesson she's learned during the pandemic is that "sometimes it's good to have a day where you're just sitting on the floor and doing coloring with your kids," Knightley is ready to get out of the house again. She next will star in the true-life thriller “Boston Strangler,” playing journalist Loretta McLaughlin, her first acting project since the pandemic started.

She talks with USA TODAY about “Silent Night,” holiday leftovers and which non-Christmas movies are family favorites.

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Keira Knightley and her husband, musician James Righton, attend the Critics Choice Movie Awards in 2015.

Q: Have you ever been to a dinner party that went downhill as quickly as the one in “Silent Night”?

Keira Knightley: I mean, not the apocalypse. (Laughs) I've been to some pretty (expletive) bad dinner parties, though. Luckily, I don't think that we've had any monumentally horrific Christmases, but they can be when you've got extended family and in-laws. Everybody has that, “Oh, it must be a great Christmas.” I can imagine that if it was also the last Christmas and you were going to die the next day, that would also add some kind of pressure.

Q: Your filmography is sprinkled with the occasional holiday movie, most notably “Love Actually.” Is there a Christmas flick you watch every year?

Knightley: Probably “Home Alone.” I loved it as a kid, and my kid now loves it, so she's very happy to watch that at Christmas. We normally watch things like the first three "Star Wars.” 

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Keira Knightley (center) starred as a young handmaiden to Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman, left) in "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace."

Q: You appeared in the "Star Wars” prequel "The Phantom Menace." Does your oldest have a favorite Keira Knightley movie yet?

Knightley: She hasn't seen any of them. She is utterly uninterested. I did say at some point, “Well, you can probably watch ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’" She's still a bit young, but she was like, “No.” I'm fine with that. She can remain uninterested for the rest of her life.

Q: What's a Keira Knightley Christmas look like on the regular?

Knightley: Well, pre-children, it would have been a lot of alcohol, but post-children, it's now a lot of wrapping paper and presents. My husband does the cooking, and I'm put in charge of building whatever god-awful children's toy we've had to buy and normally my hands end up bleeding. Then I'm given a glass of champagne and everything is OK again.

Mark (Andrew Lincoln) professes his love for Juliet (Keira Knightley) via cue cards in "Love Actually."

Q: Have any of your holiday traditions been affected in the wake of COVID?

Knightley: Last year, we were all in lockdown at Christmas. It was literally just the four of us, (but) it was really nice and funny and sweet. We had expected to have about 12 people, so we bought a turkey. Christmas was canceled but the turkey was still delivered. Both my children are vegetarian – their choice, not mine – so it was basically a turkey for 12 between two of us that lasted an incredibly long time.

Hopefully, we're going to go big this year. I feel like we still don't know where the world is yet and it feels a bit like I'm tempting fate to say. I just don't want to be left with a giant turkey and no people again.

Keira Knightley plays a British wife and mom who holds court at a holiday gathering in "Silent Night."

Q: You’ve been acting since you were a kid and it’s been such a big part of your life. How much have you missed it?

Knightley: The experience of parenting in this pandemic has been pretty extreme, so I'm not sure that I've had time to miss anything necessarily. But when I started work on ("Boston Strangler"), just for my own prep, it was just really nice to know that part of me still exists. (Laughs) The domestic animal that I've become, it's not my full self and it's quite nice to exercise that other bit again.