Keira Knightley on the Lack of Women Playwrights on Broadway: "There Are Very, Very Few" Interesting Roles

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Keira Knightley

"We need to be telling stories about women and for women," said Knightley's co-star Gabriel Ebert. "This is an important time to educate girls and give them heroines they can believe in."

Until last week, Therese Raquin was the only play of the Broadway season penned by a woman — a fact that made Keira Knightley’s jaw drop.

"Really? Wow," she said when informed of such by The Hollywood Reporter after Thursday’s opening-night performance. Still, the actress chose to make her Broadway debut with the limited-engagement Roundabout Theatre Company production at Studio 54 — amidst taking care of a newborn and being paid the scale rate of $1,300 a week — because, in film and on stage, "it’s very rare that I get offered interesting roles; there are very, very few out there for women. And when something like this comes along, you go, ‘I can sink my teeth into it and not just be the supportive girlfriend or wife,’ which can get rather boring."

Judith Light, who plays Therese's aunt, added, "Of course we need more gender parity on Broadway, not just with playwrights, but directors and producers and actors too. This is an important issue that's been going on for a long time — it’s 2015, I can’t believe we’re still talking about this."

Knightley, whose mother is a playwright, stars as a woman who escapes her suffocating marriage when she and her lover are driven to murder, only to be trapped in another kind of prison. Though offered the title role in versions of the scandalous 1867 Emile Zola novel twice before, it was Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, commissioned by Roundabout, that finally hooked her, absolving her fears of the task at hand.

"I hadn’t quite gotten what it was [before], and as soon as I read this one, I thought, 'Well, f—, okay, I completely get this. This is extraordinary,' " she explained. "I feel really lucky that they offered it to me again, when I was actually up for the challenge."

Edmunson's adaptation emphasizes the interior life of Therese, versus Zola’s novel which sporadically peeks into the psyches of multiple major characters. Plus, the novel "spans so many years, and she’s condensed it," said Matt Ryan, who plays the title character's lover Laurent. "I think there’s something like 36 scenes in the play, that’s evident of how big the novel is!"

Though it’s arguable that this retelling of Zola’s novel from a female-centric perspective is because Edmundson herself is a woman, Light stresses that doing so is a dangerous gray area. "Helen isn’t just a good female playwright, she’s an extremely good writer, period — that’s an important distinction that needs to be made," she told THR.

"She a very quiet, soft-spoken woman but she has this real fire within her, and she brought that to this play," added Gabriel Ebert, who plays Therese's cousin-turned-husband Camille. "Zola even tried to do an adaptation that was incredibly unsuccessful!"

Though no one signed onto the project specifically because of Edmundson’s gender — still a relatively rare factor on Broadway; the only other play by a woman scheduled for this season is Eclipsed, written by The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira and starring Lupita Nyong’o — they’re glad to be part of a season that in other respects offers an uncommonly diverse lineup.

"We’re only as good as the diversity of the stories we’re telling — it’s the biggest problem we have, more than ticket prices," stressed director Evan Cabnet. "I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness, as they say."

"We need to be telling stories about women and for women," added Ebert, a Tony winner for his performance in Matilda the Musical, who applauded playwrights Annie Baker and Amy Herzog for bringing boldly original work to off-Broadway. "I hope we’re moving in that direction. This is an important time to educate girls and give them heroines they can believe in."

Knightley seems happy to be appearing in a play with a strong female perspective, even if her period wardrobe currently includes a modern-day wrist-brace. She told reporters of the injury: "I forgot onstage that I was acting, and my character’s meant to be stronger than Gabe’s character, so I launched myself at him, which is not a great thing to do when you’re 5'7" and he’s 6'4", as I learned fifteen minutes into the show! And I have a six-month-old baby so I’m lifting her up all the time, which means it’s not quite rested in the way it should. But it’s nearly there."

Therese Raquin runs through Jan. 3.

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