“I thought this film was a really interesting way of telling the story of a serial killer—through the point-of-view of the two female journalists who broke the news,” shares Keira Knightley when asked what initially drew her to Boston Strangler. In the film, the British actress plays Loretta McLaughlin, one half of the journalist duo that fights to unmask a serial killer targeting women in Boston in the 1960s.
Inspired by real events, the film sets itself apart from typical true-crime procedurals by focusing its narrative on the investigative process undertaken by the two journalists. Knightley notes, “Most people don’t know that it was two women who broke the story. They’ve largely been erased from the history of the case, and I was intrigued by their side of the story.”
The other, more seasoned half of the investigative duo is Jean Harris, portrayed by Carrie Coon. Where Loretta is stubborn and headstrong, Jean is resourceful and pragmatic. And when Coon speaks about the real women that the two characters are based on, it is with great admiration and respect. “Their stories of how they became journalists were very compelling and moving. They certainly echoed the lives of the women in my world who grew up in the Midwest. My mother was a nurse. One of my grandmothers was a teacher, and the other was a homemaker. And aside from being a secretary, those were the opportunities available to women then. So Jean’s fight to become a journalist was very moving to me.”
In a time where the true-crime genre is under scrutiny for its exploitative tendencies, perhaps most important is the fact that writer and director Matt Ruskin was in contact with the families of both journalists throughout the process of the film’s creation. “I think of Matt as a deeply moral filmmaker, and I knew his interest in this story was feminist—that he was really interested in revealing that these women had been erased from the story,” Coon explains, “And of course, I knew Keira was involved, and I was really excited to get the opportunity to work with her.”
Below, the two actresses open up on what it was like working together on Boston Strangler and the legacy of the women the film comes inspired by.
How did you feel when you first read the script for Boston Strangler?
Keira Knightley: I’ve been speaking to quite a few women who’ve seen the film, and the same word keeps coming up, which is that it was “cathartic” to watch. I find that fascinating. That was the same experience I had when I first read the script. All of the things that Loretta came up against, whether it’s the male-dominated workplace, or desperately trying to have both a home life and a job, or trying to raise children at the same point as trying to get justice for these women. They’re things that a lot of women today can relate to. It was her tenacity I found most inspiring, and the fact that she became an award-winning journalist whose children clearly adored her was also very admirable.
What stood out to you about the dynamic between Jean and Loretta?
Carrie Coon: This story is built on female allyship. In the broader sense, these were the women who warned other women in Boston that there was danger to them and cautioned them on how to protect themselves, which is not a story we often tell. But also in the workplace, where the usual narrative would only have room for one woman, we see both Loretta and Jean. We see how Jean’s more conventional way of moving through the world is challenged by Loretta’s doggedness and her willingness to create controversy, which is something that Jean has avoided outside of the arenas that she’s investigating. Jean’s reality is complicated by the presence of Loretta, and that probably speaks to why they were friends going forward for the rest of their lives.
Why is this an important story to tell?
KK: For me, this whole film is really a love song to female investigative journalists. It highlights how important it is to have women in positions of power in storytelling. It was these two women that really fought to say, “This is an important story. This is information that needs to be public in order to keep women of Boston safe.” And I think, largely, it was a story that had been, at that point, ignored by the male establishment. I don’t know that their male colleagues would have seen the importance of it. So I think it’s wonderful to be part of something that highlights how important it is to have as many good female journalists as you can, for the safety of our communities.
In the process of making the film, was there anything you learnt about the real women it was based on that inspired you?
CC: There’s a great story about Jean. She wanted to get a raise because she was making $30 a week and her childcare was costing $25. She went to appeal for a raise, and all of the men in the newsroom went in with her to back her up, and it highlights the importance of having male allies in a space like that. I think Jean was a very practical feminist who put her head down and did her work well. And that’s all women could do in that setting—try not to ruffle any feathers. It’s extraordinary that these women put themselves out on a limb the way they did.
What was it like to work on the film together?
KK: I was just incredibly lucky to get the chance to work with everybody that was involved in this film, because it was a really lovely, unbelievably talented group of people. I felt very fortunate, particularly with Carrie, because we are both mothers of two small children. Every time she was there, it was a joy. We could both look at each other through our completely sleepless eyes and be like, “It’s alright, mate. I’ve got your back.” [laughs]
CC: And we could acknowledge that had we taken on this film seven years ago, we would’ve learned shorthand for the role. But now that we have children, we don’t prepare for films anymore. We just hope that they’re well written and we rely on what’s on the page.
KK: My big moment was touch-typing. I was doing a scene where I was meant to be typing and I suddenly realised I don’t know how to touch-type. I looked over at Carrie and said, “I haven’t learned how to touch-type,” and she said, “That’s because you have two small children.” There is something very nice about coming onto a set, looking into another woman’s eyes and just seeing total understanding.
Boston Strangler is streaming on Disney+ now.