Silver Haze's Vicky Knight on her trauma and screen triumph: 'film saved my life'

Vicky Knight in Silver Haze (BFI )
Vicky Knight in Silver Haze (BFI )

“I was very much ready to depart,” says Vicky Knight halfway through our conversation. She doesn’t mean on the 8.23 from Liverpool Street; Knight is talking about shuffling herself off this mortal coil, such was the desperate state of her mental health only a few years ago.

Sharing a sofa at the British Film Institute, listening to her chat away breezily in shiny street-sport gear, it’s hard to compute this shockingly frank revelation from someone who is still just 28, unless you know something of Knight’s backstory (which we’ll come to).

Today the actress is in a celebratory mood after the previous evening’s screening of her film Silver Haze at the BFI Flare festival. “Everyone loved it, my mum and my girlfriend came. There was laughing, cheering; I even got a standing ovation,” she smiles, full of beans and plainly high on life.

Silver Haze, a beautiful film that sways from starkly bleak to gently uplifting, rough and violent to tender and loving, marks the third and final act in a real-life story that could be titled The Salvation of Vicky Knight.

It’s the moment of triumphant self-actualisation, when the protagonist fully grasps living with both hands. However, without the heroes from the first two acts, says Knight, there would be no life to hold on to.

Vicky Knight and Esme Creed-Miles in Silver Haze (BFI)
Vicky Knight and Esme Creed-Miles in Silver Haze (BFI)

Set in Dagenham (Knight is from nearby Chadwell Heath) and Southend, it’s a fuggy, grittily realistic drift of lost souls who discover deep connection in alternative ‘outsider’ families. It’s also a fraught lesbian love story for which Knight picked up the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival for best queer actress (‘I wound my girlfriend up, I told her: ‘I won an award for being gay!’”).

But at the heart of Silver Haze is the story of Franky (played by Knight), who was horrifically burnt as a young child in an arson attack on her grandfather’s pub. And this is where awful fact replaces fiction, as what takes place in the film is near enough exactly what happened to Knight.

On the night of 27 July 2003, eight-year-old Knight was sleeping over at the Prince of Wales in Stoke Newington, run by her uncle and his wife, when a deliberate blaze broke out. Two of her cousins, aged four and 10, died as a result of the fire, while Knight received burns to 33 per cent of her body. Knight’s aunt Kate was cleared of charges at the Old Bailey.

Today, Knight recalls the nightmarish, instantly dysmorphic effect this had on her body image. “When I woke up off the life support, I thought I was zipped up in a body suit,” she explains. “I said to my mum, ‘Where’s the zip?’ because I was so convinced that this [body] wasn’t me.”

In Silver Haze, Franky describes a man coming into the bedroom during the fire (”I thought he was sweating… but then I realised his skin was melting”). It’s a gut-churningly emotional scene, and I tentatively ask Knight how accurate it is. “That’s pretty much how it was,” she says.

That real-life man (Knight’s first saviour hero) was Ronnie Springer, a pub regular who entered the fire and saved her and one of her cousins. Springer later died from his injuries. “When I’m in that dark place, I literally pick myself up and carry on because that man saved my life,” says Knight. “He died so I could live.”

As a teenager, Knight did her utmost to carry on, but the abuse she received was atrocious. “When I was going to school, pretty much every day, there was one girl who used to just batter me physically,” she remembers. “And, you know, putting lighters in my face and cigarettes and name calling.”

Then around the age of 16, as social media began to become widely used, the online stuff started “big time”, she says. “It was like pictures of me posted, saying the wrong person died in the fire.”

Hellish as this already was, Knight continues: “The suicidal part came later when I was about 21. That’s when the depression really started. At that age everyone’s going clubbing and I couldn’t get a spray tan done like a normal person. It doesn’t stick to my skin. And I couldn’t get my nails done because I haven’t got any nails on my left hand.”

She describes being a “laughing stock” when she went to a nail bar to see if they could do anything. “They’re standing there, joking, just taking the piss. I’ve had this shit all my life.”

It would seem reasonable to think Britain’s mental health services could stretch that extra mile to assist someone as traumatised as Knight. “I got help in the sense that I got put on tablets,” she says. “I didn’t get any psychotherapy.” However, she’s sanguine about her treatment, or lack thereof. “Maybe that’s a good thing,” she reasons, “because I think I’ve dealt with the worst of what I needed to deal with.”

Knight is also clearly forgiving of the NHS, as besides her new-found acting career, she also works as a hospital healthcare assistant. Remarkably (but without any deliberate cathartic intention, she tells me), Knight started at the Essex hospital where her burns were extensively treated; she’s now at Homerton hospital in Hackney where she was rushed to after the fire.

Silver Haze is Knight’s second film; her debut was with the same director, Sacha Polak, in 2019’s equally excellent Dirty God, about a woman recovering from an acid attack by her ex boyfriend.

When I woke up off the life support, I thought I was zipped up in a body suit

Acting had never entered Knight’s mind, but she had posted a video about how she got burnt, which went viral. Polak wanted someone with real scars for the lead, Jade, and her casting director, Lucy Pardee, seemed set on Knight filling those shoes.

“She tried contacting me solid for a year. At first I thought it was a scam,” recalls Knight, before she agreed to be involved. Polak and Knight spent a year and a half building a relationship before shooting started, which is understandable considering how physically exposing the film is.

Besides extreme close-ups of Knight’s skin (”I didn’t understand why Sacha wanted so to be so close to my scars”) there’s a hardcore scene where an almost fully naked Jade is masturbating for a man in an online chat room. An extremely tough ask for a non-actress with Knight’s history, but she’s smiling now as she says: “Sacha was laying under the bed telling me what to do. So it was quite funny, actually.”

Knight’s unflinching bravery on camera (and her trust in Polak) paid off. Something clicked. “When I watched Dirty God for the first time I saw someone else with my scars and I realised that actually, there’s nothing wrong with me because I didn’t see anything wrong with the character,” she says. “I can honestly say that saved my life.”

Twice rescued from the brink (although I feel Knight’s own inherent resilience has gone a long way towards keeping her here on planet Earth), she was then asked by Polak if she would consider making a film with more of her personal story in it. Hence Silver Haze. It’s a family affair, too: Knight’s real sibling Charlotte brilliantly plays Franky’s sister, while her brother Billy also stars.

Esme Creed-Miles and Vicky Knight in Silver Haze (BFI)
Esme Creed-Miles and Vicky Knight in Silver Haze (BFI)

The film has sent Knight criss-crossing the globe where the festival crowds have loved it; she was thrilled to have dinner with Robert Redford at Sundance. She is about to star in a short film and is finalising details on another feature with a different director. Neither film, she says, tells “the backstory of why the character has scars. Since being in the industry people are seeing past the disability.”

Knight has also been moved by the hugely positive reactions she’s had to her performances (”People have said that I've changed their way of thinking or it’ssaved them”) and would love to take this forward. “I’m leaning in to being a voice for people who haven't found theirs yet, whether it's coming out, yoursexuality, being a voice for people with burns and scars,” she explains. “I want to be this kind of person who people can look up to and think well, if shecan do I can do it.”

Like Franky, Knight hasn’t forgotten that no one has paid their dues for that fateful day 21 years ago, but her perspective has shifted. “If I do get justice one day, so be it,” she says. “But it’s not going to change my life or take the scars off my body.”

There was a time when Knight craved for surgeons to fix her disfigurement. “I came across some emails recently that I’d sent to doctors in America. Of course, they sell you your dream.”

And the Vicky Knight of 2024? “If I had a million pounds in my bank, I wouldn’t change a thing on my body.”

Silver Haze opens in cinemas on 29 March