After earning two Oscar nominations for period work—in Pride & Prejudice and The Imitation Game—Keira Knightley dons a corset once more for Colette, directed by Wash Westmoreland and written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Westmoreland, and his late husband Richard Glatzer. Knightley plays Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a pillar of French literature whose husband greedily took credit for her own brilliant works in the early days of her career. And Colette tells a powerful story about female creativity as the film industry examines its own role in diminishing women’s voices.
What drew you to Colette? How did you get involved?
My agent sent me the script and I loved it. That was it, really. I knew a little bit of her writing, but I didn’t really know anything about her life, and definitely nothing about the first marriage. I was just sort of amazed that it was all true, and then spoke to Wash in a FaceTime conversation, as his phone was dying. He was in China, and I was in London, and after about 10 minutes, it was just perfectly obvious that he was great, and I really wanted to be a part of it. I think he’d been trying to make the film for about 17 years. He just knows the character inside out.
Did you see the parallels with today?
It amazed me how current it was, what it’s talking about with gender politics and sexual politics and feminism. It felt like it was everything that was being talked about at that point, and everything that I was interested in. I was really excited that you could take something that was 100 years ago, and yet it still feels so alive. Even the celebrity couple aspect of it, the fact that that was very much happening over 100 years ago, I find interesting. I’ve always loved history, making the past live and breathe again, and of course what you realize is that cultures change, but emotionally, as human beings, we don’t change that much. I think that you can make quite overt political points in period pieces where you don’t feel like you’re whacking somebody over the head with it. They can be subtle and hidden in a way that I really like.
What did Wash convey to you, early on, in terms of his take on Colette?
The main thing that we were talking about the whole time was just the span of time, and how we marked her becoming herself. At the beginning of the film, I think she’s about 19, and at the end of the film, she’s 34. So, we talked lot about what it feels like to physically become yourself, to be comfortable in your own skin, to find the person that you want to be. We actually used Coal Miner’s Daughter with Sissy Spacek as a reference because I thought she gave between about 13 and 40 in that. The physicality in that is just amazing, so he said, “Kind of do that, but much more subtle.” [Laughs] So, we stuck to that, again using the source material, the Claudines, as an inspiration. The wonderful thing about playing a writer is you literally have her words to go by.
Did you spend a fair amount of time diving into Colette’s writings, and her past?
I read the Claudine novels and The Vagabond, which are the novels that the film covers. Then, we all worked from the Judith Thurman biography, Secrets of the Flesh. I had very lovely plans of going to France, to where she’s from in Burgundy, and I didn’t have time for any of that. So, I did as much as I possibly could in the time I had.
Reading her works, did you latch onto any specific lines?
It’s funny because although the Claudines were super helpful for this, they’re not my favorite of her books. I love The Vagabond, and maybe that is because you really feel that it’s her voice, and that she’s not writing to please anybody else—which I feel a bit in the Claudines, but maybe I’m putting that on them.
I can’t think of one line that would’ve really stuck out, but my absolute favorite of her novels that I’ve read is Chéri. I think it’s just that she writes in a brutally honest way of the female experience, from the female perspective. She’s obsessed with performance, and with courtesans, and with sex. She writes about beauty as well, but she does it in a way that gets right under your skin. So, I think it was more that vibe that I got from her work, as opposed to one line.
How did you manage to take Colette through various ages and the looks to go with them, keeping these moments separate, without shooting in chronological order?
I think it’s just really knowing the source material. In the last few years, I’ve learned a script by heart before I start, because a lot of the work that I do, it’s not very big-budget work. For a lot of it, you’ve got about seven weeks, and really, for something like this, that just means that you’ve got about five takes per shot. You’ve got to really know your stuff—you’ve got to go, go, go—and there’s not a chance to reshoot anything. So, I’d say it really is just doing your homework. Then obviously, finding that magical moment on set and hoping that you’re working with people that you can really vibe off of, which was the case with Dominic [West]. I loved working with him; I think he’s a phenomenal actor, so that obviously helps.
Going into the project, you’d already worked with makeup and hair designer Ivana Primorac a number of times. How helpful were her craft contributions, and those of others, in finding your character?
It’s a visual medium, so they’re always super helpful. I love her to pieces; she’s also a great friend, and when you’ve worked with somebody a number of times, they know your face so well. She knows what works for me, what doesn’t, so there’s a level of trust which means that we have a shorthand when we work. I know her taste and I like her taste, so I basically just went “Whatever you want to do, just do it.” It was all wigs, and partly, that was also to do with the time frame. If it’s going to be my hair, that could be 45 minutes, redoing my hair, whereas if it’s a wig, it’s like fifteen minutes to get one off and another one on.
As far as the costumes went, one of the main things that comes up when you read about Colette is her androgynous qualities, and that’s really difficult to do in that era from a modern audience point of view. Obviously, most of the time she’s in dresses, so how do you make a dress androgynous? That’s mostly what we were working on there, to find that androgyny within the clothing, and we did a very literal thing of making sure that I’m the only one that isn’t wearing a corset. I could move in the clothes in a different way than the other women, and could have a bit of a male strut going on, which you wouldn’t have been able to do in a corset, or a more louche thing. There are also images of her with that high neckline, and the ties, and the jackets, so finding those masculine elements that made the character make sense to me was great.
How did you work with Dominic West to tease out the unusual dynamic that existed between Colette and Willy?
What we were both really conscious of was that we needed the audience to understand why they were together. You don’t want Willy to be the baddie with no charm. That would devalue Colette because you’d constantly be going, “Why is she with him if he’s so horrific?” He is horrific in many ways, but I think what was really important—and what I loved about what Dominic brought to it—was that as much as he’s awful, you totally understand that he’s the most fun person in any room that he’s in. You can completely see that they were incredibly mischievous, that they both loved the attention, that they kind of fed off each other. So, I think it was just about finding why the relationship worked, and then understanding the reasons that it didn’t.
Finding those moments where you can see the chemistry between them really working, I found that it’s very easy when you get on with somebody, and we did get on a lot. He is naturally very charming, he’s f*cking funny, but what I love about him as an actor is, he’s not frightened to play these roles that should be—and are, in many ways—horrific. Just feeding off that kind of energy was great, and like me, he likes delivering the dialogue at speed. [Given] the fact that they’re both fast-talking, fast-thinking people, working on that rhythmic side of it was really interesting.
This role put you through a bit of choreographed dance—most notably, in a segment of the one-act pantomime, Dream of Egypt, which you shot in only one day. How did you pull that moment off?
The way the choreographer went into that dance was actually my idea, which was the stupidest f*cking thing ever. There was an exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York around the time that me and Wash were emailing. I’d seen it, and a part of [it featured] that 1927 film Metropolis. There’s these crazy dance sequences in Metropolis and I emailed Wash and was like, “Oh my God, can we do something as mental as that? That would be really fun.” He went, “Yeah, great idea.” But I think I hadn’t quite realized that that would mean I’d have to do it.
The doing of it was interesting because with a [limited] budget, we didn’t have a lot of rehearsals. I only had about three rehearsals, which were an hour each, to try and learn it, which meant that I didn’t know it when we came to film it. Then, we had three cameras and about 300 extras, and me coming out of the sarcophagus in the most extraordinary costume—and I’d never done the dance in the costume either, so that was a whole interesting thing. The very nice choreographer was literally on the side of stage, doing the dance, and I was watching, trying to copy as she did that. There are certain points in your life where you have to think, “I am bullsh*tting my way through this, and I just have to go big or go home. I’m going to do this with total conviction, not knowing what I’m doing at all.” And it kind of worked. It looks like I knew the dance, which is amazing. [Laughs]
In your mind, why is it important to examine stories like Colette’s at this moment in time?
What I love about her is I suddenly realized that I’d played very few women who I find inspiring. I really found her inspiring to play, and I hope that people find her inspiring to watch because she was a woman that lived bravely and without shame, and lived her truth. If you go later in her life, she’s definitely not a saint, but I loved the opportunity of playing somebody who is not perfect, who is courageous and who makes a space for herself in a world that actually didn’t have a space for her.
I think we need more characters for women like that, that you can see and go “Ooh, not saintly, not nice necessarily, but utterly inspiring.” I found that very exciting. The way that she lived her life and explored her sexuality, and explored her gender—again, without shame—is super interesting because I think still in 2018, that’s something that many people are trying to do, and she actually did.
In comparison to recent years, 2018 has seemed to offer up a much more satisfying spectrum of rich, female-driven narratives. Does it feel like progress is being made in this respect?
Yes, I agree. I think it is a very exciting era. What’s important is that hopefully all the youngsters go and see these films, because it’s only going to continue if there’s a commercial value. There is obviously a cultural value to that. I think in order to be respected, our whole selves need to be shown. We need to be understood in a way that I think we are still struggling to be. I want to see the whole gamut of femininity, not simply the pretty, nice, supportive aspect of that 1950s sort of housewife vibe that I think still is the predominant view of femininity. I think for myself, for my friends, I want to see women on screen who I aspire to be, who inspire me, who revolt me. I’d like to see all of them, and not simply one very narrow view of what being a woman is.
What was that line from Dead Poets Society? “I read to know that I’m not alone.” You watch films to do that too, don’t you? I think that’s true with all drama, that you need to see aspects of your life explored, maybe in a more extreme way, so that you know that you’re not alone. I think for many women, we’ve felt that we have been, that our true selves haven’t been shown. Are you therefore alone in experiencing the world the way that you do? Of course you’re not. But I think only by really culturally pushing them in stories can we really start to see ourselves reflected; only then, on the other side of that, can the opposite sex start to really understand our point of view, and our lives, and how we live them.
It’s exciting to see the ways in which Colette walks the talk. Rather than approach the historical context too literally, the film incorporates diverse actors—and trans actors—into its company, challenging casting biases that remain prevalent in Hollywood.
I love that. When he said that that’s what he wanted to do, he had my 100% full support, and I think it works beautifully well in the film. I think stories are about imagination, about creativity, and everybody should be included in that. It’s important that you have diversity in casting, and there’s no reason that we shouldn’t. What was wonderful about this is that he really showed that that was the case, that you can cast in this very diverse, inclusive way, and it only helps the film.
What do you take away from Colette, helping your director to realize his longtime passion project, which he’d conceived with husband Richard Glatzer, before he passed away?
It’s an incredible love letter to Richard. I think we were all very aware of that when we were making it. There was a point where you just had to put it to one side and go “Okay, now I’ve got to concentrate on my own thing.” But I think the fact that people are loving it, the fact that it’s come off as well as it has, what a wonderful love story. I just wish that Richard had been around to see it. But it’s absolutely done in his name and his memory, and that’s a beautiful thing.
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