IN COLETTE, THE OSCAR NOMINATED ACTRESS PLAYS AN EARLY 20TH CENTURY AUTHOR FIGHTING HER HUSBAND FOR PROPER CREDIT. FOR THE OUTSPOKEN BRIT, IT’S A TIMELY ROLE
BY JOEL KELLER
If one read a story about a female author who, after ghostwriting a wildly popular series of novels for a well known male author, pressed to get the credit she deserved, it would be easy think such a person had been spurred to action by the #MeToo movement.
In fact, this story’s events took place a century ago. They are the plotline of Colette, the new film starring Keira Knightley, released on September 21st after wowing critics at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. In the film, Knightley plays real life author, actress, and journalist Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, who wrote the books Gigi and Cheri, and who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. The film is a fictionalized version of Colette’s early life after being whisked away from rural France to Paris by her soon to be husband, Henri Gauthier Villars (played by Dominic West), a wealthy literary figure known to the world as “Willy.” Willy is what would be called a “book packager” today, contracting writers to crank out pulp novels that are sold with his name on it. He sees the talent of Colette (she went by one name as well) and, after they establish a life together in the city, he pressures her to write for him. She reluctantly agrees, and generates material about her school days. When the book and its sequels fly off the shelves and make Willy world famous, she fights to be acknowledged as their actual author.
It’s a topic near to Knightley’s heart.
“I felt that I, as a woman, could tap into Colette’s story because it has the ring of truth,” she said in a studio interview (production/presentation partners are Bleecker Street, 30 West, Bold Films, and BFI).
Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) had been ruminating over the screenplay for Colette with his husband, the late Richard Glatzer, since getting into the author’s works close to 20 years ago. What he and Glatzer, who died in 2015, found in writing the screenplay was that the relationship between Colette and Willy was not as cut and dried as it seemed on the surface.
“Their relationship came at a pivotal time, the beginning of the modern age when there was a tectonic shift happening in gender roles; women were demanding more power in all areas of life, and men were resisting with all their might,” Westmoreland explained in an additional studio interview. “All of this crystallized for her personally and professionally in that marriage.”
“Wash’s attachment to Colette is huge; his love of her is absolute,” Knightley said about Westmoreland. “That level of passion is rare in a director,” adding that the complexity of the author’s marriage is one of the big reasons why she was drawn to the role.
“Colette was coolness. I was fascinated by the relationship between her and Willy,” she said. “You have to not hate Willy in order to comprehend why Colette stays with him as long as she does. I have known quite a few people who are like him. They can behave horrifically and yet there’s a charm and humor, which means they can get away with it…at least for a while.”
“She would make life decisions that were astonishingly radical,” said Westmoreland. “Going onstage was a way of claiming her voice. She exposed a breast in the play Flesh at a time when women were still debating whether to show some ankle. Colette was fearless.”
Many reviews of the new film cite Knightley’s performance as one of her best, which is saying a good deal, given the 32 year old has been acting since she was 7. Born in London in 1985, the craft was more or less in her blood; her father is well known UK television actor Will Knightley and her mother, Sharman MacDonald, is an actress who wrote the first of a number of plays shortly before Keira was born. According to Biography.com, Knightley first sought an agent at the tender age of three, and got one when she was six. The reason why her parents, knowing what they know about the business, allowed her to enter it at such a young age was because it motivated her to learn how to read, despite having dyslexia.
“The teachers [at elementary school] said to my parents, ‘You need to find a carrot to dangle in front of Keira,’” she said in a video for the organization Made By Dyslexia. “‘There’s no reason that she shouldn’t be able to read and there’s no reason that she shouldn’t be able to do well in school, but you need a carrot.’ And really, fortunately for me, I wanted to act.”
By the time she was 14, Knightley was already appearing in massive productions like Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (opposite oft cited look alike Natalie Portman). Her breakout roles, in 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham and 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, came before she turned 18.
Knightley’s penchant for period dramas, spurred on by a desire to stay close to her base in England and an ability to play strong but vulnerable characters (as she did in Oscar nominated roles in Sense and Sensibility in 2005 and The Imitation Game in 2014) led Westmoreland to give her the hard sell when he pitched the idea of playing the lead role.
“She is one of the few people who can combine all the qualities needed to incarnate Colette: Keira is possessed of incredible intelligence and wit which were ever present in Colette’s writing and an innate understanding of portraying people of past times,” he said. He even told her during their get acquainted Face Time that “You will play this role better than anyone alive.”
That was enough to get Knightley to make time to shoot the film in Hungary, a “beautiful country” that unfortunately was hit with a heat wave while the actors shot in period suits and massive hoop skirted dresses.
“We were shooting a lot of day for night, so when you black out all the windows and light a lot of candles to pretend it’s night time, things get infinitely hotter,” she said in the studio interview. “The boys had it worse because they were in tweed. Dominic West was wearing a body suit, and the crew actually had to build a cooling system into his costume; he would plug in a bag and it would pump ’round cold liquid to cool him down.”
If the role fit Knightley like a glove, it’s in part because she has no problem expressing strong opinions about what’s going on with women in show business, or any business for that matter.
“Why don’t journalists ask men how they balance their home life and their career?” she asked in a recent interview with Variety. “Why don’t you ask male actors how they feel being a father and going off to shoot a movie? And yet more times than not, that’s the first question that I’ll be asked how do you balance motherhood with your career?”
In the coming year, Knightley will be starring in three additional films, including playing the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (she dove into work after taking a year off to take care of her now 3 year old daughter, Edie, whom she had with husband James Righton) and starring alongside Helen Mirren and Luke Wilson in the multi storyline romance Berlin, I Love You.