British actress Keira Knightly has been all over the place in film roles. She did some swashbuckling in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, made for a feisty Guinevere in "King Arthur," was the real life model-turned-bounty hunter Domino Harvey in "Domino," and has starred in numerous frock flicks, from playing Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride & Prejudice" to the title role in "Anna Karenina."
She portrays another real person — Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette — better and much more simply known as Colette, in the new film of the same name. It's the story of the early years of the famed and controversial French novelist, long before her name was made, focusing on the tumultuous relationship with her first husband Henry-Gauthier Villars, who also went by a shortened name, Willy (Dominic West). The film, directed by Wash Westmoreland, traces Colette's formative years, her emotional struggles when her unfaithful husband started getting her writing published under his name, and her extramarital relationship with the cross-dresser Mathilde de Morny — or Missy (Denise Gough) — and tells how Colette eventually managed to pulled her life together.
Knightley, 33, spoke about the film, the character, and her relevancy in contemporary society at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Q: Are you a longtime fan of Colette's writing?
A: I think, like many people, my first knowledge of her was through the musical "Gigi" (which is based on the Colette novella). My mum is a writer, and I knew that she'd always been obsessed with Colette, particularly the "Claudine" novels. But before this, I'd only read "Cheri" and "The Last of Cheri," and loved those. But I didn't know anything about her life. So when the script came through the door, I thought, "Wow! Cool!"
Q: How did you go about discovering a way to play her? What sort of research did you do?
A: The research is one of the things I love about doing films like this. I try to do as much of it as I can possibly do. I think we all read the Judith Thurman biography, "Secrets of the Flesh," and then I tried to read as many of her novels, to get her voice, as possible. So I read all of the "Claudines" and "The Vagabond" — I loved "The Vagabond!" And because I read the two "Cheri" books again. That was all I had time for. But you get a real sense of her through her work. That's what she was brilliant at. That's what she wanted to project into the world. So I used her work to get under her skin.
Q: She's a really interesting character. Did you find any similarities between her and yourself?
A: I felt inspired by her, empowered by her. She was a woman who stood very tall, and I felt very tall playing her. So I would like to be more like her in my life.
Q: One of the best things about the script is that it follows Colette from when she was a naïve and innocent 19-year-old to when she had found self-empowerment in her mid-30's. How did you manage that transition?
A: I and Wash talked a lot about it. We talked about her physicality as being incredibly important. We started with her as a sort of slightly gangly teenager and showed how you physically kind of grow into your own skin. So when I say I felt tall, part of that was that suddenly you want to feel that your shoulders are back and you're taking the world on.
Q: Do you feel that Colette was kind of a modern woman, someone who was ahead of her time?
A: Well, it's the story of a woman who's finding her voice, who's finding her true self, and allowing her to live courageously, in the way that she wants to. I think there's a hunger right now for strong female voices. I think that's great, but we just need to make sure that that's not a flash in the pan, that it's not because a load of journalists are going, "So, how many female directors have we got this year?" We need to make sure that it's actually proper change.