During the belle epoque in Paris, society was abuzz over the Claudine novels, which dared to depict the sensual maturity of a teenage girl. After roughly a decade in development hell, Colette, the story behind this phenom-enon, finally hits screens this fall, with Keira Knightley in the title role of the series’ author and Dominic West as Willy, Colette’s boorish husband who long took credit for her work. The movie details Colette’s liberation from Willy’s shadow, as well as her queer affairs, which mark new territory for Knightley. It’s a natural next step for an actress who’s never played by Hollywood’s rules.
Ever since Pride & Prejudice, you’ve portrayed daring women who challenge tradition. Is that close to who you are?
Not really. In my work I try to play women I find heroic, and I guess there are always people pushing the boundaries of the society they live in. Colette certainly fits into that. But I’m quite lazy. You need a lot of energy to push boundaries all the time.
What did you most appreciate about Colette’s boundary pushing?
She was never going to be less than herself. She wrote from a definitive female perspective, and she wrote characters who are in no way affected by Victorian puritanism. It’s unusual to get female stories told from a female point of view, even now.
What’s your own experience with that bias?
There’ve been many times in the last 15 years of my career that I’ve been told female stories don’t sell tickets and that you can’t have a female lead in a big box-office movie. I’d have a lot more money if I had just played the wife or the girlfriend, but I’ve pushed to play the lead in films with lower budgets, because those have been the ones with people trusting me as the lead.
In the movie, Colette blossoms beyond her writing and does bold stage performances. Were you already a dancer?
No! And every time I told people I wasn’t, I kept hearing that I didn’t need many rehearsals. I was like, “I don’t know where this is coming from, but I do.” Finally, I worked with a professional dancer and we did rehearse. So I got really lucky.
What are your thoughts on Missy, Colette’s lover, played by Denise Gough? The character seems to present as a trans man.
Missy was definitely someone who lived partly as a man, whereas Colette lived her life as a woman but had relationships with women and men. I guess Colette was what we’d call bisexual today. But Missy is different and fascinating — you could make your own film about Missy. Somebody should.
Is there another recent queer film you loved?
Call Me by Your Name! I fucking love that movie, and the speech that the dad gives at the end is the most beautiful speech I’ve ever heard. It’s my parental aim to give that speech to my daughter, or any other child I might have, if they ever need it. That’s the parent I want to be.
Colette opens in theaters September 21.