Original-Cin Q&A: Colette's Keira Knightley and Dominic West on cads, Belle Epoque sexual freedom and polka

By Bonnie Laufer

The French novelist Colette may be best known for her novella Gigiwhich was made into a 1951 Broadway musical starring a pre-fame Audrey Hepburn (who was discovered by the author herself), and then into an Oscar-winning 1958 film starring Leslie Caron.

The new film based on Colette’s life centers around her first marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy, a Svengali type who encouraged her to write, and then took credit for her extremely popular work. 

Read our review of Colette

Starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West (The Affair) the film also depicts her resulting sexual awakening and refusal to bow to oppressive societal rules. 

 West as Willy and Knightley as Colette, a literary giantess and her Svengali

West as Willy and Knightley as Colette, a literary giantess and her Svengali

Original-Cin’s Bonnie Laufer spoke with Keira Knightley and Dominic West about the film during the Toronto International Film Festival.  

ORIGINAL-CIN: Colette was such a fascinating woman and her  story is quite extraordinary. Keira, what was it about her that hooked you in and made you want to play her? 

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY:  “You read it and you're like, ‘Whoa... this is amazing!’ I didn't know much about her. I knew bits of her work, but I didn't know anything about what went on in her  life. And I just thought, ‘Here is an extraordinary woman who broke every rule and was a real maverick.’  She was somebody who was absolutely unafraid to live her life the way that she wanted to live it. She was this incredibly powerful charismatic sort of creature. But equally she had this fascinating relationship with her first husband “Willy,” who Dominic plays who took credit for her work.”

DOMINIC WEST: “Yes, only the best of her work.” (laughs) 

KK: (laughs) “Yes, true.” 

OC: He was such a cad. Dominic, you’re not a stranger to playing men like this. How do you do it so well?

DW:  “I don't know! You’re right though, I always get cast as these as you cads at best, and evil bastards at worst.  I suppose Willy was somewhere in between. He completely took advantage, because the opportunity was there. But you know, in some ways you've got to take your chances while you can. 

“If you're a mediocrity and you meet a star, then that's what he did really. He found this genius and knew one when he saw one. However, I must add that history hasn’t been very kind to him. He’s known as the guy who stole Colette’s talent and art, and that’s what we’re hoping to disassemble with this film.”

OC: Was there a lot of research about this this time period and about Colette and Willy that you had to draw on? Or did you completely rely on the script? 

KK: “The script was great. But yes, there was a lot for us to read. There’s a great biography by Judith Thurman called, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, that I read. And then obviously to have her novels to read was priceless. Actually getting the opportunity to kind of dive into her world and read as many of the novels as possible was a huge bonus.”

OC: Why do you think her story is so relevant today?

DW: “We have one of the biggest transgender casts I think in recent movies or in movies ever. It felt so modern, and this, I suppose, was the initial attraction for me especially.  With sexual politics and  the notion of a relationship that is based on a powerful man exploiting a woman, who then ceases to need him anymore, and then goes on to forge her own path and become this great literary legend. That felt very modern and relevant to many things that are still going on today.”

OC: Colette was so ahead of her time.

KK:  “Or really part of her time? I'm not quite sure. I think it was a fascinating period the Belle Epoque. There was a sort of a sexual revolution going on. In art and in writing, it was an extraordinary time period.  She definitely was a rule-breaker and yes, she lived her life the way that she wanted to live it. And so the discussion within the film of gender politics and of sexual politics and feminism are things that we’re still absolutely discussing right now.”

OC: It sounds like Colette really struck a chord with you.

KK: “She did. I think that's why when I read the script I thought, ‘Wow, this is extraordinary. You can have a something that was set a hundred years ago, and yet we still haven't figured all of this stuff out. That’s pretty unbelievable.”

 OC: Did you both hit it off right away? 

KK: “No, we hated each other.” (laughs) 

DW: “Didn’t we start off doing the polka?” 

KK:  “That’s right, we did and we were really good at it too!”  

DW: “Well, you were really good, maybe I wasn’t so good. It's always a good way to start though. There’s nothing like getting to know a person better than when you are dancing together.  Why didn’t it make it into the film?” 

KK: “Because we never got it right!” (laughs) 

OC: In their heyday Colette and Willy were a true celebrity-type couple, kind of like the John and Yoko of their time? 

DW: “More like Kim and Kanye if you ask me!” 

KK: “Probably not the John and Yoko because she was always hated wasn't she? I mean what was that about?” 

DW: “You’re right. They were absolutely a celebrity couple.  They loved and craved fame. And Willy understood very clearly about branding and using any part of your life - the more scandalous, the better to achieve fame and notoriety. Both of them, I think, would have sold their own mother for a pizza for fame and sadly you see that a lot now.”

QC: Sadly, you’re right.. But not with you two. 

KK: “I haven’t sold my mother yet.” 

QC: Especially not for a pizza! 

KK: “It would have to be a really good pizza! (laughs)”