Warning! This feature contains mild spoilers for Colette
"It took a lot of soul-searching for me to decide that I had a right to play this part," says Denise Gough.
Gough stars in Colette, the wild and poignant film based on the true story of a young French woman (the titular Colette, played by Keira Knightley) who ghost-writes a successful novel for her husband and later has to fight for ownership of her work. She begins an affair with Gough’s character, Missy, whose gender fluidity was considered scandalous when she was alive, back in 19th century Europe. But in light of recent conversations around cisgender actors like Scarlett Johansson and Jared Leto playing transgender roles, Gough explains that it was important she approached the role carefully.
"It’s a historical character and we now have all these contemporary labels, so I wasn’t sure whether it should be a member of the trans community playing that part," she tells Refinery29. "But actually Missy referred to her and himself in both pronouns."
The concept of masculinity is a huge theme in the film. Colette’s useless and overbearing husband Willy (Dominic West) is the embodiment of what we’ve come to understand as toxic masculinity. Place that in the period of history to which the film takes us, and we have an even more exaggerated version of the oppressive patriarchy that we know today. "Women were expected to love, honour and obey," Gough says. But opposite the familiar caricature of Willy, Gough explains that "what Missy represented for me was a kind of enlightened masculinity and it came, I believe, directly from her experience having to live as a woman."
Looking back, it's clear that Missy was fortunate to have the type of wealth and stature that allowed her to break convention, divorce her husband and dress in traditional male clothes. "If you think of Missy and Colette [who at one point in the film turned up to Willy's office in trousers, much to his disproportionate outrage] as blazing the trail that they blazed, imagine all the women underneath, in the slums, who were trying to live those lives and couldn’t, because they couldn’t eat."
What we know of how the real Missy – Napoleon III’s masculine-presenting niece Mathilde de Morny, also known as Uncle Max – lived her life is taken from letters and years of research by the film's director Wash Westmoreland. "That is all her words, so we don’t know whether what Missy was playing with was… Just the idea of a woman dressing in man’s clothes back then was so huge, it was illegal for us to wear trousers, so we don’t know if Missy would’ve been at the forefront of the butch lesbian movement or the trans movement, who’s to say?" But one of the things that Gough found particularly wonderful about Missy was her refusal to conform: "[Missy] played with that in the spirit of 'I can be anything I choose to be', and that for me was just so powerful."
One of Gough's favourite scenes sadly didn't make it into the film. Missy finds out that Willy put her name on the posters to sell a show that involved her kissing Colette on stage (Willy was as snakily exploitative as he sounds) and they have a huge fight. Gough explains that she and Keira had come back to do this scene after a two-month break, and it was shot just as the Weinstein controversy was breaking. Given how closely the themes and conversations addressed in the film parallel those we're having about men and power now, it felt particularly poignant. "We were sitting in the makeup chairs thinking 'Fucking hell, this film, everything we're doing in this film is...'," Gough reflects.
If there's anything that the film makes clear, it's not only the circular complexity of how we understand gender, class, sexuality and power but also that even though we've progressed so far from Colette's period, there is so much progress and cultural evolution still to be made – a tricky nuance that the film both attacks and addresses with its villain, Willy. Gough adds: "What I think was done so beautifully by hiring Dominic West, because Dominic is one of the most wonderful men, [is that] Willy is a toxic man absolutely but he’s also very charming, and we have to kind of understand that these relationships with these toxic men, it’s not like these women are all stupid. There is something. I think he gave Willy a real humanity which is really important as we go forward with this – that we aren’t talking about men as just being big bad monsters. I feel like the conversations that we can have now just coincided with our film coming out."