In one pivotal scene in Colette, Wash Westmoreland's film about the early life of the French novelist, the newly-minted best-selling author (played by Keira Knightley) asks her husband Willy (Dominic West) if she can share in the credit and have her name be featured prominently on her next cover. Up until that point, she's been satisfied with their arrangement: She writes, and he takes credit, accepting praise for a new literary genre that has become an overnight phenomenon among the young women of Paris. But a conversation with a friend sparks a seed of doubt, and suddenly, Colette starts questioning whether or not she deserves better.
As it turns out, Knightley had a similar experience when it came to her own work. In a phone interview with Refinery29, the actress said she only recently started asking to be paid equally or even more than her male co-stars, inspired by the increased media coverage around the Time's Up movement, and pay disparities in Hollywood.
"It was a really interesting thing to suddenly really think about," she said. "Because I hadn’t before, and I hadn’t even noticed that I wasn’t, and I can’t answer the question as to why. I think it’s like everybody else. You’re trying to keep your head down and not be seen as difficult, so you’re just kind of grateful for the work, and actually you need to start asking.”
Ahead, we talk to Knightley about her decision to take on mostly historical characters, who she wants to play next, and why women have to keep demanding more.
Refinery29: Okay, before we start, I’m dying to know if that’s your handwriting in the movie.
Keira Knightley: “It’s not my handwriting. Do you know that’s been almost the number one question asked in the past week was about that handwriting? They looked at my handwriting and were like 'Uh, that doesn’t look nice.' So, they got somebody else.”
It’s so perfect.
“It’s definitely not mine.”
Had you heard of Colette before taking on the role?
What kind of research did you do? How did you get into her head?
“We all read the Judith Thurman biography called Secrets of the Flesh, and then I read the four Claudine novels and The Vagabond, which are the the five novels that this story spans. I mean, I think that was super helpful. If you’re an actress, and you can actually get into somebody’s head by literally reading their words, it’s kind of the greatest gift to actually act the role.”
Obviously her situation has parallels with what women go through to achieve success today. You’ve played a lot of women throughout history. Have you noticed a kind of cyclical ebb and flow of freedoms?
“It depends what country you’re in. The Belle Époque in Paris, where this is set, is a very interesting time because people were breaking taboos left and right, and there was a big sense of sexual exploration, and stuff. But if you’d gone over to England at the same time, then that was very much in the Victorian puritanical phase, so that was a very different time. We think of the sexual revolution as being in the 1960s, but actually there was one in the 1940s, there was one in the 1920s, there was one in France in the 1890s. There is a kind of cyclical nature to it, and with each cycle of feminism, hopefully it gets pushed that bit further on. But it’s a shame that we can’t kind of keep it steady.”
There’s this assumption that people make that back in the day, people didn’t have sex lives, or desire. Like, we are the first.
“Yeah. It’s amazing how we all got here!”
How do you hope this movie challenges our views on women’s sexual freedom and sexuality?
“What I loved about it is that it felt so current, because it is talking about sexual politics, gender politics, feminism, and celebrity, and it’s talking about all the things that we’re talking about today. You know, I was fascinated that it was 100 years ago, and we’re still having the same conversations, and we still haven’t figured it out. I suppose that I felt very inspired by her. What I loved the most was that she explored her identity and her sexuality, and she did it publicly, and she did it without shame. I loved that.”
There's one scene in which Colette puts on a play with her masculine-presenting lover, Missy (Denise Gough), and they get booed offstage for kissing in public. How did you react to that?
"In certain parts of the world, it would definitely still happen today, and it’s amazing because that’s true. It literally caused a riot in the Moulin Rouge, and the play was shut down. It’s always interesting culturally, isn’t it, what happens in particular sections of society — like Missy was allowed to wear men’s clothing because she was unbelievably rich, and she was an aristocrat. But actually if she’d been middle class or lower class she probably would have been arrested. People can really try and smash taboos, and yet someone can stand up somewhere else and be booed offstage and have things thrown at them.”
Period dramas tend to get dismissed because they’re associated with pretty clothes, and therefore women. What draws you to these parts?
“They’ve always been the most interesting, complex characters that I’ve been offered. I’ve been offered quite a lot of modern day pieces as well, and for me the parts I’ve been offered have been like, the supportive wife or girlfriend. And I think ‘Well, fuck it. I’m the supportive wife or girlfriend at home, I don’t want to do that as work.’ So, I’ve always kind of gravitated towards the most interesting people that I can find. And most of them have been in period films. I’m not quite sure why that is.”
Do you think the industry’s portrayal of women has changed, especially in the past year?
“I think that there is an appetite for change, and I think that has to be harnessed and really pushed forward. The fact that we’re having these conversations, which we haven’t been able to have before, I think that that is incredibly positive. But I think trying to make sure that this isn’t just a news cycle, and that this actually does mean change, that’s going to take time, but it’s also going to mean people actually seeing the films.
"So, Colette is a female-driven story about empowerment, but more stories are only going to get made like that if people go and see them at the cinema and it actually makes money. So, I think it needs a concerted effort by everybody to kind of get behind these and prove that there is an audience, and there is an appetite, both in the public and in the media, that this is where we want our culture to go. There’s only so much that you can do from the acting point of view. You go, ‘Okay, I can try and make this work,’ but ultimately, unless it sells, then it’s not going to happen. I think what’s great is that it seems like there is that appetite. It seems like people are saying, ‘I want to see more interesting women, I want representation, and I want equal pay, and all of this.’ The sisterhood needs to get together and make sure that we can deliver it.”
I read somewhere in an interview that you said you only recently started making more than some of your male co-stars.
“I’ve only recently asked, so I don’t know historically, but recently, since all of that kind of came out, I have asked, and I have made the same, if not more, in the last few films that I’ve done. It was a really interesting thing to suddenly really think about, because I hadn’t before, and I hadn’t even noticed that I wasn’t. I can’t answer the question as to why. I think it’s like everybody else. You’re trying to keep your head down and not be seen as difficult, so you’re just kind of grateful for the work, and actually you need to start asking.”
What changed for you that you decided to start asking?
“Honestly the media coverage. It was very much in the press, the pay discrepancy, and suddenly people were actually outraged by it. It really made me look at my own career and my own choices, and sort of go, ‘Okay, so this is something I should be asking about, and I have a right to ask about.’”
Is there any kind of forgotten female character that you would like to play, or see onscreen?
“There are so many, aren’t there? I’d like to see Florence Nightingale, I think Ada Lovelace — have they done a Mary Shelley film yet?”
"Fuck. I missed the boat on that one. Did they cover the relationship with her mother?”
Yes, but not as much as it could have.
“I mean — because that’s fucking amazing! And I’ve only just found out about that, and Jesus Christ. And I think, more mother-daughter films in general. [Lady Bird] was the first time that I felt like I watched a mother-daughter relationship that felt utterly true in all its kind of wonderful, hideous kinds of complexities. I was like, ‘Why am I so moved by this? Oh, because I haven’t seen this before.’ We look around at mother-son relationships, or father-daughter relationships, but that mother-daughter relationship is so under-explored. So, I was thinking, ‘Ooh, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley was great,’ but they’ve already done it. So, fuck, I’m late to that one.”
I mean, there are a million movies about all sorts of men, we can do more than one about Mary Shelley.
“We can! And look, these were extraordinary women, so maybe we can look at a different angle, exactly.”
“Oh my god, I hope so!"
Would you ever want to direct your own film?
“I don’t know. There’s something in me that would, because I’ve got an awful lot of opinions about it all, but I’m also very aware that it’s a skill set that’s ultimately about diplomacy, and I’m not sure that that’s something that I’ve got. I may have to grow up a little bit and see if I’ve got a bit more diplomacy in me, and then maybe I’ll give it a go.”
What do you hope women take away from Colette?
“I hope they feel empowered — and I know that’s sort of a buzzword, but I did. I felt like I stood tall. I think it was the fact that she lived without shame, and she did it unapologetically. I felt empowered playing her, and I want people to feel empowered watching her. And it’s all sort of fucking fun, isn’t it? She’s delicious.”