‘I thought I’d be a man when I grew up’: About to star in her most risqué film yet, Keira Knightley tells how as a child she believed that tough little girls turned into the men who ran the world
- Keira Knightley, 33, has been cast as pioneering feminist Colette in a new film
- Colette found success as a novelist after separating from her abusive husband
- She remarried and indulged in affairs with both men and women
- Kiera shared thoughts on Colette who she says her mother was obsessed with
- Kiera claims to be drawn to playing characters who challenge the norms
There are no prizes for guessing who takes the lead in the forthcoming film Colette, which tells the story of the groundbreaking early 20th-century French novelist who carved a world of opportunities wide open for other women.
Given Keira Knightley’s statements last month about how she won’t let her three-year-old daughter Edie watch Disney films such as Cinderella that portray their heroines as weak, it’s hardly surprising that she’s cast as the pioneering feminist.
‘She did amazing things and people keep describing her as fearless, but she wasn’t fearless at all,’ says Keira when we meet at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills.
‘Most of us have fears and she had as many as the rest of us.
‘But she was courageous – which means you confront your fears and get on with it.
‘That’s what Colette was – and I admired that greatly about her.’
Keira Knightley, 33, (pictured) has been cast as the lead in a new film about French novelist Colette who opened doors of opportunity for other women
The connection between the two women goes deeper than that.
Colette was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in the French provinces in 1873 to a mother, Eugenie, of Caribbean heritage who grew up in an anarchist colony in Belgium where they believed in gender equality.
And Eugenie immediately felt Colette, her fourth child, was special and brought her up to believe there was nothing she couldn’t do.
Colette didn’t let her down. She was only 20 when she married successful novelist and publisher Henry ‘Willy’ Gauthier-Villars (played in the film by Dominic West), 14 years older than her, and moved to Paris, where the abusive Willy introduced her to the intellectual and sexual freedom of the city’s avant-garde circles.
He was a self-promoter who used ghostwriters for his novels, and he persuaded Colette to write four books, the Claudine series, that were published in his name while he had extra-marital affairs and encouraged Colette in lesbian alliances, including with heiress Georgie Raoul-Duval (played by Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson).
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Based on Colette’s frank memories, the books follow Claudine’s journey from teenager to young woman, beginning with her time at a girls’ school ruled by a seductive female headmistress, to her marriage to a man she ends up cheating on with a woman.
The series was a huge hit with both French housewives and intellectuals, so much so that it spawned Claudine-branded soaps, perfumes and cigars. One story was turned into a play, starring French actress Polaire.
Colette said she would never have become a writer if not for Willy.
But when she asked to have her name on her own works as they grew more lucrative, Willy resisted and locked her in her room until she wrote more pages.
He had the book’s copyright so the earnings went to him.
Keira (pictured as Colette with Dominic West as her husband Willy) revealed she grew up loving Colette’s musical Gigi
Colette and Willy separated in 1906 and she went on to become one of the most successful novelists of her time, producing such masterpieces as Chéri in 1920, the now iconic story of a fading courtesan and her much younger lover, and Gigi in 1944.
This was made into the 1958 musical film that starred Louis Jourdan as womanising Parisian playboy Gaston, with Leslie Caron as the precocious young beauty Gigi who steals his heart and Maurice Chevalier as Gaston’s old rake of an uncle. It went on to win nine Oscars, a record at the time.
Colette lived an independent life when most women could not dream of doing so.
She remarried (to renowned journalist and statesman Henry de Jouvenal), indulged in affairs with both men and women and famously had a lengthy relationship with Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf – known as ‘Missy’ – a gender-bending aristocratic sculptor and performer.
Missy (played by Denise Gough, best known for last year’s one-night-stand thriller Paula) would dress in three-piece suits, wear her hair like a man and was rumoured to have had a mastectomy to appear more masculine.
She and Colette lived and worked together for six years – producing some of the belle époque era’s most controversial plays, one of which almost caused a riot at the Moulin Rouge because of a lesbian kiss.
The parallels between Colette and Keira, raised in Richmond in London, are significant, beginning with the deep bonds with their mothers.
Keira’s mother Sharman Macdonald was a bohemian Scottish theatre actress before stage fright forced her to pursue an alternative career as a playwright.
She had a son, Caleb, by her husband, the actor Will Knightley, but was desperate for another child, so they made a deal: if she sold a play, they could afford to have another baby.
She wrote When I Was A Girl, I Used To Scream And Shout in 1984 and sent it to the Bush Theatre in west London, where Alan Rickman read it and insisted they produce it. The play was a huge hit and Keira was born a year later.
Colette (pictured on stage as portrayed by Kiera Knightley alongside ‘Missy’) had a lengthy relationship with gender-bending performer Missy
Today, Keira says that before she was approached to make the film, Colette had been a vague figure to her, but her mother had been obsessed by her.
‘She talked a lot about her when I was growing up.
‘I loved the musical Gigi, and when I was about 22 my then boyfriend Rupert Friend was doing a film version of Chéri, so I read that.’
She goes so far as to say she was born to play the character. ‘And not because it’s a period piece,’ she adds a little tartly (she’s become famous for her historical portrayals).
‘If you look at the characters I’m drawn to, it’s because they are about girls challenging norms.
‘If you go all the way back to Bend It Like Beckham, that’s a story about girls playing football, which they weren’t meant to do.
‘In Pirates Of The Caribbean, my character’s meant to be a damsel in distress but she hits back against that.
‘Even in Atonement, my character was sexually open at a time when women weren’t expected to be.
‘It’s something I’ve always been deeply connected to. I thought I was going to be a man when I grew up because of the playground at school.
‘I could see the girls were the ones with the power there, so I’d look at the adult world where the men had the power and think, “Clearly, little girls turn into men!” Of course I later found they don’t, but I’ve always understood that feeling of not fitting into the projected form of femininity. I still don’t now.’
As Colette gets more entwined with Missy in the film, her look grows more androgynous, meaning Keira was spared the period actress’s dread of wearing corsets.
Kiera (pictured left as Collete with Willy and Claudine actress Polaire) revealed she begins sitting back and leaning out as Colette grows in confidence throughout the film
‘She wore ties and high collars. We worked on her body language.
‘If you go into a room of men and women, the women have usually got their legs and arms crossed, trying to take up as little space as possible.
‘But the men – the legs are out, the arms are out, they’re claiming their space.
‘As Colette grew in confidence, we had her claiming her space too – sitting back and leaning out, which you can’t do in a corset.
‘It was saying, “I have a right to be here, I’m not apologising for my ego, my needs or wants, I’m going to make the world accept me for who I am.” I loved that.’
As for the lesbian scenes, for Keira it was just another day at work.
‘I never had an “A-ha!” moment that homosexuality was OK, it’s how I’ve always lived.
‘My mum used to organise marches in Scotland campaigning for homosexual freedom because Scotland had rules against it much later than England.
‘She’d always get together with what would now be called LGBTQ+ communities to protest.
‘At home my brother and I were surrounded by the idea that every sexuality was accepted, that you were not allowed to say what anyone could or could not do, that what happened between consenting adults was always natural.
A very different role for Poldark’s Demelza – Eleanor Tomlinson – seen here as Georgie, kissing Colette
‘I’ve always had friends from the LGBTQ+ community, although bloody hell, I wish they’d come up with a shorter name for it! And I’ve had girl crushes – I’m not saying who. My husband wouldn’t appreciate it!’
At 33, she’s been married for five years to James Righton of the cult band Klaxons: they live in London with their daughter, and keep their private life private.
‘Nobody is just one thing. Colette was an extrovert who craved attention, and she was a country girl who needed solitude sometimes.
‘I’m the same. I love to be on film sets, I love to be surrounded by people.
‘But when I’m at home it is utterly private and will remain so.’
Her love for her work partly explains why she’s already made five films since her daughter’s birth – along with Colette there’s Berlin, I Love You (an anthology of love stories), Disney’s recently released The Nutcracker And The Four Realms, in which Keira plays a Sugar Plum Fairy with candy floss hair and a squeaky voice, and the forthcoming post-war drama The Aftermath and political thriller Official Secrets.
But she says it’s that mother-daughter bond that compelled her to do it.
‘My mum always worked when I was small,’ she has said, ‘and she has a thing about me continuing to work.
‘A lot of my sense of self came from being so proud of her for having that ethic.’
Kiera (pictured) claims to be encouraged knowing films like Colette and her next project about the 1970 Miss World competition are being made
With its theme of a woman blossoming after escaping a controlling male, Colette chimes with the #MeToo movement and Keira feels encouraged that films like this and her next project, Misbehaviour – about the infamous 1970 Miss World competition at the Royal Albert Hall, when Women’s Lib activists stormed the stage – are getting made.
But she thinks it’s up to audiences to pay to see them. ‘If you don’t,’ she’s said, ‘there won’t be another one.’
Yet those controversial comments about Cinderella were seen by some as ill-timed since Keira was promoting Disney’s The Nutcracker at the time.
But after 16 years in the spotlight, she says she’s earned the right not to care about public opinion.
‘After you’ve had a child, there’s a feeling of not giving a f***!’ she says.
‘Take Colette, for instance. We worked very hard, we all believe in it, and if it does well that’s great. But if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of my world.
‘As long as my daughter is cool and doing well, and my husband’s good and my family’s good, everything is good.
‘The rest is just noise.’
Colette is in cinemas in January 2019.
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