EX­CLU­SIVE: KEIRA KNIGHT­LEY speaks to us about com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships and em­pow­er­ing roles


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Like the char­ac­ter she so ef­fort­lessly em­bod­ies in her lat­est movie, the French writer Co­lette, Keira Knight­ley is known for not be­ing afraid to break bar­ri­ers and to speak her mind.

The movie that de­buted at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val this year to great ac­claim, is a pe­riod piece tack­ling per­ti­nent top­ics such as fem­i­nism, the voice of women and the power-plays that ex­ist in all re­la­tion­ships.

That’s why 32-year-old Keira, back on the big screen after a hia­tus tak­ing care of her new daugh­ter Edie – is per­fect to play the feisty role.

What was it that first drew you to the script?

Ev­ery­thing. I just read it and thought I didn’t know any of this… I knew a bit of her work, like Gigi the mu­si­cal, Chéri and the

Last of Chéri. But I didn’t know any­thing about her life. The story of a woman whose hus­band is tak­ing credit for her work – lit­er­ally tak­ing her voice – and the fact that she stands up for her­self and comes out from the shadow of a man and claims her iden­tity. I found it in­cred­i­bly em­pow­er­ing read­ing it. I hope that peo­ple will find it in­cred­i­bly em­pow­er­ing watch­ing it.

The pro­duc­ers said you dove into the re­search.

I think that’s what’s fun about do­ing a film like this. We all read the same bi­og­ra­phy which was called Se­crets of the Flesh by Ju­dith Ther­man. Ba­si­cally in the time that I had, I read as much of her work as pos­si­ble – it was a great priv­i­lege.

What did you think of her work?

Chéri is still my favourite. It’s in­ter­est­ing when you look at it cul­tur­ally, she very much de­fined the mod­ern teenager. The Vagabond

is the one that I like the best – that’s the first time she writes un­der her own name and re­ally finds her voice.

What sur­prised you most about her story?

Prob­a­bly just how cur­rent it felt. She talks about gen­der pol­i­tics, about sex­ual pol­i­tics and fem­i­nism and I thought how ex­tra­or­di­nary that it is set be­tween the1890s and the ear­lier 20th cen­tury and yet we are still talk­ing about the same sub­jects to­day.

I love the fact that it has se­ri­ous mes­sages within it but is still a lot of fun. As much as Willy [Col­lette’s hus­band] is the sort of vil­lain in the piece, you un­der­stood why she was with him. He was mag­netic and he was charm­ing, and when it worked the two of them had great fun to­gether. I loved that. You didn’t get a sense that she was the vic­tim. The mo­ment she would’ve be­come a vic­tim, she left. So I loved that dy­namic. I loved ev­ery­thing about it re­ally.

The team started work on this 17 years ago and you wrapped film­ing a while ago but in the past year there has been a huge sea change with Time’s Up and Me Too. Were you think­ing about that when you were com­ing off this?

We filmed it be­fore Me Too hit. But yes I was aware that it felt very cur­rent. It is speak­ing to a lot of what that move­ment is about – which is the si­lenc­ing of women’s voices. This ab­so­lutely tack­les that. But as I said it was made be­fore of that so we didn’t re­alise just how on-point it would be.

You talked about Willy’s charisma. You also had a very charis­matic lead­ing man in Do­minic West. What was it like to work with him?

I loved work­ing with Do­minic. He is pos­si­bly one of the most charis­matic men you will meet. I think he is the only man that I ever met that I thought: “If you mur­dered some­body, you could prob­a­bly get away with it.” That’s the sort of qual­ity you need for Willy. Do­minic is a phe­nom­e­nal ac­tor.

Did you have time to forge this chem­istry be­fore you started film­ing?

No, we didn’t but we did have dance les­sons to­gether. There was meant to be a polka that we danced to­gether. So that’s how we first met, at a dance stu­dio, and des­per­ately tried to polka. We were so bad that it got cut out of the film! But it did break the ice.

You ap­par­ently spoke to your di­rec­tor Wash West­more­land for the first time on a Skype call.

He was in China on a phone which had the bat­tery dy­ing and I was crouch­ing in my flat in an odd cor­ner as that seemed to be the only place that had in­ter­net at the time. So it was very quick! He is a very in­tel­li­gent, in­ter­est­ing man who is pas­sion­ate about the story so it was an easy de­ci­sion.

What was Wash like to work with on set?

He knows ex­actly what he wants, which is ex­actly what you need from a di­rec­tor. The only thing he kept say­ing to me was: “Do that, but less”. I trusted him. I trusted his in­stinct, which is all you can ask for.

Co­lette strikes me as be­ing very ahead of her time. What kind of woman do you think she is?

I think be­ing English, I think of that pe­riod in a very Vic­to­rian, pu­ri­tan­i­cal way. But that wasn’t what was hap­pen­ing in France as it was the belle époque hap­pen­ing there. It was an ex­plo­sion of cul­ture and art. So I don’t know if she was ahead of her time or of her time.

I think what is in­ter­est­ing in his­tory in gen­eral is that there are peaks and troughs so we may have a very pro­gres­sive mo­ment in one coun­try but it might com­pletely re­verse the next sec­ond. What I loved about her was that she was ut­terly nat­u­ral to her­self. If she found a part of the world that didn’t fit her, she ripped a hole in it and made it fit her. She lived her life with­out shame. I found that an in­cred­i­bly em­pow­er­ing mes­sage.

She is hon­est and open about her feel­ings – was that part of the charm?

Yes, the hon­esty is prob­a­bly one of the things you love about her but it is what makes her a great writer. She is hon­est about her ex­pe­ri­ences and the way she saw her world. She didn’t hide her thoughts and loves. She was also just re­ally tal­ented, which helped.

Is Co­lette dif­fer­ent from the other pe­riod dra­mas you have done in the past?

I think they have all been pretty dif­fer­ent from one an­other. I don’t think you can say Dan­ger­ous Method is the same as Pride and Prej­u­dice and Pride and Prej­u­dice isn’t the same as Atone­ment. I think this isn’t the same as those ei­ther. The thing they have in com­mon is his­tory and nice dresses.

Do you think this is a mile­stone in your ca­reer?

I have no idea. Time will tell. I think Co­lette

will al­ways be one of the great char­ac­ters I will play. I think Co­lette and El­iz­a­beth Ben­nett are two won­der­ful char­ac­ters to have on your CV and they don’t come around ev­ery day, so I feel very lucky to have played her.

How do you think Co­lette and Willy’s re­la­tion­ship pro­gresses as the story un­folds?

I think that when they were very good, they were very, very good, and when they were bad they were hor­rid [laughs]. I think that is the story of the film. They had a mo­ment when they loved each other, where they had tremen­dous fun, where the world must have been so ex­cit­ing. They were the stars of the belle époque so­ci­ety and ar­guably that was the most ex­cit­ing place in the world at that mo­ment.

I think she loved the at­ten­tion but the mo­ment that it was clear that the only way she could sur­vive and be­come the per­son she wanted to be was to leave him, she did. That’s what I love about it – she was not his vic­tim.

Yes, she was ma­nip­u­lated by him and used by him but no re­la­tion­ship is per­fect and there is al­ways go­ing to be a nat­u­ral power strug­gle be­tween men and women but what I loved is that the mo­ment she recog­nises that it’s done, she leaves. That’s what you can draw amaz­ing strength from. Co­lette is out in the UAE and GCC from De­cem­ber 6.

“Co­lette will al­ways be one of the great char­ac­ters I will play”

Keira Knight­ley (pic­tured here on The Late Late Show with James Cor­den) is back after a hia­tus with her young daugther Edie

Do­minic West (above) plays Co­lette’s hus­band Willy, but the ac­tress is hap­pily mar­ried to James Righton (right in­set). The film had a joint cel­e­bra­tion withstar­ring Hil­lary Swank (with Keira be­low)

Had, What They

Keira says one of the things she loved most about Co­lette was the fact she was al­ways to­tally hon­est to her­self

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