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

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - DYNASTIES PART TWO - Gabrielle Don­nelly Co­lette is in cin­e­mas in Jan­uary 2019.

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.’

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 im­medi- ately 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 avant­garde 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).

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.

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-nightstand 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.

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

‘I’ve never fit the pro­jected form of fem­i­nin­ity’

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. ‘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. 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.’

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.’

‘The roles I’m drawn to are about girls chal­leng­ing norms’

Keira as Co­lette with Do­minic West as her hus­band Willy

Missy and Co­lette on stage, and (right) Co­lette and Willy with Clau­dine ac­tress Po­laire A very dif­fer­ent role for Poldark’s Demelza – Eleanor Tom­lin­son – seen here as Ge­orgie, kiss­ing Co­lette

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