If there’s one question Keira Knightley gets tired of hearing, it’s ‘So, another period drama?’
“There’s the assumption that they’re all the same, and to me they’re different; just because one is a dress and another is a dress doesn’t mean it’s the same movie,” asserted the two-time Oscar-nominated actress at a BFI Screen Talks session at the London Film Festival Friday.
On Thursday, Knightley premiered what might appear to be another costume drama here in London, Colette, however, the early 20th century story in which she plays Nobel Prize-winning French novelist Sidone-Gabrielle Colette speaks more to women, and the manners of society right now. The pic also happens to jibe with Knightley’s canon, a career built upon what she calls “powerful creatures”.
But there’s a reason why Knightley has sewn herself up in corset dramas.
“I’ve always been interested in gender and I have never felt like I fitted into that narrow image of femininity that mass culture allows, and I was always interested in playing characters who are one way or another struggling against that kind of cultural norm,” she expounds in regards to the running theme in her credits.
Colette tells the story about rural woman who marries author and publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars aka Willy, and ghostwrites a bestselling series of novels for him, Claudine, which follow a brazen and witty country girl. When Colette suggests to Willy that her name should be bylined on future novels, he doth protest. Not only would the gesture embarrassingly blow his cover, in his opinion, female authors aren’t a catalyst for sales. They ultimately divorce and Colette embraces a lesbian life. Colette debuts in the UK during the post nom Oscar period on Jan. 25 via Lionsgate, but the film has already opened in the states via Bleecker Street where it is bound to rack up $2.4M through its four weekends in limited release.
“The idea of having your voice silenced or your voice taken away from you, it’s one most women identify with and there’s definitely a gender conversation with this as well, the idea of what is masculine, and what is feminine; others described her as androgynous,” Knightley told the packed house at the BFI Southbank venue.
Redefining a woman’s boundaries is not just something Knightley wishes to illustrate in her on-screen roles, but behind the scenes as well. Briefly fielding a quick question from the audience, Knightley revealed she’s looking to make strides with inclusive language in contracts. Though she didn’t go into details before the audience, Frances McDormand championed inclusion riders in her Oscar-winning best actress speech for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Such legal docs empower leading actors in their contracts to demand at least 50% diversity in casting and crew. When asked how the industry has supported young women, Knightley emphatically says, “I don’t think it’s supported them well; that’s where you got to do your thing: Survive or not survive.”
“There are few female directors,” Knightley says, specifying that she’s worked for five and turned down a role for only one, “I would like to work with more female directors, and we need more female directors.” Her immediate go-tos would be Reed Morano and Phyllida Lloyd.
“I think we live in a male-dominated society because our directors are predominantly male. As a culture we explore the male identity, and as a woman, I feel like I know parts of men that I could never know because I’ve seen art about that and I’ve seen films about that and theater, and we’re given a narrow view of what it is to be a woman. I think culturally we really have to look at that. We need to explore women in their complicated whole, not just in part. That’s what I love about Colette. I feel there is a complicated person there. When I’m looking for roles that’s what I want to see, because that’s what I identify with — not just the supporting wife or mother. I want to see the whole picture.”
In bringing Colette to the screen, Knightley explained what cultivated an intense exchange between her character and Dominic West’s Willy is that many scenes were shot in one location, his office, and as such they were shot chronologically which doesn’t happen often during production.
“We worked on the physicality,” says Knightley about her portrayal of Colette under director Wash Westmoreland: When Knightley wasn’t wearing a corset, she’d be slumped over.
“There’s a famous saying of men take their space and women apologize for their space,” says Knightley, “we played with the physicality and she became more of herself, taking on masculinity.”
Her career has been bolstered by a three-pic collaboration with Joe Wright; the first of which was 2005’s Pride and Prejudice in which she played the strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet. It was a part she had wanted to play since childhood, and upon landing it, knew immediately how to handle the role intrinsically. During the Talks session, two clips were played from two of her Wright features, one being from Pride where she reduces wealthy suitor Mr. Darcy to humility, and another from Atonement where she puts James McAvoy’s Robbie Turner in his place after he breaks a prized vase near the estate’s fountain. “There’s me telling someone off again,” quipped Knightley after the second clip played.
Delving into her process, the actress described that Wright’s speedy approach to language provides the drama with its proper weight. “A lot of time in American cinema there’s much more pause. I love working with Joe because I love that speed of dialogue; that’s always my thing. You’ve got to know your pauses.”
And she’s not one to double check her performance against a monitor after shooting a scene. “I find that if I’m completely focused on what’s going on, the only thing I can do is what’s going on in the interior, and the exterior will then take care of itself; it has to come from the inside not outside,” she says.
Per the actress, drama, not comedy, has always been her sweet spot. Comedy’s challenge comes in its various takes: The first one is always funny, and a hit with the crew, but it’s hard to know if subsequent takes are working as the laughter dies down. Still, much like she’s drawn to iconoclasts and trailblazers in period dramas, there’s one genre Knightley is hoping to turn on its head that she hasn’t explored yet.
Beams the actress, “I’m always looking for a sci-fi, but it has to be a really good weird, weird sci-fi.”