Wash Westmoreland on directing Keira Knightley as ‘Colette’: Both are forces of nature

When you think of period films, you can’t help but think of Keira Knightley. She has made a name for herself as the go-to actresses for such acclaimed costume dramas as “Atonement,” “Anna Karenina” and “The Duchess. Two of those period pieces garnered her Oscar nominations: Best Actress in 2006 for “Pride & Prejudice” and Best Supporting Actress in 2015 for “The Imitation Game.” Now she headlines Wash Westmoreland‘s “Colette,” portraying the famous French writer who challenged social and gender norms in turn of the century Paris.

This is a film with a little more spice – a costume drama that we haven’t seen the likes of before, according to the writer/director. “In a lot of period pieces, you spend two hours waiting for the couple to get engaged whereas in ‘Colette’ she’s in the barn in the first five minutes going at it with Dominic West’s character, Willy,” laughs Westmoreland, a certain pride in his voice. “And by the end of the movie, she is in the Moulin Rouge dancing and kissing her girlfriend and causing a riot. I think she was just a really amazing character in real life and I think Keira felt like she would love to walk in those shoes.”

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“Colette was also very much was a sexual explorer, and that was a new color for Keira – to play a character who was so comfortable with her own sexuality that she explored it without any guilt and brought it out into the public domain int a very clear-eyed, inspiring and powerful way. I think that was also something about the character that really appealed to Keira.”

The director says his leading lady relished the opportunity to challenge people’s preconceptions of period films and, indeed, what they have to come to expect from Knightley within those films. The script was written in 2001 initially before Knightley had even done “Bend it Like Beckham,” but the project only got into high gear after he directed Julianne Moore to an Oscar in “Still Alice.” 

“Keira was the natural actor to go to first because she had so many qualities that much Colette. The quick wit, the sense of style, the down to earthness, the fearlessness, the sense of ‘she’s going to break through.’ Keira is a battering ram. She’s just going to breakthrough. And that’s what Colette was like – she was a force of nature.”

He could see kindred spirits in the turn of the century French writer and the English actress. “As the film was going on, I couldn’t imagine it turning out better. The chemistry with Dominic West was terrific, Keira showing the gradual evolution of Colette from age 19 to age 34 was spectacular.” 

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Westmoreland credits the groundbreaking Colette for tearing down those old pretences and restrictions often on display in costume dramas.“It means so much to me. The thing that first appealed to me was that ‘Colette’ is the story of a heterosexual marriage that unexpectedly becomes LGBT and Q – all the initials. People are like ‘it’s a story about a woman directed by a man’ and they moan. But as a gay man and having to come out of the closet to live a larger life, I sympathize with what Colette went through and how she was very much boxed in in that marriage, having to claim her own voice as an artist as a way to become the great Colette the writer who changed the world.”

 He was married to Richard Glatzer, with whom he co-wrote and co-directed his first three feature films including “Still Alice,” which was Glatzer’s last before his untimely death at the hands of ALS. Westmoreland candidly discusses his difficulty in moving on. “It was really hard. I’d worked with Richard for 18 years up to that. We were very compatible, we understood the way each other worked and thought about film and directing – it was a really great collaboration.”

Glatzer, along with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, co-wrote “Colette.” “It’s a lot of his dialogue coming out of the mouths of great actors. It’s very much about extending his legacy as an artist. It is great to see his name up there again. I get shivers every time I see his name. In terms of filmmaking, this is the highest achievement of my career, so it makes this film mean even more to me to give him a send-off like this.”

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