“Period dramas for a long time have been seen as a very safe genre,” says Wash Westmoreland, perched on a sofa in a plush west London hotel.

“It’s sort of like, ‘Oh the demographic possibly skews older, and it’s going to be based on a nice novel from the 19th Century.’ A lot of which are incredibly brilliant works – I’m not putting them down – but there’s a certain sense of it being a safe genre.”

We’ve caught up with the British director to talk about his latest film Colette, based on the life of the French novelist and performer the movie is named after. Portrayed by Keira Knightley for this big-screen outing, Colette made her name working against everything that was expected of her as a female of high Parisian society, resulting in this biopic being the queer period drama we’ve all been waiting for.

“Colette was a radical, forward-thinking woman who challenged the conventions of her time, and I thought the film should reflect that completely,” Wash adds, before talking about how this film let him also challenge conventions of what a period drama has traditionally been.

Here, the filmmaker talks about his fascination with Colette, casting trans actors in cisgender roles for the project, and how Hollywood is starting to change for the better.

What I loved about Colette is that initially it’s set up as the type of period drama where a coy unassuming rose is whisked away by a dashing man from high society – the kind of role we’ve seen Keira in before – and then it’s completely turned on its head as we get to understand what makes Colette really tick and those classic period drama tropes are flipped on their head.
Exactly and at the very beginning like, Keira in the first scene, she sips a cup of tea and says ‘thank you’. I mean, Willy is completely burning up all of the oxygen in the room because he is the big important noise. He’s the man of Letters From Paris. Then by the end of the film it is completely flipped and she’s the one who finally gets to speak her truth. That’s the journey you are seeing in Keira’s amazing performance.

Aside from being a great actress, what was it about Keira Knightley that made you want to cast her in this role?
Keira has this lightning-fast intellect. She’s got an incredibly dry wit. It’s like photographing Greta Garbo the way the light and the camera work with her. She has this emotional translucency that you can look into her eyes and see what is happening internally and it’s very powerful. That was so important for Colette, because a lot of the time the husbands tend to take up all the attention, so you really needed to be with her inside her inner life. Keira brought that and, y’know, she just got it. She’s also very LGBTQ aware and she really wanted to do a piece that explored sex and sexuality in the brazen way Colette did.

The costume design in this film is also brilliant – it must have been fun to be able to play with gender boundaries in a period piece for once?
We divided Colette’s evolution into seven phases because it goes over 15 years. In the performance we worked it out with her voice and her body language and her gaze. It all changes as the story evolves. But so do her costumes. At the beginning she’s from the country and then she goes to Paris. She initially doesn’t gel with the Parisian style – she sees it as pretentious. She develops her own Parisian style that’s a lot more clean, simple lines. So even though she’s often wearing black and white, the people in the background are multi-coloured butterflies so she’s the one who often stands out. She’s so modern. Then as she gets in contact with Missy, she starts to explore androgyny in clothing and looks fantastic in a suit. There’s these amazing photographs you can find of Colette wearing suits and sort of experimenting with this idea of taking on male power at a time when it was illegal for women to wear trousers in Paris. You could be arrested. Then at the very end when she’s in a musical and you see the clothes fit her like a second skin. She’s a travelling woman who’s earning her own money, who’s beholden to no-one, who is speaking her own truth, you see that in the way she appears in her clothes. Some of the costumes are original pieces from the 19th Century, so we didn’t have duplicates. Keira stretched her arm out and there was a rip and we had to get the Hungarian seamstress to come out with a little needle and thread and would be sewing it up!

What initially drew you to Colette’s story?
Colette is such a dynamic personality. My co-writer, co-director and late husband Richard Glatzer was a literary obsessive. He had a PhD in English and he started reading a lot of Colette in around 2000. He said, ‘There’s an amazing film in here.’ So we started digging, and as gay men we loved her because she’s such an incredibly empowered, strong woman. It’s kind of an example for your own personal journey of coming out of the closet, or whatever you’ve had to face. There are parallels there that she also broke through barriers to be her true self. So I think the initial connection was us like, ‘Oh it’s a heterosexual marriage that’s totally queer.’ It’s LGBT and Q. There’s not many films that can claim all five initials.

She was also never really scared of coming out either.
She wasn’t. There was no coming out, or ‘oh I’m feeling guilty about this,’ it’s very much she does what feels natural with her own internal compass. She came from the countryside and a lot of her books were about nature and animals, and she was just like, ‘Well this is how I feel.’ So she wasn’t so prescribed by societal mores around sex.

Denise Gough is great as Missy. There’s definitely a movie there about that character as well.
Denise is great and there’s a movie there about Colette and Missy for sure. I think absolutely there should be another film about them.

Wash Westmoreland on the set of Colette with Dominic West and Keira Knightley

The dynamic between them is fascinating.
Well there are two masculine influences on Colette’s life. There’s Willy who’s the masculine man and is very much, ‘It’s all about me – I’m the centre of attention. It’s all about my own ambition, my finance, my power.’ And then Missy’s masculinity is very much like, ‘I have come to a self-realisation about who I really am – I am confident in that self. I can support you because I love you.’ That’s another aspect of masculinity that was very influential on Colette’s life.

With Missy, there are two different pronouns used for them in this film – how did you find out which they identified with?
I have never researched anything so thoroughly in my entire film career! I’ve never looked into something in such a detailed way. I so wanted to get it right. Missy was someone who was around before labels like transgender – or even the word lesbian – existed, and would have been seen as an ‘invert’. That’s a label that has – thank God – disappeared into the sands of time. Missy can be seen really as a forebear of the butch lesbian community and of today’s transgender community. If you read trans academic Jack Halberstam who’s the foremost expert on turn-of-the-century sexuality, he posits that the difference between transgender and butch lesbian hadn’t yet been constructed. They were merged at that point. So we were dealing with a character that defies modern definitions. Missy had the body of a cisgendered woman but certainly reached towards a masculine identity and the language used was very much a part of that. French is a very gendered language so it’s very clear when things are masculine and when they are feminine. We looked at Colette and Missy’s correspondence – their private letters. It’s really interesting because they used both masculine and feminine grammatical constructions in French at different times. They predominantly used female implying a kind of lesbian intimacy in their relationship, but then, occasionally and deliberately Colette will use male grammar forms – acknowledging Missy’s male identity. So it seemed like they used whatever gender grammar felt natural to them at any given moment. Some people say, ‘Missy was a transgender man and should have been played by a transgender person,’ but it’s complicated; Missy had the body of a cisgendered woman and the modern identity of trans didn’t exist at that time. I worked with a transgender consultant Kristiene Clarke who has made over 50 documentaries about sexuality and gender, and we looked at actors who were trans, non- binary and cis and went ultimately, with the person who could really bring the reality of Missy and that was Denise Gough.

During the process I went to a transgender casting workshop where I met many trans actors including Jake Graf. Several people said ‘We don’t just want to play trans – we want to play cis too.’ I was so taken with Jake and so I cast him in a cisgendered role as the famous salonite Gaston de Caillavet. Then I also came into contact with Rebecca Root whom I cast as a cisgendered woman, the journalist Rachilde. Then it snowballed from there with having an out lesbian playing heterosexual, having a heterosexual actress playing a bi-curious dilettante from Louisiana, having an Asian-British actor playing a character who was historically white, having Dickie Beau who is a gay man playing Wague who wasn’t historically recorded as being gay (but we suspect he was) having, Johnny Palmer, a black actor playing a character who is historically white… It broke a lot of rules but seemed very true to how Colette lived – just going with what felt natural. I think my takeaway would be to let actors be actors but invite everybody to the party.

I was going to mention Jake Graf and Rebecca Root being cast as cisgendered characters because that feels like a groundbreaking moment in cinema.
An invisible revolution has happened. The Sundance Film Festival was the premiere of Colette earlier this year. Out of all the press that has written about it, nobody noticed that trans actors were in it playing cisgendered characters. Not a single person noticed. So in the audience they received those characters without it being a statement or without it being something you have to wrestle with. Guess what? Trans actors can play cisgendered characters. Full stop. It’s just been proven.

There’s a great line in the film that goes “history is written by the person holding the pen”. With that in mind, how accurate is the mainstream perception of how LGBTQ people were treated at the start of the 20th century?
Well it depends where you were. London I’d say was pretty bad. Look what happened to Oscar Wilde, and the laws coming in around that applying to just jailing men for any evidence pointing to same-sex attraction. It led to that terrible period that if there was even a letter found in your presence saying ‘I enjoyed lying by your side,’ you could literally be thrown in jail. In Paris, there was a lot more openness and permission. It was the third republic that had kind of moved away from religious teaching to a more rational-based teaching. I’m not saying it was like some utopia that was free of homophobia, but there were definitely people in that artistic milieu in Paris that accepted same-sex relationships. Underground cultures evolved, certain clubs where you’d give a secret knock on the door and you’d be let in, and you’d see women dressed in suits and a lot of underground lesbian subculture forming. It was the same for gay men. You would still always have to be very careful of violence and persecution, but at the same time there was a cultural resistance developing in ways it wasn’t in England.

There’s been much discussion that queer stories should be told through queer perspectives – what are your thoughts on that?
There’s honestly room for both. I thought Moonlight was a brilliant film and it was directed by Barry Jenkins who is straight, but very sensitive to the writer’s intentions. Brokeback Mountain was a groundbreaking film with a straight director and two straight actors who I thought really conveyed the truth of that story. Obviously then there are amazing queer filmmakers like Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes who have queered up heterosexual storylines through their work. So I think the cross pollination is a really great thing. I don’t see how creating a separate category for queer stories made by queer people with queer actors – that can be done and it’s fine that it can exist, but that shouldn’t be the only way that queer narratives are put out into the world.

I kind of think, if you look on the Kinsey Scale that a lot of people are somewhere in between. A lot of actors when they portray gay roles want to develop and get in touch with their own same-sex feelings in order to bring authenticity to the role. I think it’s time for queer people to be playing straight roles too. That is happening more and more with actors like Ben Whishaw, Russell Tovey and Luke Evans. I think that’s another revolution that’s happening. That’s about acting, right? Actors understand the experience of other people. So yes, queer stories by queer people are important, but not as an exclusive rule.

What has been your experience working in Hollywood as an openly gay director?
Well I would say that when I look back on 20 years, initially me and Richard were going in as a gay couple, there were certain projects that we’d never be even considered for in a thousand years. It was because we were two gay men sat in an office pitching a story or a film for a project. But I think there’s been progress – there’s more openness now to saying, ‘Oh yeah there’s a wider range of topics that you could be considered for.’ But I still think there’s a kind of institutionalised perception that gay men should do romantic comedy. There’s not many gay men directing action movies, although that has happened. I feel like there are various pioneers who are gradually pushing back the boundaries. So we’ve seen progress, but there’s still a long way to go. Every bit of progress we make we have to be careful not to have it taken away from us, and just continue to push it further. I think there are great moves right now to getting more diversity into the directing pool. Women directors, people of colour, queer directors, trans directors, to get a more balanced set of perspectives – not just the male gaze, but all kinds of other gazes.

Colette will be in UK cinemas from 9 January.