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Dominic West sees the good in his new bad-boy role in literary biopic

The actor known for his complex characters talks to Julia Molony about how he plays a dastardly chauvinist in the drama, 'Colette'


Keira Knightley and Dominic West star in 'Colette'

Keira Knightley and Dominic West star in 'Colette'

Keira Knightley and Dominic West star in 'Colette'

When Dominic West agreed to play Willy, the writer, editor and bounder who married and exploited French literary star Colette, in a biopic of her life, it took a while for the penny to drop that he'd taken on the role of the bad guy.

On the first reading of the script, it didn't occur to him. It was only later during rehearsal, he found himself wondering to director Wash Westmoreland. "I kept going 'hang on a second, are you trying to make him the villain of the piece here?' And Wash was going, 'No, no, no, he's not a villain at all. He's totally understandable.' Maybe I was a bit slow to catch on. I read it and didn't think he necessarily had the weight of all human patriarchy on his shoulders. But I think he does."

Certainly, that is the way it is told in the film. Colette, a young iconoclastic woman from Burgundy, played by Keira Knightley, is whisked away to Belle Epoque Paris by her new husband, a Parisian libertine who runs a publishing venture. He is a hack who writes popular novels and also employs a team of ghost-writers to churn out fiction which is published under his name. When his wife's writing talent becomes apparent, he recruits her into the team and coaches her in the art of literary titillation. She pens a series of books, The Claudine Stories, based on her girlhood growing up in rural France. The books are commercial smash hits, and on the strength of them, he becomes a huge celebrity. Yet he refuses her requests to be credited as the author, squanders most of the earnings on gambling and carousing and jealously guards their copyright until he finally sells it out from under her, cutting her off from any financial gain from her creation. At one point we see him lock her in her room, refusing to open the door until she has produced enough words.

Certainly, he makes a convenient emblem of patriarchal exploitation. And it is Colette's deeply feminist soul which makes this story so relevant and appealing to modern audiences. Her rebellion against Willy is like one woman's personal #timesup movement, set in Paris at the turn of the century.

And yet, in art and in life, it's always a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, as West says of Colette, "I don't think she was ever a victim of anyone. I think she got a lot out of him. And when he ceased to be useful, she moved on. And Willy obviously used her and exploited her and kept his bank account and his fame going through her. I think they needed each other. She just needed him a lot less and for a certain amount of time. In a way, he was her ticket out of Burgundy and country obscurity. He was this great figure in Belle Epoque Paris and knew all the writers and she was well aware of that and that's why she married him, I think."

In addition to that, despite his dastardly ways, Willy is very appealing. It's hard not to feel a degree of sympathy and affection for him, which is thanks, in large part, to West's nuanced portrayal. "I saw him, initially, as an Orson Welles figure. Not so charming or talented as Orson Welles but a man of huge appetite and of huge lust for life and for food and for drink and for sex and for cigars and for money and gambling and racehorses. You have to like something about the characters you play and I think he would have been a good guy to go out to dinner with. He was the life and soul and always paid the bills. He liked to party and he always had an eye for the controversial and for the opportunity. And then, later on, when he had done his despicable thing and sold the rights, it's hard to like him. But I sort of thought of a Mozart/Salieri relationship and the compassion one must feel for someone who was a big star - and he was a really big deal, star writer. And the realisation that he must have had, that not only was he a rubbish writer, but also that he'd, like Salieri, been eclipsed by his protege. And that was something I could cling on to." It's a joy of a role for West, who since his breakout as McNulty in the hit TV series The Wire has built a reputation for playing complex characters, from the morally ambiguous (such as Noah Solloway in The Affair) to the outright reprehensible (Fred West).

With Willy, "there is a certain amused affection that people seem to have, like they do for their idiot uncle. That sort of dinosaur, funny old chauvinist relation. Willy is like that. What he did was awful and in some ways despicable, but you still have some affection. We all know that guy. He's our dad, basically."

West was born to Irish parents in Sheffield, where his father owned a plastics factory. He went to school at Eton and then to Trinity College Dublin. There he met and briefly dated Catherine Fitzgerald, eldest daughter of the Knight of the Glin. A decade later, they rekindled their relationship and were married in 2010. They have four children together.

Life has been pretty frantic for the family, lately. Last year Dominic and Catherine took the daunting step to rescue her family seat, Glin Castle, which had been closed up and on the market since 2015, following the death of Desmond Fitzgerald, the last Black Knight, in 2011. They have taken the place over, maintaining it as a family-run hotel.

It's been a massive undertaking. "We're constantly in tears of 'uuurgh, how can we do this!'... It's f**king madness. My wife has had three breakdowns, I've had two," but he says: "It always seems to come through in the end. And I think part of it is in some way a sense of people's appreciation of that history. And the village in Glin, there's an enormous amount of goodwill." They don't live in Glin full-time but spend all school holidays there. "It's all a bit up in the air," he says. "We both love it, but it's just I think I have a bit of Willy male pride about my own place. And also not wanting to live in your business. I'd love to spend a couple of years trying to really get it going, but there's other stuff going on in my career, and in Catherine's career, as a garden designer that means that we have to be in England and America."

The good news is "it's actually going really well, it's going off like a rocket... I think it's really important in Ireland to keep these beautiful places going, and for them not all to become horrible corporate hotels. It's essentially a house built for parties. When my father-in-law died, it was closed for 10 years and that is what is unacceptable."

'Colette' is in cinemas from Friday

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