Getty ImagesPhilip Cheung
“More spice, less literature,” renowned critic Henry Gauthier-Villars tells his new wife Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, as he reviews her words—which he will go on to claim as his own. Keira Knightley plays the titular role of the quick-witted country girl destined to become a French literary luminary, who is launched into the twentieth-century Paris elite when she marries Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy. Willy is a boozy, uninspired writer and adulterer played by Dominic West—which has become kind of his thing.
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Ever heard of The Affair? West plays Noah Solloway, an unremarkable writer who enters into an affair (his character is now divorced) and watches as his life spirals out of his control. Sounds familiar. Willy, the actor assured me over the phone from the Toronto International Film Festival, is a lot more fun. “Willy is an attractive character,” he said. “Their story is an exciting one because it’s so modern. It says so much about how we live our lives now and how a hundred years ago they were still struggling with much the same arguments and debates that we are now.”
West spoke to ELLE.com about mediocre men, why his character is more modern than you’d think, and putting out literal fires with Keira Knightley.
This film is a period piece but it feels extremely right for 2018. How did you feel going into this film and what does it mean for you?
I read it and just loved the story, and I loved the era. I love Paris and the passion and the crazy cultural shifts that were going on at that time, and also the clothes and the music and the art. It’s such a wonderful period when these two characters seem to be at the center of Paris, which was the most interesting city in the world at that time. And I loved their relationship and how they created a sensation and were a sort of prototypical celebrity couple.
So Willy would love Twitter?
He would love Twitter. He would absolutely be all over social media. He would have been a huge social media fan, which says everything you need to know about Willy.
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The relationship between Willy and Colette was toxic. Do you find your character to be a villain or misunderstood?
He was anything but misunderstood. Everything he did was for fame and to gain notoriety. And he firmly believed, as lots of people do today, that anything in his life was fair game to share with the world if it gained him notoriety and commercial profile. And so he was an adopter of branding. He sold everything. He sold a factory, talcum powder, soap, wine, and everything with his own brand on it. So he was certainly not misunderstood.
We sort of understand him and his type all too well now, I think. I think he was great to be around. He picked up the bar tab, he was the life and soul of the party. I think Colette appreciated that—and she was no fool. But where I do feel sympathy for him is that he realized that he’s a mediocrity and that she’s the genius, and there is sadness that comes with that.
How do you feel about social media? Are you active?
I can’t keep up. I don’t do it—I did try briefly a while ago but I didn’t take to it. In that way, I’m nothing like him. In most ways, I’m nothing like him. I don’t pick up the bar tab either.
With your character from The Affair, Noah, you’ve got two characters who are terrible misogynists. Which, I don’t know what that says about you…
[Laughs] Yeah, who keeps casting me as these people? At least Willy was fun. I don’t think Noah’s much fun.
I don’t know how they differ…Willy was guilty of some pretty terrible crimes. As you know, he married this 19-year-old girl and nurtured and mentored her talent—by locking her in a room. He published her books under his own name, which she was okay with at first. But that was his crime, and then he topped it off by getting the rights to her book and pocketing the money. So he’s a proper villain.
What was your favorite thing about working with Keira Knightley?
I have lots of scenes where I have to cry and tell her that I love her, and that’s so easy to do with Keira because she’s so beautiful. We had a good time because the characters were fun people, you know? They had a good time together and it was essential that we got across that they had fun together and that she wasn’t a victim. She was way too strong and powerful ever to be a victim. I enjoyed being the cynical misogynist and having fights with her. It’s an interesting dynamic.
Do you have any favorite memories from set?
I remember it all being sort of an idyllic summer. But we had a wonderful time tumbling along on this beautiful steam train, and it was great for me because I was wearing three different fat suits, and everything was always roasting hot in Budapest in the summer. There was a breeze going through the train carriage and when we looked out the window, which was open, suddenly we saw that a spark had come off the train and set an entire corn field on fire. The train ground to a halt and five parks-department improvised firemen had to jump out and put the fire out. We all had to jump out and had to go chucking water over.
Was Keira helping to put the fire out as well?
Yes, she was, actually! She put her hands to the pump in that long dress and hat.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Colette is in theaters now.