Colette’s Denise Gough Talks Gender Identity and Costume

I phoned in from Paris, France to the incredibly talented actress Denice Gough. Denise was in Toronto promoting Wash Westmoreland, Colette at the Toronto Film Festival. Denise Gough played the role of Colette’s lover and companion of seven years, Mathilde De Morny aka Missy. Prior to her work on Colette, Denise Gough won the Olivier Award for Best Actress for her role as Emma in the play People, Places and Things.

Dawn Church: I hope you are enjoying Toronto.

Denise Gough: Yeah I am. It’s a lot, but it’s good. It’s my first time.

Dawn Church: Was there any transition from being a stage actress into film?

Denise Gough: Well, I’ve done a few little things over the years, but I never wanted to do film. I’ve only ever wanted to do stage. When I was a kid, watching movies wasn’t my thing, I wanted to be on stage. Performing was my thing. And so I transitioned into film because I wanted to get good at it. Because, when I watched Mark Rylance and he started to do screen and I saw he could be equally as brilliant on screen as he could be on stage. And I wanted to see if I could enjoy screen as much as he did. andI think this is one of the first films I’ve done that I am starting to get the hang of it, and starting to understand that it’s a different talent. It’s a different craft but it’s equally important and equally enjoyable. We’ll maybe not equally enjoyable, theater will always be what I enjoy more, but I’m getting to like screen work much more as the parts get better. You don’t want to be doing shit.

Dawn Church: I feel like film is a bit of an adjustment because with stage you are carrying that character without a break, where with film it is all broken up.

Denise Gough: Yeah that’s true. But I think playing someone like Missy was good because it’s quite theatrical, in terms of, it’s a whole physical change and such. So that was an easier transition. But yeah, I can see why actors, like some actors stay in character on film, you know? Because they have to maintain their line or whatever. I don’t know how they do it. That would exhaust me. But on stage, you just can’t do Method on stage. You’d be fucking crazy.

Dawn Church: Yeah, for sure. Did you have to cut your hair for this role?

Denise Gough: Yeah, I did. I had very long hair and when I met Wash, it was really clear. You don’t play Missy in a wig, that’s not helpful. And so, I cut it all off. I’ve done that before. I like to do that, but it caused trouble because I was doing Angels in America at the time and they were gonna wig me for that. And then Harper became a short haired mormon and so it gave her an edge. A whole other aspect to her. So Missy sort of informed Harper and that was great.

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Denise Gough stars as Missy in COLETTE, a Bleecker Street release.
Credit: Robert Viglasky / Bleecker Street

The Courage of Mathilde de Morny

Dawn Church: Mathilde de Morny, she is a very specific, strong, personality. How relatable did you find yourself to be with this character?

Denise Gough: Well I identified with the notion of wanting to be entirely myself in a world that tells you, that you know, you maybe shouldn’t be THAT. And that you should be something more palpable in some ways. I identify with that.

In terms of her being strong, I think that obviously she was in ways, but she was also a woman who went on to commit suicide, you know. I am not saying that that is not strong in itself too, but with Missy it was a lot. What she was doing was a lot. She was identifying as a man in a time when it was illegal for women to wear trousers. So, yeah, I identify with the notion of being entirely myself. Or trying to be entirely myself, in an industry as well, that get’s a bit frightened about all that.

Dawn Church: Being that Colette was based on a true story, was their any specific research to prepare for this role?

Denise Gough: Yeah, I did a lot of research around the notion of gender identity, to insure that I had integrity in what I was doing, because I know that it is something that is quite specific and I wanted to be sure that I was in the role for the right reasons, etc. And so I did a lot research into the pronouns used to describe Missy, in terms of did she identify entirely as he or a she, and in all the letters between her and Colette, both pronouns were used at different points. She identified as Uncle Max to some and Missy to others. She was always Missy to Colette. I researched her marriage. She was married for about seven years. And then the relationship between the two of them. How long it lasted. They were together for seven years too. How she helped Colette.

Denise Gough: In terms of the film, what Dominic (Dominic West) shows so brilliantly is the version of toxic masculinity and what you have in Missy is a more progressive masculinity, and I believe that masculinity that she adopted was informed entirely with the fact that she was born and had to live as a woman for so long.

Dawn Church: It’s such an interesting character and the way you played her role, I was just curious if that was all from the research or did you project a lot of your idea into the character?

Denise Gough: Well, I don’t really know how to answer that question really. I feel like creating a character is just as much about the character doing what it needs to do. So I make sure I do as much research as possible and make myself available to the character as much as possible and then you do the scenes. You create the work with the other actor and Kiera and I, stayed in the moment together and what happened then is our offering of Missy and Collette. You know? I’m not Missy, and so I can only give you a version of what Missy would be, but certainly I did as much research so that I was informed about the character as much as possible and then made sure I was fit and healthy for the job. Just like any other job.

Dawn Church: I felt she came off very bold, and direct, likable and charming.

Denise Gough: But also she says, Missy says in the film, when she first puts on trousers, she says, I want to make it easier for others to do the same, but she also says, I know it’s easier for me then a woman of no means, so she knows she is privileged and she is a wealthy woman. It’s easier for her to take the risk.

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(left) Dickie Beau stars as Wague and (ctr) Keira Knightley as Colette in COLETTE, a Bleecker Street release.
Credit: Robert Viglasky / Bleecker Street

The Style and Detail of Colette Fashion

Dawn Church: Another element of the film that caught my attention was the wardrobe design and costuming.

Denise Gough: The costume designer (Andrea Flesch) is unlike any one I’ve ever met, she is a true, true, true artist. Those clothes. Every single costume you see in the film, she sourced. It’s all authentic, none of it is made. She found it all. It’s all a hundred years old! Some of Kiera’s costumes were completely falling apart. There were tooth paste stains and sweat stains, like so many bodies had been in them before. She had found this hat I wore, Missy’s little hat that I wore and it was so different from any of the other hats and she found it specifically and then she had these pins that she put in the tie.

And also when I was watching her at work, because costume designers fascinate me and I was watching her at work and we had this scene in the Moulin Rouge and there were like a hundred extras. She was in the corridor of the room attaching a cufflink, to an actors cuff and that actor will not be seen in the film but it didn’t matter. Every single, tiny detail was thought about and created by this woman, Andrea. So for me, on the film she is one of the greatest people I’ve ever worked with. Ya, she is an amazing amazing woman.

Dawn Church: Kiera Knightly seems to be someone who invests a lot into the character development. What was it like working with Kiera?

Denise Gough: Ya, she was great. Working with people who are open is always much easier then the opposite, I mean, we’ve all worked with people who weren’t able to do that. Ya, it was very refreshing, she really went for it and that dance, she practiced that dance over and over again and I thought she was very courageous and we had some fun. It was very easy to do the more intimate stuff with her because, sometimes when you do that stuff with male actors you have to kind of bolster their ego a bit. And you don’t have to do that when you work with a woman. So, we had a lot of fun.

I feel there is always something new to be learned on every film set. Is there anything specific that you can learn about this film set?

For me, the costume designer. Watching her at work was one of the highlights of my experience. I am in awe of her, completely in awe of the world she created for me to live in. And I am always thinking the same when working on stage. It’s the people who create the world around to live in, those are the people who impress me so much. She gave the film great integrity and I loved her. She is a beautiful human being. And so, a lot of time for me, it’s the people who create the world for actors to work in, that’s the sort of stuff I am most grateful for.

Wash Westmoreland, the Collaborator

About the Director, Wash Westmoreland. He seems to have a very specific aesthetic visual idea and direction for this film. What was it like working with him?

Denise Gough: Wash is a great collaborator. And also, Wash and his late partner Richard wrote this script and they wanted to make this film seventeen years ago. And just before Richard died, they watched Julianne Moore win the Oscar for Still Alice, which they had made together and when Wash went to the hospital to seem him, Richard couldn’t speak and Wash asked him, what should I do next and Richard just typed the words, Colette. So it was a very moving experience to watch him not only direct the film for himself but also he was co-directing with and for Richard, who had since died. Wash is a beautiful human being, I really care about him deeply and I am glad to have been able to work with him.

Dawn Church: What is the most rewarding part of working with Wash Westmoreland?

Denise Gough: Well, how much he is willing to share. He told us all about that and shared how much the film meant to him and it meant you get on board with that. He wanted to tell the truth about this woman. He loves this woman and he also loves actresses. Wash loves us and you can feel that when you work with a director like him. He wants you to be your biggest, boldest self. He is not interested in you being a puppet. He is interested in empowering women and we need all the allies we can get.

Dawn Church: What is your biggest career highlight so far?

Denise Gough: Doing People Places and Things in New York. Well, doing People Places and Things anywhere.

Dawn Church: Well I know you need to go! Enjoy the Toronto Film Festival the best you can and thank you for talking with me Denise.

Denise Gough: Thank you, Dawn and you enjoy Paris!

Colette is scheduled to be released in the United States on September 21, 2018, by Bleecker Street and 30West.

Special thank you to Dawn Church and to Denise Gough.