The Queerty Interview

Trans actor Jake Graf says Colette “Sleeps with people because of who they are, not gender”

Jake Graf is busy.

Between LGBTQ advocacy in the UK and writing, directing and acting in his own films, he manages to work as a professional thespian and have a robust domestic life with his spouse, Hanna Winterbourne. Both Graf and Winterbourne live as out, transgender people, and have become known as something of a queer power couple in Europe.

Colette, based on the life of the scandalous bisexual writer, opens nationwide October 12 and stars Keira Knightley in a performance already generating Oscar buzz. The film covers the sexual exploration of its subject, and features Graf in a supporting role as a cisgender character.

Following the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, we caught up with Graf to discuss the film, his life, and his career.

In the film, you play Gaston, someone who embraces the rebellious attitudes of French artists’ society. How did you get involved? Did you have to audition??

I was quite lucky in that I’m quite visible in the LGBTQ community, particularly in the UK. But, Wash Westmoreland, our director, had sort of followed me for a while and had a friend in the UK, a transwoman, who knew me when I worked on The Danish Girl. And so I got a call from a casting agent saying “we have seen you, and would love to cast you in Colette.” And then Wash, very sweetly, reached out through Facebook. You know, Wash Westmoreland is one of the sweetest, nicest, most humble, down-to-earth guys ever. And when you have an Oscar-nominated director reach out to you on Facebook, saying, “I’d love to work with you…”

[Laughter]

I wasn’t really aware of how big he was at the time. So I went and auditioned, and I had a great audition. From the first time we met, we got on really well and I got the part, and he was kind enough—we met several times before the shoot actually began, and we became friends, which was really nice. And he let me shadow him on set since he knows I’m a director. So it was a bit of a whirlwind and an incredible opportunity.

What is Gaston based on? 

Gaston’s a real person—Gaston De Caillavet. Gaston was a playboy of the time. He was around, he was within Colette’s sphere, and obviously, Colette was quite attracted to his wife. And he, sort of, he was one of the people—the other day Wash and I were discussing him, and what’s the term he used? He’s kind of like a fortune teller. It’s Gaston’s line that says “How interesting, your love line is split into two at the beginning of the story.” Colette is about to go off on this voyage of discovery that will involve Willy [alias of Colette’s husband, Henry] but will also involve several different women, and she will become this sort of free spirit. She sleeps with people because of who they are, not their gender. And of course, back in those times, that was incredibly progressive and groundbreaking. And incredibly brave.

So Gaston’s the guy that, in the film, lets you know things are about to get crazy.

This is the 19th-century story, but a very 21st-century story at the same time. The characters in this film test boundaries, and ultimately, decide where in life to live without them. The marriage between Henry and Gabrielle is quite a hedonistic one. That also costs them at certain points. Put simply, is the reward worth the risk, what Colette puts herself and Henry through?

I think, as with anyone, Colette was just being her true self. I think she was very much in love with Willy. He was someone who pulled her out of her small, country existence. There was real love there, and real affection there, but she was a strong-minded woman. And I think she found her confidence, she found her voice. She realized that she wasn’t going to be cowed by any man, and she was going to be true to herself. So having relationships with women, I think, like Missy/Uncle Max. And they had a very happy relationship, albeit one that was also quite difficult and created a lot of judgment. But they were together about 16 years. I think Colette is one of those people who certainly deserve a film to be made about her because she blazed trails. And now all of us are kind of following [in the footsteps of] those early queer people.

I found the story particularly interesting in that it’s also something of a story of exhibitionism. Colette never hides in the shadows; she’s on stage, she’s there for the press photos. And of course, eventually, she’s there as the author. Do you think there’s a natural competition that comes from to creative people in love?

I think yes, there is. I know couples that work together very successfully, and how amazing is that? And obviously, Hannah, [Jake’s wife, Hannah Winterbourne] is the highest ranking transgender officer in the British military. She’s a phenomenal woman, but what I’ve also realized is that, prior to us dating, she watched films, obviously. But now, together, she gives me notes on my scripts, and she worked on my last film as an AD. She has a really great eye, a really great vision and a really great understanding of film. In fact, she’s recently been working with my editor and learning how to edit films. I would love to be able to work with her more ongoing because I think particularly when you’re in love, and you’re very much in tune, you have a real understanding, and you’re able to sort of work together. Obviously, Wash Westmoreland is a great example of that, because he co-wrote the script for Colette with his late husband Richard Glatzer, and they bounced off each other. They directed films with each other. At the premiere, Wash dedicated the film to Richard. They were a prime example of the wonders of being able to be a creative partnership and work together. I very much I hope I can do more with Hannah. She has so much to give, and doing that would be a huge gift.

You mentioned Hannah. Your own films that you write and direct obviously have transgender themes. In your acting roles, certainly in larger productions, you play cisgender characters. At the moment there’s a lot of conversation about trans actors in trans roles. I read your editorial in The Standard. I thought you did a great job examining the issues that face transgender people trying to be professional actors. Is it possible for a cisgender actor to play a transgender character and still have it be in good taste?

I think that’s a really good question. Well done in reading The Standard to do your research.

[Laugher]

I think, as a trans actor, and as a trans writer and director, I’m quite well placed to see things from both sides. Much as I would love to go for those big trans parts, I’m more than aware at the moment that I don’t have the profile to carry a big-budget movie to production, let alone to theatrical release. And I think that you know, a lot of trans people have a hard time with it, and I know that a lot of my trans friends and colleagues and acquaintances, are busier saving for surgeries and trying to survive from day to day, rather than having time for Saturday morning drama classes. But I think that that’s changing.

Related: ‘Boy Erased’ author Garrard Conley on defeating the ex-gay movement while “not hating” its leaders

How so?

There is more visibility and understanding. I think trans folk will be able to live more of a life rather than struggle to get by as I did for the first 30 years of my life. As soon as I transitioned, and I was able to breathe and finally be myself, I suddenly though now I can finally live my life. And think about those things that previous to that, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me. They weren’t important, getting by day-to-day was important. So I think trans actors will start getting to that point where they can carry that budget, where they have that profile where people are coming to the cinema just to see their face on a movie poster. A lot of these films, a lot of these representations, you’ve got to bear in mind the reach those films will have with an Eddie [Redmayne, of The Danish Girl] or a Denise Gough playing those characters. And I know that [transgender actors] should certainly have the chance to read for them. And eventually, we will get to the point where we are the best prospects.

But I think at the moment, where it stands, it is an industry and films are being shelved on a daily basis. I think particularly, a film like Colette, Denise Gough did her research for the part. On The Danish Girl, Eddie did his research. And I know a lot of people were in an uproar about Eddie. I think with Colette, there’s been much less, people have been more supportive. Denise Gough’s character, Missy, was an early trans character. There wouldn’t have been medical treatment to transition. There wouldn’t have been hormones or surgeries. And I think that, what Denise Gough did, we spend hours talking about being trans, talking about her being able to give an authentic, sensitive and genuine representation of what it means to be trans. I genuinely believe that with the work, and with people like Wash giving opportunities to transgender actors in cisgender roles, we are ready to build those profiles, build our experience, and we will—sooner than you think—be the only option for those trans roles.

You mentioned Denise. I was going to ask about Missy, who, in real life was Mathilde de Mornay. In the film, it’s hinted that she might be what we consider transgender. What guidance did you give Denise, in terms of saying “this is what it feels like,” and “this is what it would have been like in that time?”

I mean, to me, there’s no doubt, Missy was a trans man. And the fact that Colette refers to him as “him,” is very important and very brave. That moment in the film, for Hannah and I as trans people when we saw that in the film, it meant a lot to us that he was being referred to as a man. I think it’s a very powerful moment. Colette says “no, he’s a he.” But you know, I sat with Denise and I consulted, and we worked together, and I took her through my story and my experience. And I told her about not only my experience, but Hannah’s experience, and many of my trans male friends. You know, we all, as trans people, have different experiences. What was important—very important to Wash, and very important to Denise…made that character come off so positively. And I think if you do that research, just like with any part, you’ll do those characters justice.

So the film’s being very well received. What do you want to do next?

Well, I’m about to, in the next couple of months, play a boxer.

Oh wow. That certainly sounds intense.

It’s a short film, but a really accomplished director back in the UK wanted me on board. So he just got funding, and I’ll be playing a boxer. And I’ve never boxed before. I’m about to when I get back to the UK—getting some boxing training which will be quite cool. Then, I’m also on the third draft of my first feature film. Which, I’m very lucky to have as my producer, the producer of the new Alexander McQueen documentary [McQueen], also a trans woman. We’re very excited about working together on my first feature film which will be the story of a gay, transgender man who becomes pregnant, and his journey with finding acceptance for who he is, and his position in society, and whether or not he will be able to carry a child to full term and still look in the mirror and see himself.

Sounds amazing.

I think it’s more of a niche piece, but I’m absolutely bound that I will cast a trans actor in that role. We’ve got our work cut out for us in finding an actor to play that part.

Colette opens in LA and New York City September 21, and in select cities on September 28. It opens nationwide October 12.