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The Duchess - Hayley Atwell interview

Hayley Atwell and Keira Knightley in The Duchess

Interview by Rob Carnevale

HAYLEY Atwell talks about appearing alongside Keira Knightley in The Duchess, coping with corsets and the sexual undercurrent that runs in the central relationship between Bess and Georgiana…

Q. I imagine that research was comparatively easy for Keira Knightley. But what did you read, aside from Amanda Foreman’s book, to gain a greater understanding of Bess?
Hayley Atwell: There was a book called Dearest Bess. It was a novel but it was based on the letters between Bess and Georgiana. And it provided more of an insight into Bess’s background and it made her intentions for Georgiana and the Duke a little clearer, so I knew what to do with the script.

Q. Did shooting in real locations also help?
Hayley Atwell: It’s very helpful because you just walk into these houses and you’re asked to inhabit them and breathe into them. I felt there was a big difference for me, who visits these places as a tourist, and then to actually spend time thinking what it was like if this was my home. You would have this extraordinary sense of entitlement and status, and the concept of having to relax into these large rooms and feel like it was your own, but not be particularly cosy at the same time.

Q. Do you feel extra pressure playing real people as opposed to fictional characters?
Hayley Atwell: Personally speaking, no because you’re given a job and your job is to make an interpretation of a character that’s in the script or that has been living, and to work hard enough to feel like you’re doing it justice. If you’re playing someone who has lived, there’s the risk of imitation, or whether you focus on the essence of who that character was as opposed to physical mannerisms. So, you have to figure out what it is ultimately that this particular adaptation of the story, whether it’s fiction or not, is trying to say.

Q. Did you enjoy getting to wear the costumes? Or were there things that became more difficult?
Hayley Atwell: Going to the toilet was quite difficult [laughs]. They were very heavy as well, with so many layers to them and so much detail. So, having to find different gestures and postures for standing and sitting that we could sustain for long periods of time without hurting ourselves was important. It was absolutely extraordinary to think that’s how they dressed every single day, with that kind of preparation. And at the end of the day, because the wigs themselves were so intricate and beautiful, you couldn’t rip them off, as I often wanted to do, and get out of it all. You just had to unstick yourself and unstitch yourself. It took almost as long to get out as get in.

Q. How did you view the sexual undercurrent in the relationship between Bess and Georgiana, which is perhaps the most poignant relationship in the film?
Hayley Atwell: I think that’s a credit to the complexities that Georgiana and Bess had within their relationship. When it starts off, you’re not sure of Bess’s intentions… is she a social climber? Is she trying to get into the household to further her status or to get custody of her children? I think it’s proof that she spends the rest of her life with them and then becomes the next Duchess of Devonshire that there was a lot more genuine affection between them than was initially implied. And that it was possibly misunderstood what her intentions were at the beginning.

But with Bess, it felt like she became the mediator between the Duke and the Duchess, and that she could understand them in a way that they couldn’t understand each other, as clashing personalities. With the sexual awakening scene, we wanted to be delicate enough with it to just show an aspect of their relationship that wasn’t sexual. This was a time when homosexuals didn’t have a label, and I think marriage then – especially in the aristocracy – was based on more of a business deal than it was on love and passion. So, you were able to have your love affairs elsewhere, with women teaching women how to enjoy themselves and their bodies, sexually. It [the scene] was something that showed how beautiful their relationship was. But you could also say that it was partly Bess having a sexual power over G as well as other forms of power. It’s complicated.

Read our review of The Duchess

Read our interview with director Saul Dibb