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The Duchess - Keira Knightley interview

The Duchess

Interview by Rob Carnevale

KEIRA Knightley talks about donning another corset for The Duchess and some of the parallels with the story of Georgiana and her direct descendent, Diana, Princess of Wales.

She also discusses how she tackled the sexuality within the piece with co-star Hayley Atwell and why she thinks it’s still hard to find such great roles for women…

Q. Is it true that you were reading the book already when approached to appear in The Duchess?
Keira Knightley: Yes, I had started reading the book when I was doing The Edge of Love

Q. So, was it an offer you couldn’t refuse?
Keira Knightley: Well, it wasn’t so much the book… Saul [Dibb, the director] sent me a letter and he sent me three really big ostrich feathers tied with a nice big bow! They’re very pretty and I thought a man who does that, you have to work with him really.

Q. Was this a greater leap for you than your other period films, with the social etiquette of the time? How much research did you do?
Keira Knightley: I personally loved doing it so it was a wonderful opportunity to find out about 18th Century culture and society, which I didn’t know a lot about. We also had Amanda Foreman on set, which was fantastic, because she was always there to answer questions. And she was incredibly supportive as well. It’s sometimes quite terrifying to have the writer there but she was great. We had an etiquette person come in as well. I think it’s always important when you’re doing films like this to know the parameters that you’re working in, to know the rules. Then you can choose to break them but as long as the knowledge is there in the first place, you can choose what you take and what you don’t.

Q. Did you get insight or feedback from the current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire about Georgiana?
Keira Knightley: They were great… the current Duchess of Devonshire actually took me into one of the rooms and showed me some of Georgiana’s things which I could actually look through, which was fantastic. I saw her gambling books, which was something we tried so hard to get into the film but could never quite make it completely work. She was a huge gambling addict, so it was amazing to see her debt books, in her own hand, and actually be able to look through those, and some of the letters they had there as well. She was wonderfully helpful.

But fundamentally at some point you have to put the biography away and you have to stick to the script. It is a dramatisation and it isn’t a documentary. You have to just trust the story that you’re trying to tell. And you have to let your own imagination go as well. It’s great to be able to read all these things, their actual letters, and you can kind of mull it all over and have it in the back of your head. But fundamentally you have to stick to the script.

Q. Did you feel there were parallels between the story of Georgiana and Princess Diana?
Keira Knightley: I was 11 when Diana died so I really don’t know what the actual story was, so I don’t think I can comment on the parallels. I was definitely aware of the images. I knew when I was going into it that she was a distant relation, but that’s as far as my knowledge goes. As Saul [Dibb] has said, I was very much making a film about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. I think that she’s an interesting enough person to warrant a film completely about her, without comparison.

Q. The synopsis to the film says that, unlike Diana, Georgiana found her happiness – do you think of this as a happy ending?
Keira Knightley: No, we disagree about this, which I think is great. It’s not my place to dictate, I think if you think it’s happy – and some people do actually – then that’s great. If you don’t, then you don’t. I think that the whole journey for her is one of idealism into reality, in a strange kind of way, and I think that she gets very much broken down. The whole thing is like a card game, and she plays her cards out. But for me she didn’t get a happy ending although she does survive, which in itself is a happy ending. She gets the children, she chooses and she compromises. Could she have lived with the guilt if she’d gone of with Grey and given up the kids? No, I don’t think she could have done. I don’t know about a happy ending, but as somebody who isn’t brought down by it, I think she survives and I think that can only be positive.

Q. Which costume is closer to the real you – 18th Century Duchess or footballer [in Bend It Like Beckham]?
Keira Knightley: Well, I have no plans to go around London in 18th Century costume, but equally not football shorts either! The costumes were completely fantastic and obviously she was a very famous fashion icon, so the opportunity to work with Michael O’Connor, who is a tremendous talent, was amazing. They weren’t particular comfortable, I don’t think. It’s very simply, if you wear a corset you can’t catch your breath, so any emotions are much more heightened because you can’t calm them down. So, they were very helpful in the portrayal of the character for me.

Q. How long did they take to put on?
Keira Knightley: It was about two and a half hours. We had to be sewn into some of them… they would have been sewn in and cut out. Actually, I didn’t fit into the toilet in the trailer, which was quite difficult, or the car, with the wigs.

Q. You remain clothed in your love scene with Dominic [Cooper], is it more difficult to convey the passion without taking your clothes off?
Keira Knightley: I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about it. I think it’s much sexier not seeing, as a personal preference. [Begins laughing] I’m so sorry, during the sex scene I was luckily fully clothed but Dominic got to where a skin coloured nappy. Normally, these scenes are never the best things. You’re meant to be very supportive of each other, but he did come out in a skin-coloured nappy, and I just completely lost it. I couldn’t stop laughing. Saul actually did come over and say: “Come on, just pull yourself together, this is serious work!” But he was standing there in a skin-coloured nappy.

Q. Talking of sex, how did you view the sexual undercurrent in the relationship between Bess and Georgiana, which is perhaps the most poignant relationship in the film?
Keira Knightley: I was fascinated by the relationship between them. When I read the script the first thing about Georgiana that struck me was how incredibly lonely this woman was… constantly surrounded by so many people and yet entirely alone. She was, I decided, very much somebody who just tried to grab on to any kind of love and attention that she could possibly get. And the friendship with Bess comes at a point where she’s been living with this man who doesn’t talk to her, they have had no relationship basically for a number of years. All of a sudden this woman comes in who is interested in her, who wants to talk to her, who wants to teach her things and who shows her love. I thought the sexual part of it was very much Bess teaching Georgiana that there is enjoyment in an act that I think she never realised there was any pleasure in whatsoever. I thought it was a really interesting turn within the relationship, and I decided that Georgiana did love her very much. Which is why the betrayal of Bess sleeping with the Duke is so absolute.

Q. What was it like playing a character who appears in every scene in the film? It’s rare for a woman to find a part like that, isn’t it?
Keira Knightley: It was a wonderful challenge, completely terrifying and very rare. There are fewer really great female roles than there are for actors, so when one comes along and you get the opportunity to play it, it is absolutely phenomenal and completely terrifying.

Q. Were there any moments where you doubted you could do it?
Keira Knightley: I don’t know. I don’t remember any specifics. We were all really lucky, Saul’s great, these guys are great, and Ralph Fiennes was completely fantastic, so you couldn’t ask for a better, really supportive team behind you. So, I think I was very lucky.

Q. Why do you think it is that there are a lack of strong female roles, and do you think it can change?
Keira Knightley: I don’t know, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there are very much fewer female filmmakers than there are men, definitely. But I don’t know. Recently, I seem to have been sent books and ideas for a lot of much stronger characters, which is completely fantastic. I think if there’s public demand for really strong female roles then the business will give it to people. And if people go and see them, then there will be more made. Iif they don’t, they won’t. So, I think it’s up to the public.

Q. Do you have you any desire to appear on the London stage, and if so what sort of part would appeal?
Keira Knightley: Desire yes, plans no. I have no idea, I don’t know what it would be. There are so many different ones… it could be a Shakespeare, it could be a modern, whatever catches the fancy.

Read our review of The Duchess

Read our interview with Hayley Atwell