In recent years, films about the British royalty and films that critics lovingly refer to as “costume dramas” have been abundant, maybe because there continues to be a fascination with the thought of royalty as celebrity. It’s something very common over the course of British history, but one interesting case was that of Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, a head-strong young woman who married into royalty and found herself at the receiving end of abuse and infidelity at the hands of her new husband The Duke, while at the same time becoming a tastemaker in fashion and politics and fodder for the early tabloid press.
Georgiana’s turbulent lifestory was brought to light in Amanda Foreman’s biography “Georgiana, Duchess of Devnoshire” and it forms the basis for director Saul Dibb’s The Duchess, which returns actress Keira Knightley to familiar period film territory as Pride & Prejudice and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. It’s another strong role for Ms. Knightley, one that allows her to deliver another transcendent performance, as it pits her against Ralph Fiennes as possibly the worst husband in history.
ComingSoon.net attended the Toronto press conference with Knightley for the film and here’s what she had to say about her latest role:
ComingSoon.net: What was your response when you first read the script and did you know anything about the character before reading it?
Keira Knightley: I’d never heard of her before, no, so the script came through my door with three very large huge white ostrich feathers attached, with a gold ribbon, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t care what it is. That’s fantastic.” Then I read it, and I know I just thought that she was fabulous; I thought she was a fascinating character. This idea of this woman who’s politically so influential, and this huge fashion icon, and such a force of nature, and yet privately is somebody who is so intensely vulnerable and incredibly lonely. I thought, you know, the combination of those two things were sort of fascinating.
CS: Were you worried at all that you’d be able to pull it off?
Knightley: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think there’s always that worry. I think you have to face failure, and particularly if you’re an actress or an actor. Sometimes things aren’t going to go the way that you hope they will, but that’s part of what’s so exciting about the job, you know? I don’t really want to do things that I don’t find challenging, so yes, there’s always a huge fear that it’s going to be awful, and I’m going to be crap, and all the rest of it, but you might as well go for it anyway.
CS: Did you read the book or the script first?
Knightley: I read the script first, and then the book a couple of times, and then worked on the script. Obviously, the difficulty of making films that are biographies is that, you’ve got so, so much, like a wealth of information there, but you do actually have to be very specific about the story you’re telling, because you’ve only got two hours to tell it. It can get very muddled, and it’s the same with the character as well. It was wonderful having the book and the letters and everything, but really, you have to make the script. Everybody has to be on exactly the same page with what they’re making, so you always have to stick to the script, but it’s just wonderful to have that kind of backup, because you can pull such wonderful things out of the book. Even things that you wouldn’t necessarily directly see on the screen, just to have things in the back of your head is really helpful.
CS: What did you think about playing a woman who has to live with her husband’s other woman in the same house?
Knightley: Yeah, I thought it was very interesting dynamics between the characters, definitely. You know, the idea of living with a husband that you absolutely don’t understand. Almost like two magnets repelling each other. That there is no point of comfort between two people. It was really interesting with Ralph to kind of explore that. The betrayal of your best friend, and then having to sort of live with this woman, and go from a very intense friendship into hatred, and back to a kind of mutual respect for one another. I thought that that was an interesting journey, as far as a friendship between two women go. I mean, yes, it’s a horrendous situation that she finds herself in. But what I sort of found quite inspiring was the fact that she survives. She doesn’t survive without scars, but she does actually get through it. I thought that was an extraordinary thing.
CS: So you don’t see her as a victim?
Knightley: I didn’t like to think of her as a victim. I don’t think victims are particularly attractive as a character trait, you know? But what happens to her is horrendous, so I think what both Ralph and I were very conscious of is not making it into a victim-villain storyline. Yes, she’s horrendously oppressed and all the rest of it, but I think fundamentally, she’s a survivor.
CS: Could you identify with the notion that even in the 1700s, the public was obsessed with so-called celebrities? Do you identify with the parallels this film is making to today with you being in the public eye?
Knightley: I certainly don’t look for autobiographical work, so I wasn’t looking to draw any parallels with myself whatsoever. I thought, yes, it was interesting. I thought that celebrity culture was a modern phenomenon. It’s fascinating to find out that it was around 300 years ago. I sort of thought it was kind of the least interesting aspect of the story, in a funny kind of way, though. I thought that the way that she used it, the manipulation of image and everything, I thought that was very interesting. What it was saying about the kind of mental state – that as the marriage started collapsing, she needed more and more and more attention from complete strangers was interesting, but no, I wasn’t trying to draw any parallels to myself.
CS: At the beginning of the film, the Duchess talks with Fox about freedom being an absolute and that you can’t have scales of freedom and yet all of the characters explore those scales over the course of the movie.
Knightley: I’d never actually thought of that. You’re completely right. It’s all about freedom in moderation. I think it’s always a wonderful kind of engine to propel a character through a storyline, when you have somebody who’s constantly trying to break out of boxes, and constantly being pushed back into them. I think that that was very much sort of the motion, if you like, of this character and of a lot of the characters all the way through. Well done. I hadn’t thought of that.
CS: This is driven home by the scene with the Duke at the end where he’s watching the children play and comments how it must be nice to have that kind of freedom.
Knightley: I think it’s the first moment of any kind of understanding between them, and it goes to show how wonderful Ralph is, I think, because on the page–this isn’t to down the script in any way–but it could have very easily been played as somebody who is very simply evil and bad, and all the rest of it, but I think the fact that he managed to make him strangely sympathetic. You can’t forget about what he’s done, but you do kind of sympathize. I think at that moment, you do realize that it’s two people that just don’t understand each other at all, and all of a sudden there’s a moment where she sees him, probably for the first time, as a human being, as opposed to kind of a failure of what she wanted him to be.
CS: Obviously Georgina was a progressive woman for the times, so how do you think things changed for women because of her?
Knightley: I don’t know if it’s changed because of her.
CS: Do you think she influenced women’s right to vote?
Knightley: No, I mean, it came up what, 200 years later? So, no, but I think she was an impressive woman, and I think that it was fascinating that at a point where women were very much the property of their fathers and then their husbands, that she actually managed to get so passionately involved in politics. It’s a kind of fascinating thing, of somebody who actually has no power, and very few freedoms, if you’re going back to that, that she was actually so passionate about it.
CS: Do you find that things are at all the same today as they were back then?
Knightley: Well, I mean, I think if you’re going back to the celebrity thing, then it’s quite interesting that what we still do today, is we put women up on a pedestal, and we pick apart exactly what they wear and what they look like. The fact that we haven’t moved on from that is quite interesting, I suppose.
CS: How did wearing the costumes change how the actors and the characters interacted with each other?
Knightley: They do completely change the way you hold yourself, the way you walk, the way you breathe, therefore the way you talk. You know, they change everything about you. So it’s sort of a fabulous way to get into character if you’ve got such an extreme costume. As far as interaction goes, I’m not quite sure. It’s quite obvious why we were called the weaker sex, because you can’t breathe, so a lack of oxygen to the brain was obviously quite a difficult thing.
CS: The film was shot on location in those incredible stately homes, so did being in that environment make you think of the division of wealth and power of that era and did it give you a political awakening of any sort?
Knightley: If I had a political awakening, I certainly wouldn’t share it with you. (laughter) But, no, the houses were extraordinary. As far as helping with the characters go, the sheer vastness of them really helped with the isolation, particularly, of Georgina. So it was wonderful to actually see and get the opportunity to film in them, as opposed to building a set, that was really good.
CS: What was it like working with kids and playing a more motherly role in this?
Knightley: I’ve done it a couple of times actually. They were great kids, though. They were really, really lovely. I was very lucky. They were fantastic. I have played a mother before. I think I’ve had about six kids, or something ridiculous. Yeah. It’s quite impressive.
CS: Would you like to have children of your own?
Knightley: What, of my own? Oh, I don’t want one, thanks. I’m all right. I mean, you know, never say never, and maybe at some point down the road, but not right now. I’m fine. Thank you very much.
CS: There’s been a lot of press linking Georgiana’s story to that of Princess Diana, so did you see any parallels between the two characters?
Knightley: I really didn’t. I mean, I think I was about 11 when she died. I’m very aware of the images, but not really aware of exactly what her story is, certainly not enough to be able to draw direct parallels. I mean, I didn’t look into her as any sort of I suppose “inspiration” for the character, partly because we were basing it on such a wonderful biography, so all the information that we had was right there. We very definitely did intend to make a film about Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, not Diana, you know?
CS: It’s a compelling story in its own right, but the promotion of the film certainly seems to beat that comparison over our head.
Knightley: Well, then there you see the difference between marketing people and the people that made the film. (laughs)
CS: Is it true you insisted that they not give a boob job to the poster?
Knightley: I don’t remember anybody asking me or telling me that they wanted to give a boob job to the poster, so I’m glad they didn’t. No, I’d love to say that I was really strident and went, “Absolutely not,” but I don’t remember it ever coming up, which is rather nice.
CS: Can you see playing Georgina later in life since there is a lot in the book not covered in the movie?
Knightley: No. Do you know what? I think it should be a TV series. I think you could do so much. The producers in the back of the room are saying, “Do a TV series. You get lots of money.” (laughter) No, I think there’s so many stories within it, that yeah, it would be great. I think there should be five films made out of it. It would be wonderful.
CS: Would you do the TV series?
Knightley: No, I think I’ve played her once. I don’t think I need to play her again.
CS: Your last few movies have been period dramas, so is that something you have an affinity for and are you at the point where you might want to try something modern?
Knightley: What, just because people keep asking me about period films?
CS: Or just for your own personal gratification?
Knightley: No, no, I think you’d be cutting your nose off to spite your face if you turned down a fantastic script and a fantastic character simply because it was set 200 years ago. I think period films now means anything from ten years ago to the beginning of time, so no, I do love period films personally. I love the fact that you can escape into a completely different reality. I think for me what I love about film is that it’s complete escapism, and I find personally that seeing these costumes, these weird societies, helps me to forget my life, and actually just dive into the story. I think that’s why as an actress, I like being in them, as well. It’s a way into a fantastic fantasy world.
CS: What are the challenges of finding really good characters to sink your teeth into, and what do you have coming out next?
Knightley: Coming up next, I don’t know. I’ve got “Edge of Love” coming out in America soon. As far as challenges, it could be anything. I think actually doing a contemporary piece will be a challenge. I think what I love is escaping into characters. Like I said, I’m not looking for a form of self-expression, and I’m not looking for autobiographical material. I feel much more comfortable and able to kind of relax into a character if they’re as far away from me as possible, so I suppose the closer a character comes to me, the more challenging, in a funny kind of way, I think I’d find it. Maybe doing something contemporary, and I don’t know, something that’s quite close to me might be actually quite difficult.
CS: In the current “Vanity Fair,” there’s a retrospective on Paul Newman, and he says that being a celebrity is like the death of your soul. As someone whose been quite famous since you first appeared in “Bend It Like Beckham,” do you think it’s a wonderful thing to be a celebrity or do you feel it’s something you’d want to shed or disappear from?
Knightley: I think Paul Newman’s description is quite accurate. I’d agree with him. I mean, he’s been around a lot longer than I have, so yeah.
CS: Do you relate royalty to celebrities and feel that celebrities are treated something like royalty?
Knightley: Is it the same? I don’t know. I don’t know. I think royals have more security guards. (laughter)
The Duchess opens in New York, L.A. and Toronto on Friday, September 19.