Keira Knightley Talks Duchess

In The Duchess, Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, an 18th-century ancestor of Princess Diana who was a fashion icon, political activist, and target of society gossip mongers. She also saw her life destroyed by the rigors of nobility. Sound familiar to anyone? Maybe someone named Diana? Mm? Knightley avoids questions about those parallels, at least if said questions are too direct, but that doesn't mean she didn't have a lot to say during a recent interview.

Cole Haddon: Can you talk about the difference between playing a fictional role and a biographical one?

Keira Knightley: I don't think there's any difference. I think what's wonderful about playing a character that's based on a biography is that you have a wealth of things to dive into, background information. With fiction, a lot of the time you have to make most of it up. Saying that, it's also quite difficult when making a [biopic] to pick the story you want to tell, and you have to pick one type of character you're going to drive through with. Yet when you read a biography, the people are so multi-faceted, they can be a million different people and can do things that are so inexplicable. In a funny kind of way, it's difficult actually honing down all that information. You're trying to create reality, whether it's fiction or a character who's actually lived. What was wonderful about [The Duchess] was we worked in Chatsworth, which is actually one of the houses [Georgiana] lived in. To be able to walk around in that house, those walls that had seen all the theater that had gone on within them, was quite incredible.

CH: I think one of the most remarkable aspects of the movie is how it manages to parallel today's celebrity-obsessed culture.

KK: I think it was one of the many things I found fascinating about her was this idea that she was this huge fashion icon, she was hugely influential politically, she was the huge star of her day. She was written about, followed everywhere, gossiped about. They had people who were like paparazzi, cartoonists, who would sketch the clothes she was wearing so it could be put in the papers. I had thought celebrity culture was a modern phenomenon, so it was interesting to find out it had started so many hundreds of years ago.

CH: How important did you feel those costumes were to the role? You guys are going to win an Oscar for them, by the way.

KK: I think it was incredibly important because she'd been this fashion icon and had been so famous for that; we were really lucky to get the wonderful designer Michael O'Connor (The Last King of Scotland, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), because I think he did a really fabulous job. For me, I thought because she was such an intensely vulnerable, lonely person, the clothing she wore became like a suit of armor. She created the woman she wanted to be, as opposed to the woman she was.

CH: And the wigs ...

KK: [laughs] Were incredibly heavy. One of them was about two feet high, with two feet of feathers on it, that I couldn't even hold up. The very lovely guys in crew made a little wooden stand to hold my head up between takes.

CH: Georgiana was a victim of the paparazzi, and you've taken your fair share of hits, but you do largely stay out of the public eye when off the clock. Is that intentional?

KK: As far as acting goes, I never like to know that much about the people I watch on the screen. I think it spoils the illusion.