Keira Knightley Carries Bigwig Role in 'The Duchess'

For someone constantly scrutinized for her slender frame, Keira Knightley knows how to stuff her face.

"I have food! That's so good!" crows Knightley, surveying the spread before her. She jams chunks of a banana into her mouth and cheerfully recounts an earlier mishap with an ingestible.

"I was wearing really great trousers, but then I spilled tea down (them)," says Knightley, who changed into a flouncy green skirt paired with a white blouse, blue jacket and decadent Chanel Mary Jane heels.

She points to her gams, now on display. "And I didn't shave my legs. It's quite embarrassing," says Knightley, as she admits how hard it is to shake the illusion that "randomly, somebody is just rubbing them up and down."

Knightley, 23, may act laissez faire about her own sartorial misfires, but her latest character is dubbed the "empress of fashion." In the lavish historical drama "The Duchess" (opening Friday), Knightley dons staggering headgear and spectacular, intricate gowns as Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, an 18th-century "it girl" trapped in a frigid marriage to a frosty duke (Ralph Fiennes) who demands a male heir she can't produce. Georgiana channeled her energies into frocks, electoral activism and an affair with budding politico Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) as things on the home front became ever grimmer.

"The costumes, I saw them more like an armor than anything else," Knightley says. "She creates the person she wants to be. As it gets worse and worse and worse, the (costumes) get bigger, and the wigs get wider. It's more that, 'I'm here, and I'm fine.' A lot of the time, we do do that. I've got a friend who says, 'When something (expletive) happens, you put your red lipstick on, and you go out.' "

"The Duchess" is the first film almost entirely carried by Knightley, who earned a best-actress Oscar nomination for her spunky turn as Elizabeth Bennet in 2005's "Pride & Prejudice" and sashayed through three "Pirates of the Caribbean" hits with Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom. Since then, she has gravitated toward smaller, more intense films, such as last year's "Atonement" and the upcoming Dylan Thomas drama, "The Edge of Love," written by her mother, Sharman Macdonald.

Last year, Knightley said she was apprehensive about playing the duchess, the subject of a best-selling biography by Amanda Foreman. The film delves into only a small part of Georgiana's colorful life, largely skimming over her gambling addiction and debts, and not touching on her relationship with France's equally stylish royal Marie Antoinette. Though Knightley had read Foreman's book and Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey, she simply couldn't nail down how to get into Georgiana's head or the most real way of playing her.

But once she reported to work, she laced up that corset and felt "really excited, actually. In every performance, in everything I try to do, you have to look failure in the face," she says. "You have to accept that you're going to fall down in a really embarrassing way and then dive into it knowing that it could go very wrong but trying your best. It was scary but equally so rare that such a wonderful character comes through the door. You can't say no. You have to play her."

Of course, Georgiana's accoutrements, culled by costume designer Michael O'Connor, proved rather unwieldy for Knightley, who, when not on red carpets, mostly kicks around at home in flats and T-shirts.

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