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.
"High heels are bad enough. I don't think you need a corset and wigs, as well," she says. "The wigs were the problem. They were big like birdcages. The hats were sewn onto the tops of them. And the whole thing was glued to my head, pinned in. I had neck aches. I literally couldn't hold the thing up. So they built me a stand so I could rest the whole lot on."
He's the duke, not Voldemort
Neck aches aside, there's also the heartache of playing hostile spouses. She and Fiennes had never met before the film and in the movie have no loving, or even coolly affectionate, scenes together. His duke lavishes warmth on his dogs but dismisses her. Her duchess shacks up with a younger and far more attractive lover. He threatens to take away her kids. She refuses to save the marriage. In real life, both say they got along just fine. "To play a married couple that have no familiarity with each other was an interesting test," Knightley says.
So, how did she keep the tension and rancor alive even as she got to know Fiennes better?
"I don't know. It's a very American question, how. It's (expletive) acting!" retorts Knightley.
One thing she avoided? Watching Fiennes' Lord Voldemort torture and torment Hollywood's most beloved young wizard in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." "I've read the books but haven't seen the films. He's a snake, right? I didn't watch it because I decided I think it would frighten me if I had to play his wife," she says.
Fiennes stayed in a hotel while Knightley opted to share a house with co-stars Cooper and Hayley Atwell, who plays her confidante. The arrangement helped them keep their distance on-screen.
Because of their proximity, Knightley says, her trio "formed a little group."
"It was good fun, that house. We had good fun, long dinners that were cooked for us."
Fiennes, for the most part, was excluded. "When it was me as the duke, I thought, 'She didn't like me,' " says Fiennes, referring to his off-screen relationship with Knightley, which he says was actually a positive one. "It's a shame we don't have any scenes where they are companions. I sort of decided he loved her deep down but didn't know where to start. And they don't start off as adversaries. She's just bruised by his insensitivity. He expects her to understand that it's absolutely fine that he brings in his illegitimate daughter."
Knightley doesn't see much of herself in Georgiana, a feisty yet ultimately tragic figure. Her best friend (played by Atwell) moved in with the couple and had a long-term affair with the duke, and Georgiana, meanwhile, was forced to give up the infant conceived during her tryst with Grey.
"I live with me every day. It's not that fun. I'm not looking for biographical work," Knightley says. Taking the role was "about escapism. She was a character so easy to sympathize with, empathize with. I wasn't looking for any parallels with myself. It's more general terms than going, 'Oh, I gave my baby away, too.' "
She pauses just a beat. "Which I didn't, by the way."
Knightley just 'has it'
For someone barely in her 20s, Knightley is preternaturally poised and mature in interviews, her self-professed jet lag notwithstanding. She's quick-witted, swears like a sailor and comes across as just self-deprecating enough to be real.
"Keira has great clarity as a person (and is) amazingly open for her age," Fiennes says.
Even though he and Knightley are hardly buddies, they did click during the shoot. "She has a great maturity and an openness and a natural spontaneity, a vivacity. That's a crucial thing you can't act. She has it," he says.
She doesn't moan about the paparazzi attention she gets at home in England and dismisses her peers who act surly and dismissive in public. "They hate their jobs," she says with a laugh.
Yet she draws a firm line between business and her own real life. To wit, she has never talked about her boyfriend, actor Rupert Friend, and won't even confirm she has one.
Knightley buries herself in books and has a penchant for the bleak. Recent reads include Bernhard Schlink's "beautiful" "The Reader" and Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road." "Two really depressing books but really good," she says. "Not exactly a barrel of laughs."
This time last year, she was devouring Gitta Sereny's "Into That Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder," an account of Treblinka's commandant Franz Stangl. Now, she has moved on to the works of novelist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.
"Not exactly happy, but interesting. Really great writing creates such amazing images," Knightley says. "It's a compilation of investigative journalism. She has just gone into Dachau. It's awful, but the way she writes is wonderful. I just started it. I'd never read any Martha Gellhorn before, and she's a wonderful writer."
She'll have plenty of reading time after she's done promoting "The Duchess." Knightley has nothing lined up for the rest of '08.
"I haven't quite found what I'm looking for yet," she says, adding that her selection process is more instinctive than calculated. "What I'm not capable of doing is, 'For my career, I should be doing this right now.' I can't do that because I can't try and be interested in something that I'm not."
Nor can she fake enthusiasm for a film she despises when it's time to go out there and sell it.
"It has to be about something that I do actually want to talk about. It can be really embarrassing and depressing and very cynical if you sit there and go, 'Well, I got a really big paycheck.' "
Knightley isn't all doom and gloom. In fact, when it comes to films, she says the oddball and offbeat move her. "There's an amazing film called "Couscous" (La Graine et le mulet) — so beautiful, about a guy who's trying to open a couscous restaurant," says Knightley. "I sat in the cinema crying and crying and crying. I want to phone the guy up and say thank you.
"Film can be so magic."