Keira Knightley Carries Bigwig Role in 'The Duchess'

"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.

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