October 5, 2008

Blast From the Past for Dominic Cooper

By Michael Janusonis

For Dominic Cooper, the up-and-coming British actor who plays the third part of a romantic triangle that threatened to upset 18th- century London society in The Duchess, the movie, which opens Friday, was an awakening to his country's past.

The sexy romantic film about behind-the-scenes boudoir shenanigans more than two centuries ago is already a hit in England, where, Cooper says over the phone from New York, "They seem to love it. They always say they're sick and tired of costume dramas. And they all pretend to know a lot about history ... and they really don't.

"The thing I loved about it was learning about my own history. In history classes at school it was all about four-crop rotation and fallow fields." Certainly there was nothing about the boudoir games of the rich and titled and their adulterous affairs.

The thing about The Duchess that has created such a tizzy on the other side of the Atlantic is how closely it parallels more recent history.

The film follows the trials and tribulations of Georgianna Spencer, played by Keira Knightley, who is married off by her social- climbing mother to the cold-fish Duke of Devonshire, whose only requirement is that she sire a male heir to his title. The Duke already has a mistress whom he really loves and a couple of children from that relationship. Georgianna, in a slump upon learning all this, looks for comfort in the arms of childhood friend Charles Grey, a rising star in Parliament who leads the fight to abolish slavery.

The fact that Georgianna Spencer is an ancestor of Diana Spencer, who married Prince Charles to become the Princess of Wales two centuries later, is what has given The Duchess box office legs beyond its Masterpiece Theatre pretensions.

One of the things about the story that also intrigued Cooper, who played the handsome fiance in the hit movie Mamma Mia! and plays Charles Grey in The Duchess, is that "we think the interest in celebrities is a new concept, but it was around in the 18th century."

In the film, the vivacious Georgianna becomes the toast of England. Politicians seek her support. Women are eager to copy her latest fashions. Every party she gives is THE place to be. Her public exploits are chronicled by a sort of primitive paparazzi who drew caricatures on paper rather than using cameras.

Although a scene in the film in which Charles Grey storms into the Duke's house to demand that Georgianna come back to him wasn't played out quite so publicly, a similar moment did take place in real life.

But Cooper was surprised to discover in researching the scene that it never became public knowledge, despite the fact that several servants were witness to the moment. Unlike today, with people eager to spill the beans in tell-all books, in those days "the four walls held the information."

Cooper says, however, that the Georgianna-Diana parallels were never discussed while making the film and that the moviemakers hadn't set out to make a movie about those parallels. "It's an interesting fact, but we didn't want to relate it to Diana's life. It was about Georgianna, who, in the 18th century, had a loveless marriage."

Along the way, Cooper discovered that he very much liked the man he was playing. Besides being an abolitionist, something shown in a key scene in the film, Charles Grey eventually became prime minister, Cooper says, and went on to push the Reform Bill "which changed the voting system which made voting not just for the aristocrats."

For his characterization, Cooper says, "I concentrated on the politics of that age. It was an incredible time of invention and change." Born not to royalty, "Grey struggled much more than his peers to get where he did in politics." The Duchess is set during the Age of Enlightenment in the reign of King George III, when the American colonies were about to be lost and the French Revolution was waiting in the wings.

He found it easy to get into the character of an 18th-century man "when you get on the set and you find this elaborate costume in your trailer and the wig and when you put them on you totally inhabit the role. You find that wearing them affects your posture and the way you walk and stand. Plus, we worked in the magnificent homes that they lived in and it helps when you inhabit their space."

What he wasn't eager to do was play the bedroom scene with Knightley, even though it was filmed with the utmost sensitivity. "It's a very delicate thing. You're not eager to do it, but it's important to show what she's lacking in her marriage.

"We hardly spoke about it until the day we were going to shoot the scene. The best thing is to not be too clinical about it, to worry about the camera angles."

Although the scene lasts only about 25 seconds on screen, it took up an afternoon of filming. "We probably did it a couple of times from a couple of different angles," he says. "You can't do something like that too often because you lose the spontaneity."

Prior to The Duchess and Mamma Mia!, Cooper had worked mainly on the stage and in television. The 30-year-old actor was nominated in 2006 for a Drama Desk Award in New York for his work on the Broadway production of The History Boys, a comedy-tragedy set in the 1990s in which a group of history pupils prepare for the Oxbridge entrance exams under the guidance of three teachers with contrasting styles.

By the time he got to Broadway, Cooper was well versed in his character, having already played one of the boys at the Royal National Theatre in London and in productions in Hong Kong, Wellington, New Zealand, and Sydney, Australia. The show played well everywhere, although in Hong Kong the response he felt was "slightly less" because the dialogue was translated into Cantonese at the bottom of the stage.

Taking two years to travel around the world with The History Boys may have kept him from other jobs, but it was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which was a wonderful experience, not only because I visited so many places I would never otherwise see, but that the cast got on so well together."

Currently he's heading back to England to make a "very improvisational" kind of independent film, "but I'm also looking to do stage work."

His experience of working two months on a Greek island for Mamma Mia!, he says, was an experience that "was very difficult to live down as to how spoiled we were. It was a tremendous amount of fun and we were on the most beautiful locations. We did minimal work on a Greek island for a few months, on jet skis mostly.

"But from there I went to Glasgow in the winter to film God on Trial, which is set at Auschwitz." He plays a young Jewish man who finds his faith returning when he becomes part of the selection process of who will live and who will die in the Nazi death camp. It is scheduled for a showing on PBS in the near future.

It was a long way from the wigs and waistcoats and grand parlors of The Duchess or the classroom of The History Boys or the Greek island of Mamma Mia! But Cooper is glad to have been given the chance to play so many different characters in a career that only promises more.

Dominic Cooper plays a rising star in Parliament in 18th-century England in The Duchess. Paramount Vantage / PETER MOUNTAIN

Dominic Cooper plays part of a romantic triangle involving a dashing member of Parliament who has an affair with the married Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), in The Duchess. Paramount Vantage / PETER MOUNTAIN [email protected] / (401) 277- 7276

Originally published by Michael Janusonis, Journal Arts Writer.

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