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His Cup of Tea: Dominic Cooper on ‘The Duchess’

Dominc Cooper and Keira Knightley from "The Duchess." Courtesy Paramount Vantage.
by Dan Lybarger

While Earl Grey tea is familiar across the globe, the man for whom the beverage is named is little understood, even in his native Great Britain.

Charles Grey, the Second Earl Grey (1764-1845), may become better known for his own life and achievements because he’s a major character in the new fact-based drama, The Duchess, which focuses on the tangled romantic life of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire (played by Keira Knightley).

The Duchess and the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) may have been married until her death, but he had a lifelong affair with her best friend Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), whom he later married.

The Duchess herself had turbulent relationship with the young Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). As Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, Grey would later be instrumental in spearheading the Reform Act of 1832, which widened the voter pool in the UK and enabled underrepresented urban districts more seats in the House of Commons. Slavery was also abolished in the United Kingdom during Grey’s administration.

Despite what he achieved in the nineteenth century, his career almost ended because he and the Duchess had an illegitimate child.

Taking on this formidable supporting role is 30-year-old British actor Dominic Cooper, who is probably best known for playing the mischievous Stuart Dakin in Alan Bennett’s play and film The History Boys and for wooing Amanda Seyfriend in Mama Mia!

Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Cooper recalled learning about Earl Grey and the Duchess of Devonshire from Amanda Foreman’s biography Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire and what it was like to bring their story to life.

Dan Lybarger: I just got done watching The History Boys for a refresher.

Dominic Cooper: Did you now? You had to watch that very long film.

Lybarger: I took a real interest in it because my parents are both former teachers, and my brother is a college professor. It really resonated with me more than some other people.

Cooper: I imagine so. You must be very proud of them because having done that film you realize how influential and important teachers and professors are to us and the incredible effect they have upon the rest of our lives.

Lybarger: The students in The History Boys are being trained to take a test instead of learning for learning’s sake. This has been a big issue in the States. Has it been an issue in the UK as well?

Cooper: I think it has in terms of education: Learning for the love of learning and learning for the sake of the wealth of knowledge instead of learning to get to that next stage is a very interesting question to raise. What are we really learning for, to cheat and lie to get into our next level of college, which is what Hector’s character describes as learning for the soul and the heart?

I think it’s definitely an issue with education everywhere. Education used to go around and round in circles in terms of how it’s taught and the best way to teach children. I remember when I was in school the times were changing, it was much less academic and more about social behavior and interacting with other people, which I felt and have found very, very helpful in my later life. Obviously, it was much less academic because of it.

It raises all sorts of issues about education and how children should be taught and also about how very different children need different teachers and learning qualities.

Lybarger: Did you know much about Charles Grey before taking on the role?

Cooper: No, I didn’t actually, embarrassingly. I knew very little about him, which made it fascinating to learn about him and realize what a profound effect he did have on English politics. Later on, when he became Prime Minister he passed the Reform Bill of 1832 and was very proactive in changing the way the voting system worked in England.

Lybarger: Part of the Whig party platform was to widen the voter pool.

Cooper: Exactly, which they did. And that happened, which later led on the suffragette movement and the fact that women gained the right to vote. It was a wonderful, incredible time of change in England and the rest of the world in terms of politics. It was only certain aristocratic people who were allowed to vote. That’s what was wonderful about Charles Grey.

He didn’t necessarily come from a very aristocratic background. He went to Eaton, but his peers would have been more aristocratic than himself. And he struggled in that world. And I think that from what I’ve read of him and learned about him, he was a wonderful orator, a very charming public speaker who wrote brilliant speeches.

It think that’s what put him in the right circles and moved him up the ladder of politics much more quickly than he would have, if that makes sense.

Lybarger: You just reminded me of my favorite scene of yours in the film. I loved the scene where he’s just finished with his speech after Georgiana, and they have this long shot on your face, and you’re gauging what the audience thought.

Cooper: Yeah. Yeah. That scene unfortunately has been cut a lot. When I was working on that scene, it was the most fantastic speech. The original speech was much, much longer than the one you actually see, a very cleverly structured speech, which was loosely based around one he’d actually written.

And it’s so rare to be given the opportunity to do something so theatrical for the screen. It gave me such a sense of power. It’s incredible how politicians have that technique of manipulating an audience and trying to encourage them and to get them to understand and believe in what they’re saying.

And he absolutely believed in what he was saying, and very reflective of what Obama has been saying. I think actually Charles Gray says, “Change is upon us. And we must not return to the old ways. We must be forward-thinking and progressive.” And to have these wonderful 200 extras standing in from of me and cheering me on while you’re giving the speech is a wonderful feeling.

Unfortunately, not all of it could stay in the film, obviously. It’s a very long speech, so you get only really the end of it. But you get the sense of it.

It was very, very exciting to do that, and it really gives you a sense of what he must have been like. And you also understand how vain politicians you know were. For the research I listened to Prime Ministers’ question time in the houses of Parliament.

And they are really theatrical, you can really tell the politicians who really enjoy the theatricality of the big stage, some much more than others. Tony Blair was very much the showman. You could tell. He just oozed charisma and enjoyed the performance, which I felt that Charles Grey really did as well, and it’s why she falls in love with him, I think.

Lybarger: He’s like the polar opposite of the Duke. Amanda Foreman recalled in an article that Ralph Fiennes had asked what the Duke of Devonshire’s letters were like, and she told him there were almost none.

Cooper: That’s right. There’s an incredible amount of letters between the Duchess and Grey that were found. Their correspondence has been kept, but strangely altered by someone who’s gone through them, I think. They’d gone through the letters and scribbled things out and hidden parts of them.

Lybarger: Is it intimidating to play a real person for a change?

Cooper: It’s really exciting because there’s only so much you can do. Back to that thing, you kind of get a sense what it might be like to meet him, and it’s really fundamental that you don’t just portray a one-dimensional character.

And you really want to make him as believable, as real, as much as he was like as you could possibly be. The thing about learning about what he must have been like as a public speaker gave a sense of characterization for him. But really, you feel quite pressured to do it, but then you’ve got this wonderful book to refer back to, which gave me a much firmer understanding of what he must have been like.

For him to have accomplished as much as he did, in terms of where he was politically and where he got to. He was very headstrong. I got the sense that he was very used to getting his own way in regards to everything. I think for a man to have put everything he had on the line and then to risk it all for someone he fell in love with, I found it amazing. He’s done all this for his career, and then he was absolutely prepared to throw it all away for the love of his life, which I was enthralled about.

I think he’d just reached a point where she couldn’t be with him because of her children. And I think at that point if a man won’t listen or will continue to pursue a woman, expecting her to leave her children is either mad or desperately arrogant. While I think that Charles Grey was mildly arrogant, I don’t think he could have continued to pursue it.

I think that’s the final answer. You can’t continue to ask a woman to be with you if she’s risking her children.

Lybarger: It was amazing to me how close he came to wrecking what eventually became a substantial career.

Cooper: Absolutely. And he would have known that. And he would have been financially ruined, and he would have had nothing to do with politics every again. I love that about him, and I love the power of his feelings, the power of their feelings for one another.

Lybarger: There’s a line from The History Boys that I think is applicable here. Irwin says that the recent past is sometimes harder to understand than the more distant past.

Cooper: It’s a wonderful line. I think so because you have some artistic license with something that happened a long time ago. We all in the audience and as actors have to use our imagination to get a sense of what a time and place was like. We can look at as many wonderful old paintings and things, but we can’t ever really comprehend how these people really lived. We can represent it and get the essence of it.

But when you’re doing something that’s in the recent past, we know it and we’ve seen it. To make that believable, to portray a character from those times is probably more difficult. It’s much closer to us, and we have a much closer sense of it. When you do something like The Duchess in the 18th century, it was certainly something that Saul (Dibb), the director wanted to do. When I first met him, he was desperate to make a very modern story, which it is. You could actually plunk that story of what happened now, and he really wanted it to relate to people now.

In a way, it feels very up-to-date and modern, but at the same time it’s installed in the old world that we know very little about.

Lybarger: It really reminded me of some of the polygamous relationships you can find in some of the backwaters here in the States. In the Duke’s relationships with Bess and Georgiana, it’s as if they were both his wives.

Cooper: I know. It absolutely was. And people go, why on earth did she let him in the house? She was just so desperately lonely it was kind of obvious that that was going to be the consequence. You have to understand what the social etiquette was: what could be seen and what could be talked about? There are some wonderful scenes. There’s the scene where Grey storms in and demands that she return to him. That scene actually took place. There are references to that actually happening. And he burst into a room full of members of the Whig party, and he made an absolute fool of himself. But people still kept pretty quiet about it. I think there’s something so interesting about that because words didn’t spread as quickly as they do now. There was this whole secret underground going on all the time. What did people say about Bess and Georgiana and their relationship? It must have been common knowledge, but maybe people just didn’t talk about it.

Maybe people were too scared for their own reputations. You always get a sense that somebody’s listening in to conversations in these wonderful, big stately homes where they have plenty of servants running around. There was a cloak of mystery and secrecy to the way that people lived, which I found really quite fascinating.

You really get a sense of it when you work in the buildings themselves.

Lybarger: You really worked in some of the locations where these events took place.

Cooper: It really helped. It really breathed life into the world that you’re working in.
It’s one of those things where you go into Parliament and you think, “What have these walls witnessed?” You really get a feeling of it: centuries and centuries of monumental decisions being made about the world, and they’ve seen them, generations of families. I find that really, really exciting. You get a sense of how people worked physically and how they inhabited those spaces, so different from the spaces in which we inhabit now and very, very helpful to put you in that world.

Lybarger: It’s kind of sad that so much of London was destroyed in World War II.

Cooper: Absolutely, a lot of it was, but there’s still a fair amount of the old buildings. Unfortunately, the Devonshire house no longer exists. That was opposite Green Park I don’t think that got blown up.

Lybarger: Right now you’re best known for Mama Mia! Did you grow up hearing ABBA tunes?

Cooper: I did, actually. I unfortunately found some terrifying evidence. A girlfriend of mine when I was thirteen years old filmed and recorded me dressed up in a fur coat singing ABBA songs and knowing all the lyrics. I have no way of hiding that.

I have no idea what I would have done. There was no way I would have let on to my friends because I was in a gothic band at the time. So had they known that I was singing and dancing to ABBA, I think I would have been fired immediately.

Lybarger: What instrument did you play?

Cooper: I was the lead singer. We’re getting back together soon. Some improvements have been made.

Lybarger: What’s the name of the band should anybody want to look out for it.

Cooper: We’re called Dagmar.

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originally posted: 10/04/08 15:25:25
last updated: 10/04/08 15:30:31
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