As a matter of fact

Whether a story surrounding a character is biographical or fictionalized, actors are determined to find the truth behind their real-life role models.

Would Queen Elizabeth II ever have stepped down from the throne? It was a question that troubled Helen Mirren when she embarked on the title role in Miramax's October release "The Queen," and it continues to haunt her now: Would the British monarch actually have considered abdication, as the movie suggests?

"That was the one thing I was very worried about," Mirren says, "because I don't think those words would ever come out of the queen's mouth -- 'Maybe I should step aside.' I think it is deep, deep within her, an acceptance of her role, and especially coming after the abdication of her uncle (King Edward VIII). I don't think she would ever even contemplate that for the remotest second."

Ultimately, director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan persuaded Mirren that the queen might well have expressed the idea while alone with her mother, in an instant of weakness, far from the madding crowd. But as Mirren and many other actors in leading roles in this year's films learned firsthand, playing a real-life character is full of issues like these, challenges that are moral as well as mimetic. While portraying any character requires an actor to explore the truth about that individual, playing one who has actually lived -- and might, in fact, still be alive -- creates an added burden.

It was a challenge that Forest Whitaker faced when re-creating Idi Amin in Fox Searchlight's September drama "The Last King of Scotland" and Renee Zellweger had to overcome when she was portraying novelist Beatrix Potter in the Weinstein Co.'s "Miss Potter," which MGM is set to release next month. And the list goes on -- Sandra Bullock and Toby Jones stepped into the roles of Harper Lee and Truman Capote, respectively, for Warner Independent Pictures' October release "Infamous"; Kirsten Dunst starred as Marie Antoinette in Sofia Coppola's Sony film (released in October) of the same name; and Ben Affleck played the late actor George Reeves in Focus Features' September offering "Hollywoodland."

How is playing such roles different than creating a wholly original character? And how much must one weigh the demands of factual reality versus a higher kind of artistic truth? The answers, as they so often do, begin with a close reading of the script.

"The first thing is the material," Mirren says. "You see whether the material is respectable or not, or honest. It has to be honest, and it has to be human because we are all so vulnerable to attacks on privacy, and, if you are at all a public figure, to mean and venal attacks. I am not saying biographies should be groveling and sycophantic and flattering, but they should be honest, and that's quite an achievement in (itself)."

With films based on real-life figures, Mirren says, "It is very hard to get the script right because obviously, the story has to be telescoped so much, and you want to be truthful to the complexity of people's nature and not play the simple, obvious version. But if the writing is respectful of that, I can go forward in the full knowledge that we may get this wrong, and it will, inevitably, be a simplistic version, but it's worth trying."

Once Mirren committed herself to playing Queen Elizabeth II, she armed herself with a collection of books and videotapes that she studied on a "six-inch television" in her farmhouse in the south of France. She also began working with a voice coach who stressed capturing the psychology of the character, comprehending what her way of speaking revealed about her, rather than doing a direct impersonation.

Mirren had one great advantage: She had met the queen at a polo match some five years earlier.

"It was all of 20 seconds, but I very much remembered it because there was a sparkle and a charm there and a sweetness and girlishness that I really tried to bring into my interpretation of her," Mirren says. "There was very little room in the film to do that; I could only try to highlight it at the beginning and at the end. But there was an impish quality to her when I met her that is so contradictory to what we think of the queen as being, and it influenced me in everything I did."

Whitaker took a different approach when he landed the starring role in director Kevin Macdonald's "King," soaking up the language and culture of the country so profoundly impacted by Amin. "I got to Uganda a month or so before I began (filming)," he says. "I really needed to submerge myself in the culture itself -- I had never been to Africa. It is equally as important to sit in someone's home and have dinner and watch the way a family relates to things -- watch the bicycles and the way they drive cars -- as reading books. It is equally important to let this become a part of your life."

While he also made a point to learn to speak Kiswahili, Whitaker did spend time researching the role in more traditional ways, as well as watching director Barbet Schroeder's 1976 documentary "General Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait" and interviewing people who had known Amin at different points in his life.

"I went up to see his brother and sister in the north of Uganda because I wanted to try and find the soul of this man -- not to imitate him but understand his behavior," Whitaker says. "His brother was really reticent at first because he was concerned that (Amin) wouldn't be portrayed as a real human being; it was all this nihilistic brutality -- which would be a part of it -- but I was interested to try and understand his motivations, his reasons for his choices."

Whitaker says his greatest goal was to comprehend "the spiritual journey, to find the energy and spirit of this man. We have this larger-than-life image of him, this archetype of a certain type of leader or dictator. And I was trying to accumulate all this information while working on the script, while using my imagination to bring the spirit of this man out. Obviously, there is always going to be a fictional part of it because it is me playing this character (and not the man himself). But I did try to imbue my imagination with a history of truth."

The idea of uncovering the truth about Potter appealed deeply to Zellweger when preparing for director Chris Noonan about the author famed for her stories about Peter Rabbit, and she spent hours examining a trove of information about Potter that was locked in the vaults of her London publisher, Warne & Co. There, Zellweger says, she was lucky to find staff who were experts on the writer, though the "Warne ladies" couldn't answer all of her questions.

"There were a lot of things they didn't realize they didn't know because there was no reason they should," the actress says. "Like the color of her eyes. You had to dig and dig." What color were they? "A happy, brilliant blue -- that came from her last nanny, who became a friend of hers."

The lack of hard factual knowledge about Potter afforded Zellweger a freedom she might not otherwise have had in embodying a real-life character. But the actress says that even when she was reading what were first-hand accounts about Potter from those who knew her well, she maintained a healthy dose of cynicism toward the reports -- based on her own experience with "knowledgeable sources."

"As a person who has had an experience with a public persona, I am very cautious about taking these testimonials literally," she says. "I know from my own experience that there is a lot of material from people who just don't know the truth."

Bullock's awareness of her public persona also colored her approach to Harper Lee in writer-director Douglas McGrath's Truman Capote biopic "Infamous." Despite her immense curiosity, she chose to allow Lee the privacy the writer has always fought to retain. "I never tried to contact her, and that was a very conscious thing," Bullock says. "She's made a great effort to live her life privately, and just because I am an actor -- we in our industry feel it's OK to be as invasive as possible in order to achieve our goal, whereas the people whose lives we are invading might have another idea."

Bullock did make the trek to Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala., to soak up the atmosphere, but she resisted talking to the locals about Lee or asking where she lived. "People don't understand someone who doesn't suck up every ounce of fame," Bullock offers. "People would say, 'She's reclusive,' and I would say, 'No, she's not. Just because she does not give interviews doesn't make her a recluse.' I became very defensive of her.

"I got a lot from the way she didn't live her life, from the paths she didn't take," Bullock continues. "It's interesting, the two of them (Lee and Capote) and the paths they took, which were in completely opposite directions -- from reveling in (fame) or removing yourself from it. She removed herself completely from it."

Whereas Mirren, Whitaker, Zellweger and Bullock were tasked with starring roles in what could be considered somewhat more conventional biographies, Dunst had a very different kind of challenge with "Marie Antoinette": namely, reimagining a historical figure, about whom there are many famous misconceptions, in a strikingly modern context. But the actress says that Coppola's notion of depicting the court of King Louis the XVI as the playground of willful teenagers gave her an enviable kind of creative freedom. Her Marie Antoinette didn't need to bear true resemblance to the real woman but rather come alive as a vibrant individual entirely her own.

"It was a different kind of film," Dunst says. "Knowing certain things would have been more helpful (for a more conventional sort of movie), but it wasn't that kind of portrayal to me, and the scenes didn't lend themselves to that."

Dunst did discuss her character with historians, but their often-conflicting views didn't provide her with a lot of insight into the real identity of the French queen. Instead, Dunst drew more inspiration from learning to sing and dance in a way that was in keeping with the period and from wearing the constrictive gowns that were in fashion at the time.

"She is very much doll-like in the beginning and then very dressed up, and then you see her getting her own style," Dunst says. "The whole feeling of the clothes and how they fit you (helped create the character). It gave me this feeling that I want to be free, but I am in this gilded prison. It even affects how you breathe and all of that stuff with a higher voice because I couldn't get a deep breath!"

Likewise, Affleck's turn as George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the 1950s TV series, in "Hollywoodland" is arguably less concerned with historical accuracy than with painting a portrait of a man that fits within the conceit of director Allen Coulter's mystery. Affleck's Reeves is inscrutable, which the actor says worked to his advantage given the surprising lack of biographical data available about the late leading man.

To prepare for the role, Affleck watched all 104 episodes of "The Adventures of Superman" and spoke to Reeves' co-star, Jack Larson. What he discovered was that Reeves "was almost compulsively generous and kind and always concerned about other people," Affleck says. "It was really moving that this guy who was really generous and always providing comfort to others ultimately could do none of those things for himself.

"But he also had a level of unhappiness and anxiety inside him, where some of these things became accelerated," Affleck continues. "It's like, sex is a good thing, eating is, but those things done to excess start to be indicators of somebody trying to heal psychic wounds through other means."

And like Dunst, Affleck felt a certain freedom in playing the part within a movie that almost announces itself as a fictionalized version of Reeves' life. "You have a hybrid here with our movie, where it is nakedly and transparently part fiction and part fact," he says.

Affleck says that kind of honestly is critically important when making a film that involves historical events of any kind -- a caveat that applies to so many of the year's outstanding films. "Where you get irresponsible is when you present fiction as fact," he says. "That is dramatically cheating, too. There is a lot of weight in saying, 'This really happened.' You are standing on the shoulders of the truth."