"Anna Karenina" Too Rich For Keira Knightley to Resist

The actress was awestruck - and terrified - at the chance to play Tolstoy's classic lit heroine

By Scott Huver
|  Wednesday, Nov 14, 2012  |  Updated 1:09 PM PDT
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Leo Tolstoy's classic love triangle is brought to life by Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with help from director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.

Leo Tolstoy's classic love triangle is brought to life by Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with help from director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.

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Aristocratic and sheltered, yet adventurous and full of life. Romantic and naïve, yet selfish and manipulative. Sympathetic, yet difficult to forgive. Given that all those facets are characteristic of the titular heroine of Tolstoy’s venerated novel, is it any wonder that Keira Knightley was eager yet terrified to take on “Anna Karenina?”

Sweetening the gig was the fact that Knightley would reunite with director Joe Wright for their third collaboration, having previously scored big together with 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice” and 2007’s “Atonement.” Knightley reveals both the anticipation and the fear that mingled when she signed on to play one of classic literature’s most complicated female characters.

Anna Karenina has been done so many times on stage and screen. What attracted you to the role, and what about Joe Wright’s vision made it appeal to you?

I first read the book when I was about 19. Obviously, anyone would go ‘Gosh, that’s an amazing character.’ When Joe phoned me up, I think we’d had a conversation when we were doing ‘Atonement’ about great female roles and how few there are and we were trying to name them and Anna Karenina definitely came up within that conversation.

So he phoned me about two years ago, when I was working on ‘A Dangerous Method,’ and he just went ‘”Anna Karenina?”’ and I went ‘Yup.’ And he went ‘Okay, we’ll only do it if Tom Stoppard does the adaptation,’ and I went ‘Okay,’ and he said ‘Okay – I’ll phone you back.’ Two months later, he was like ‘Okay, Tom’s doing it,’ and I was like ‘Great!’ So that was it. The script obviously wasn’t there yet – It was purely on the potential of what that story and that character and that collaboration could be.

When did the bold stylistic choices Joe made in the telling of the story get on your radar?

When the script was first written and when we first started talking about it, it was going to be a completely naturalistic telling and it didn’t turn into this stylized thing until ten weeks before we started shooting when he phoned me up and said ‘I’ve got something to tell you…’ I went into his office and it was this kind of madman’s lair of these weird drawings and storyboards everywhere and he said ‘Right – We’re going to set it in a theater.’

I think if I’d been working with somebody that I didn’t know, that would have been totally terrifying and the alarm bells would have been ringing. Because I do know him and we’ve worked together so many times and there is an implicit trust there, I think the reason I wanted to work with him at all on this was because he was never going to do something just straight. Even when you look at ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ it was deeply naturalistic in that everybody was kind of scruffy and the hemlines were a bit off and there was mud over everything. It was a very different telling.

Is there something that you wanted to do with the character that wasn’t necessarily in the pages of the book?

No. I mean, I think within the pages of the book, it’s so massively open to different interpretations anyway, and partly because he does write from inside her head, but often he doesn’t. Often he writes from outside, judging her and describing her. And I think because of that judgment and that description, it means that there are lots of different interpretations. When I first read it when I was 19, I only remember her being innocent – I don’t remember judging her at all; I don’t remember seeing her as being in any way guilty. And I read it again last year before we started shooting, and when I see this at 26 because I was, I suddenly see this differently.

I see her as being much darker.  I think her moral culpability is constantly in question. I think she is held up to be condemned at certain points. I think she’s also held up to be loved and to be understood and to be sympathized with. But I think the relationship with her is quite a complex one for the reader, and I think because of that, it’s open to a lot of different interpretations. I didn’t go necessarily out of the book in trying to go how am I going to play this role. I think I tried to understand as far as I thought what her function within the book was and therefore what her function could be in the film fashion. And I thought that kind of moral ambiguity was a really interesting one to play around with.

What parts of Anna’s life could you relate to and what parts were far away from yourself?

I think she’s a terrifying character, and she’s terrifying because you do judge her and you try and throw stones at her, and then you go ‘Am I any better than her?’ And I think the answer for everybody is ‘No.’ I think it’s because you go ‘Are we all occasionally deceitful?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are we all occasionally manipulative?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do we all hurt the people whom we love the most?’ They are the people that we hurt the most. None of us are better than her. None of us have a right to judge her, and yet we do – and that’s terrifying.

When I talk about the kind of complex relationship that you have with that character, I think that’s because of it. It really makes you go “I am no better than this person that I am judging.” It’s quite a terrifying mirror, I think, it holds up to human beings in general. So I think as far as the love goes within her, I think it’s completely understandable. You have a woman that’s been married since she was 18.  She gets to 28. She’s never had an orgasm. She’s never experienced romance. Of course, she suddenly feels lust for the first time. She suddenly has a taste of romance for the first time, and she equates that with love – and only that with love.

She doesn’t see that there is many different forms of love and that that is a honeymoon period that will change into something else, and that’s her great tragedy. As soon as that bit, that little honeymoon period bit starts to change, she thinks the love has disappeared, and therefore, she thinks that he is cheating on her, and therefore she thinks that the whole relationship is doomed and that she’s been left alone, and actually, it’s different. It’s that she just doesn’t understand what’s going on. And I think that’s understandable. We all know serial romantics. Probably we’ve been there at certain points.

The costumes were magnificent – how much of you loves all the costuming and all that attention to detail and is there a part of you that is “Ugh – another layer”?

It adds two hours to the day, so you’re shooting a 12-hour day and suddenly you do have to come in two hours before for hair, make-up, costume and it takes an hour to get out of it.  So you’re adding three hours to a 12-hour day, which is just mandatory if you’re doing period pieces or fantasy pieces.

So there is that added thing and you do get to the end of a job like this and go ‘I really don’t want to do a period film for a while because I’m f**king exhausted.’ But the whole process, and particularly with Jacqueline [Durran, the costume designer], [was a] process of building that character from the ground up. Every one of those costumes had an amazing amount of symbolism within it – they were all totally part of telling that story. She was a caged bird, so that idea of the symbol of the cage being that and the cage underneath the dress that you see at the end and then the veils, the idea of keeping death close to her at all times so she’s wrapped in fur, she’s got dead birds in her hair, the jewelry is the hardest of all stones that could slit her throat at any moment.

And keeping sex there all the time so you’ve got these dresses that look like they’ve got lingerie coming through or falling off, and one of the dresses was actually made of bed linen because we wanted to keep that post-coital kind of thing there the whole time, the dress that she dies in.

Was there anything that you, as Keira, just loved to wear?

F**k no! I mean, hey, I would have liked to keep the diamonds! That would have been quite fun, but I didn’t get to keep them.

What’s around the corner for you?

I got to the end of ‘Anna Karenina’ and realized that I’d been sort of doing pieces of work that were incredibly dark and I pretty much died in a lot of them for five years. I wanted this year to be the year of positivity and pure entertainment.  So, I did one film called ‘Can a Song Save Your Life,’ which is about friendship and making an album and possibilities. And ‘Jack Ryan’ is a really great, old school, Hollywood thriller and a piece of pure entertainment, and hopefully it will be just that.

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