Jude Law has done several projects in theater and film, but “Anna Karenina” (set in late 1800s Russia) is his first movie that takes place in a theater setting. It’s a new approach to Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” book that has been told many times on screen. In the 2012 film version (directed by Joe Wright), Law plays Karenin, the stern husband of willful Anna Karenina (played by Keira Knightley), who leaves him and their son when she falls for a dashing young military man named Vronsky (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The entire movie is filmed as if the actors are portraying the story in a play, with the audience being able to see the theater setting.
The 2012 film version was written by Tom Stoppard, who is best known for being a Tony Award-winning playwright. It is also the third film collaboration between Wright and Knightley, who previously worked together on 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice” and 2007’s “Atonement.” “Anna Karenina” had its North American premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where I sat down with Law to talk about the movie and his interpretation of Karenin.
What surprised you the most about seeing how this movie version of “Anna Karenina” was set in a theater?
I was very keen to work with Joe. He’d been a friend for a few years. I loved him as guys and I really enjoyed his films. So when there’s that sort of relationship, there’s already something on the table, if you like. And then he had a brilliant, in my opinion, spare and intelligent adaptation by Tom Stoppard. And at that stage, they were planning to whisk us off to Russia and to visit stately homes in and around Europe to create Moscow at the time. And that seemed fine to me, because the script was great and the character had a challenge for me that I was already hooked into.
And then Joe had this epiphany, this vision. Film is a director-led medium. And when your director has that kind of bold, adventurous and clear and unpretentious … it came from a true place. He saw it as an emphasis of the theater, if you like, and that particular period’s social scenes in St. Petersburg. It was about affecting. A lot of them spoke French. A lot of them studied French etiquette. It was about performing roles.
And then on top of that, the idea of performing roles in love. We all put on a role, put on a mask, or are given a mask to play in relationships. So it seemed very strong. And I felt really confident that I was being led by someone who was making a film, embracing a new kind of film language, harking back to a cinematic language that perhaps we haven’t been afforded to embrace quite as much in recent times.
And when you’re making a film like this, it’s hard sometimes to tell how it will come together. I was thrilled when I saw it. I was more than thrilled. I could almost not see a single cut in it. It felt like this flowing, voluptuous rhythmic.
What’s your perspective of the closing scene in this “Anna Karenina” movie?
Yeah, it’s a very important bookend to my role, that scene. He’s a man who lives in his head, and it’s perhaps symbolic that he’s moved to his heart somewhat. It’s also important to remember the loyalty he offered her throughout, really, seen through to embracing the daughter that isn’t his.
Your portrayal of Karenin is that he’s more sympathetic than previous portrayals of Karenin. Was it written that way or was that entirely your interpretation?
I didn’t know the novel very well. I read the script, and I got a sense from Tom Stoppard that he had that Karenin had a sympathetic side too. And Joe [Wright] agreed. And we all felt that what has made this novel so fascinating and so timely and relevant is the humanity of all the characters. And to play Karenin as the bad guy, if you like, the icicle, in a way, doesn’t help the piece as a whole. It sort of shuts it down and suddenly makes it, “Oh, it’s about a woman who finally finds love.” It’s more complex and more multi-sided [than that].
So of course, Karenin is slightly dull. There’s a coldness to him. There’s a faith that is unshakeable, unquestionable. And as I said before, I think he’s a man living in his head who needs to get in touch with his heart.
The way he treats his son, initially, in my opinion as a father, is quite harsh. He doesn’t quite know how to touch him or even smile in front of him. But it’s still important that you sympathize with his position because it’s an appalling situation to be cheated on or cuckolded. So giving him a full coloring, I think was really important.
Does Karenin being more sympathetic detract from any sympathy for Anna?
I think it’s possible to be less sympathetic [for Anna], but again, we felt that with Anna’s journey, she has to earn your sympathy. In these situations, everyone has a story to tell. Would it be the right thing to do to make Anna’s choices wholly heroic because she’s in the title role? I think it makes it more complex and therefore more human to make her foibles make her triumphs and her bravery all the more extraordinary.
Do you think Anna is more of a heroine or a victim?
Both. It’s possible to be both and all things. I think that’s what Tolstoy achieved in this book. He was able to find the truth. And the truth is that we are all things at all times, in a way … especially under the umbrella of love. I think the reason a great novel or a great piece of literature like this is always attractive to passionate filmmakers and writers like Tom [Stoppard] and Joe [Wright] to go back to is because it’s tackling a subject that we will forever be beguiled by and intrigued by.
Did you worry that the theater-production setting of this “Anna Karenina” movie would overshadow what you were trying to do as actors?
No, it felt very symbiotic at all times. I think, if anything, the world that Joe created underlines what we’ve done, the different moments in the story, the shifts in the story. I was happy to get on board once Joe had this vision, and for it to crash and burn, because I think it’s brave. It’s what cinema should be about. It’s an extraordinary art form that afford to be pushed and considered and always changing. You’ve got to give it your all when you embark on something as ambitious as that.
And there was a part of me that felt, “Maybe it’s going to be distracting.” If anything, I think it’s actually the opposite. It grounds it somehow more in the period. It grounds it somehow more in the “Russian-ness” of it. And indeed, I think it highlights the rhythms of the emotional journeys too.
If you wanted to describe it, you could say, “Gosh, that sounds like a cinema language I’m not used to. Maybe I’m going to be looking at that too much.” But I think it’s actually the opposite.
What kind of research did you do for your role in “Anna Karenina”?
I didn’t watch any of the other [“Anna Karenina”] movies. I read the book. And Joe has a wonderful policy of bringing his company together. We rehearsed together, and we had workshops with Sidi Larbi [Cherkaoui], the choreographer that he used on the film. We did a lot of physical work together as groups and with the people who were playing our servants or with our partners. So Keira and I did a lot of work as Anna and Karenin.
And there was a historian: Orlando Figes. And he was a historian of that particular era in Russia. He wrote a book called “Natasha’s Dance,” which a lot of us studied. We just looked at the etiquette and the roles of society. And that was about it. It felt, with Joe’s clarity of vision, and with Tom’s intellect and ability to edit, I was already in very good hands. I didn’t really want the influence of other [“Anna Karenina”] films.
Keira Knightley and Joe Wright have worked together multiple times. He’s also worked with a lot of the same crew members for his movies. How did it feel working in that environment with so many people who had already worked together on multiple films?
I certainly didn’t feel that when I got on board. Initially, I was friends with Joe socially a few years prior to working together, so I knew him well. And I knew Keira well too. But if this [“Anna Karenina”] movie is my introduction to that group, then I’m thrilled. I hope we do many more. He’s wonderful to work with.
How would you compare the rehearsal process of this “Anna Karenina” movie to any plays you’ve done? And would you consider doing a marathon play like Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia”? Would that be appealing to you?
That would be most appealing. For me, as an actor who started in the theater and continues to have a relationship with the theater, rehearsals and the rehearsal period is actually the most precious thing and the most enjoyable because you’re able to play. You can stretch the parameters of a piece of writing as far as it may go. And it’s great making mistakes and not feeling judged by it. You can attempt stuff that you know is going to be wrong but you’re probably going to gain a little golden nugget from it.
So obviously, we didn’t have the amount of [rehearsal] time that one normally has for a play, but we had enough to play around and embrace as a company. I think it’s important to all get on the same page and feel a sense of the same language. Some of the physical tics that you see Karenin use or have in the film, we developed in that rehearsal. The use of the watch, the repetition of that servant going around and around and around and handing him things that he needs, the way he clipped his nails — little things like that all came out through that. They’re details, but without time and a little bit of the opportunity to experiment, things like that don’t come up.
Was Tom Stoppard there during rehearsals?
He was. Yeah.
You did “Hamlet” on Broadway around the same time that “The Coast of Utopia” was on Broadway. Did you get to see any of “The Coast of Utopia?”
I didn’t. I think we overlapped. We were there when we were in previews [for “Hamlet”]. He’s an old hand at this. He knows when to be there and when not to be there. His encouragement and enthusiasm is always present. He’s also elegant enough to know when to let someone like Joe run with it and doesn’t necessarily want to be the vulture on the shoulder. But he was nothing but warm and encouraging.
For me, in the early stages, it was a conversation that I had with him that won be ‘round the idea of embarking on playing this part. One of the most important lessons that I learned as a younger actor was you don’t show your hand in the first scene. If anything, you learn to show your hands later and later and later.
And in this film, it was very much a case of being patient. And as I said before, that last shot, that last image was a goal to aim at. And to show everything of Karenin early on would imbalance the delicate nature of all the relationships. And that was his advice.
He sensed that he really wanted to embrace the humanity of this man, as opposed to paint him as a rather convenient bad guy. Again, that was important for me in taking the part and feeling like I could bring a new color to the role.
Have you ever had film role before that required you to be so precise in your movements?
I have, but not to such detail. With this [“Anna Karenina”], it was almost a choreography to it and a timing that not only involved the camera work but involved where we were at a given time. And that was one of the new challenges that we all took up.
What kind of fun did you have in making “Anna Karenina”?
It was great fun. There was a quality to playing the role that I wouldn’t describe as “fun,” because he was quite a serious man. There was a pitch I wanted to attain throughout, a sort of single beat that I wanted him to remain on, while everyone else had this sort of furor. And that required quite a lot of concentration.
And with Keira, most of our scenes had that quite heightened drama. And so she was often in her place of mind, and I was in mine. It was fun because it was tough. It was fun because it was the right kind of hard work.
For more info: “Anna Karenina” website