Keira Knightley may have had her breakthrough role in the contemporary film “Bend It Like Beckham” (released in 2002), but she is the first to admit that roles in period movies are the ones she finds the most appealing. In the 2012 film version of “Anna Karenina” (set in late 1800s Russia and based on Leo Tolstoy’s book of the same name), Knightley plays the title character, an unhappily married woman who causes a scandal by leaving her controlling husband Karenin (played by Jude Law) and their son for a torrid affair with a young military man named Vronsky (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
“Anna Karenina” is the third film collaboration between director Joe Wright and Knightley, who previously worked together on 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice” and 2007’s “Atonement.” All three of these movies “Anna Karenina” feature the lead character facing major dilemmas in their love lives. “Anna Karenina” had its North American premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where I sat down with Knightley to talk about the movie and why the “Anna Karenina” story is so fascinating to her.
You studied a lot of psychology for your movie “A Dangerous Method.” Do you think Anna Karenina is bipolar, has borderline personality disorder or do you think she’s just insecure?
[She laughs.] I haven’t got a f*cking clue. I don’t know. I didn’t go there. Well, actually, I probably did go there … This sounds really simplistic, but I went with a deeply hormonal vibe. I thought, “Why do she and Karenin have only one son? Was the original pregnancy incredibly difficult? Did she have a massive turn? Was there any kind of post-natal depression or any kind of stuff like that?”
There’s nothing about that in the book whatsoever, but Jude [Law] and I actually talked about that quite a bit. So I think I took it that within the pregnancy that there would be a big hormonal thing. I’m remembering that I actually did go down that path a lot. I did talk to quite a lot of people about hormones during pregnancy and how they can get affected afterwards …
She did also talk abut her “demon” quite a lot. That’s in the screenplay and that’s in the book, so I did take that idea. And actually, with the whole concept of the film, it was this idea of Russian aristocrats in the 18th and 19th century who couldn’t even speak Russian. They spoke French or Italian. And they lived in houses that were based on French houses.
The design of St. Petersburg was based on a European design. The etiquette was French etiquette. A lot of the food was based on French food. They’d have hidden Russian rooms within the houses that would literally be behind secret panels that only the family members would be allowed into, so there’s this idea that there’s a “hidden self” at all times … and the idea that they’re constantly playing a character.
So that kind of came into play within her character as well within her character as well — this idea that she plays, that she plays the perfect mother, and occasionally, she plays the perfect lover, but there’s constantly this spirit, this thing that she might call a demon that is coming out and that she can’t repress that I did play. I don’t know psychologically what you would call that, but I played with that quite a bit.
Do you think Anna Karenina saw herself as the heroine of her own life or not?
I think shame is a deeply difficult thing to live with, and I think she breaks her own moral code. And I was very interested in going, “What happens to your own perception of yourself when you break your own moral code?”
I think a couple of different things happen, and they happen at the same time. I think you always make yourself into the heroine. You always put yourself into the right, but equally, you have complete self-hatred. So I suppose it’s a narcissistic complex, if you’re going with anything, because it’s self-love and self-hatred at the same time …
There’s a particular word that I got obsessed with. It’s something that Karenin says to her, and I think it’s in the film. And it’s this idea of being unnatural. “You are unnatural.” And if somebody is saying that to you, then you are corrupt.
“Unnatural” and “corrupt” are two things that get said to her, and she goes, “Don’t be silly. Don’t be silly. Don’t be silly.” But however much you [try not to hear it], there’s no way that that doesn’t sink in, so you’re constantly running from the fear that they’re right and kind of horrendously the knowledge that they probably are given that you’ve broken your own morality.
I don’t think there’s one simple answer to it, as there isn’t in life, when we do things. I think often the people we hurt the most are the people we love the most. Now, what the hell is that about? But we all know we do wrong. And yet, we kind of go, “Oh, no, it was because of this and this and that and the other,” but we all know that we do wrong.
I think that’s the wonderful thing about her and that’s what makes her so complex and that’s what makes her so interesting: She solidifies that, so that she is the heroine and the anti-heroine. She is the perfect narcissist: She hates herself; she loves herself. It’s that constant thing.
Do you think that Anna Karenina did her more controversial actions for love or some other motivation?
I think she did what she did to fight against being alone. I think she’s terrified of loneliness. And I think she feels that with Karenin, and I think she feels it when she ostracized by society and she’s left alone in very opulent rooms, but rooms nevertheless that she can’t get out of — that sense of claustrophobia, that sense of horrendous, aching loneliness. I think that’s where the neediness comes from.
She has no way of projecting the unfairness, as she sees it, of society shunning her. So the only person she can do that to is Vronsky. The only person she can get that rage out to, the person she can express anything to is Vronsky, so therefore she’s horrendous to him. But it’s because of the loneliness and that claustrophobia that she behaves like that.
So it’s that kind of interesting thing where you sort of look at her and you go, “I don’t like her all the time.” I don’t think the point is to like her all the time. I could be completely wrong about this, but the last time I read it, I thought that Tolstoy absolutely hates her and absolutely condemns her. And I think that is the point of her sometimes, but it’s really going, “I completely understand why you’ve behaved like that. I completely understand the duplicity.
I completely understand the maliciousness that occasionally comes out. And actually, even though it’s difficult to watch, it’s difficult to think about when somebody else is doing it, am I any better than that? Now, hopefully, I don’t go to those extremes, but actually, within my life, within the way that I behave toward people, I don’t think anybody has a right to judge her.
I think that’s what quite interesting about her in really looking at her is that you go, “This is uncomfortable, and I do find this difficult, and I don’t always like you, But actually, I am no better than you are, which is what I think makes her kind of wonderful.
Speaking of claustrophobia, what was it like to have to wear to a veil often while playing this role in “Anna Karenina”? And why do you think the veil is so important?
Yes, the veils are very claustrophobic. It’s [“Anna Karenina” costume designer] Jacqueline Durran who I worked with on “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice.” And she is absolutely, hands-down, one of my favorite people to work with, creatively. She’s a wonderful woman.
A lot of times with costume designers, they go, “This is the concept. This is it.” And you don’t really talk about character. You just go in and try and make it make sense. With Jacqueline, you go in there, and you just talk for ages.
As much as there is a concept, and you can see there is a concept, she really works from a character point of view. So we talked about themes an awful lot, which is this idea that [Anna Karenina] is a bird caught in a cage. Vanity, by the way, is a massive part of her, and it’s written about quite extensively in the novel, which is quite fun because you go, “OK, she can look great, so that’s nice.”
She’s surrounded by death. The birds’ wings, the birds can’t fly. They’re dead; they’re stuck on back of her head. The costumes are kind of reminiscent of lingerie. Quite a lot of times, we actually used lingerie fabrics. We actually used bed linen.
So it’s the idea of sex and death being constantly [intertwined]. The veils are cages. The bird that is caught in the cage. The diamonds are the most severe cut of the stones. The only time we brought in color into the jewelry is the ruby, so it’s [a symbol] of blood. So it’s kind of constant working on that along those lines. The veils were meant to be like cages.
This movie version of “Anna Karenina” is filmed like it is a play on stage. Were you ever worried about that set-up being a distraction to viewers?
Yes. Originally, when we first started talking about it, it was going to be a completely naturalistic take on it. We were going to shoot it in St. Petersburg. And then as Joe [Wright] started doing his research into Russian society — and like I talked about, that French/Russian thing — he started wanting to do something that was more stylized.
At one point, he went to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s work — he’s the guy who choreographed the ball sequences — and he got really, really inspired by what he could do with movement. And he was asking an awful lot about why we don’t use movement more in film.
Personally, I think it’s because we’ve got to so wedded to the close-up. As an actor, you don’t really use the rest of your body very much, which is what I found when I went to the theatre. I was like, “Oh my God! What do I do with the rest of it? I work here [she points to her face].”
So [Joe Wright] wanted to work with a lot of movement, and therefore wanted it to be a more stylized thing to see what we could do with that. So it became more and more stylized as he went along those lines to the point where he phoned me, and it was about 12 weeks before shooting — I think I was in L.A. — and he said, “As soon as you get back to London, just come ‘round. You really have to come ‘round.” And his office was just covered in drawings of this theater. And I was like, “Oh, f*ck!”
Did you like the idea right away or did it take a lot of convincing for you to like it?
He really had to talk me through it. He really had to talk everybody through it. It was the moment when he describes the race sequence, where the horse falls out of the auditorium. I was like, “F*ck! Wow, that could be amazing!” There was very much a feeling among all of us.
His team, I’ve worked with three times now. And then commercials on top of that. They’ve worked together five times in films and more times in theater. It’s a group of people in which we work very well together. They’re also a group of people who work to the bone. They work so hard. And they put everything into it.
And I think with that knowledge, you go, “OK, if you’re doing this thing that has been done so many times before, and you’re working with people that have worked together before and have been quite successful before, what is the point in not trying to do something different? The worst that can happen is that we fail. And at least you know that you’re with a group of people who will give it 110 percent. And then if you fail at the end of giving it 110 percent, then you go, ‘We gave it a good shot.’” But I think we all felt like that.
But as far as knowing whether it would work or knowing whether there would be that balance of keeping the story, it was an intense experience of everybody trying to make it work and trying to go, “Does this take it too far?” There have been several different edits of it to try and go, “OK, it’s a very different thing.” But it was always going to be a group of people who would give their hearts and souls into it. So therefore, you jump. So we jumped.
Did that theater-set stylization affect the way you performed?
We talked an awful lot about that because Joe is very vocal about not being a fan of naturalism … Quite often when you deal with stylized films, the performances are quite muted, simply because the way of shooting them is so tricky that it’s very difficult to keep a level of emotion.
With Anna, she has to be an emotional being because she’s not always thinking. If she was thinking completely rationally, then a lot of things that happen in the film wouldn’t happen, so you kind of make sure that she’s emotional. So we were constantly kind of going, “How can we do this but keep this up there?” It was very tiring!
Did you allow yourself to be aware of the other portrayals of Anna Karenina that were done before your portrayal of the character?
Yeah, I’ve actually only seen two different versions of it. I’ve seen the Greta Garbo version and the Helen McCrory version that was in the BBC TV version. Both of them I saw when I was only 14 or 15. They weren’t something that I watched again and again and again. So I didn’t have, “That’s the way to play her,” which was good. She’s such a strange character.
I read the book for the first time maybe when I was 18 or in my late teens. And I just remember it being this kind of beautiful sweeping romance. It was so wonderful. And then I read it last summer and I was like, “Jesus Christ, this is not at all what I remember it as.”
I think that’s one of the wonderful things about the book. You read it at different points in your life, and you’re going to take completely different things out of it. And it’s always a different thing reading a book in order to play a character than it is reading a book as a story as it washes all over you. Because in that way, because she’s so open to interpretation — like I said, I made up a lot of this stuff to make sense out of her behavior — Tolstoy doesn’t write her from the inside a lot of the time. He actually writes her looking at her from the outside, which is quite rare.
It’s called “Anna Karenina,” so you expect a lot of internal kind of … some of it is, but not as much as I thought it was. So in that way, because you’re constantly looking at her from the outside, there’s a possibility for a lot of different interpretations. I found her less daunting to take on than Elizabeth Bennet [from “Pride and Prejudice”], because she’s not loved in the same way. And women don’t read that book [“Anna Karenina”] or watch film versions of it and go, “I see myself as Elizbaeth Bennet” or “I want to be Elizabeth Bennet.” They look at Anna and go [she lets out an exasperated sigh], “What’s that?” So in that way, it was actually less scary.
You had an intense rehearsal process for “Anna Karenina.” Which scenes do you think benefited the most from that rehearsal process, in terms of the acting?
Well, it was weird, because we had three weeks solid of rehearsals. And we had all come in a few weeks before that to start the movement. We really did a lot of rehearsal based on movement. So it was actually Sidi who took — and he got somebody else, but I can’t remember his name — from a movement-based theater company to work with a group of actors.
And we did, particular me and Aaron [Taylor-Johnson], a lot of movement-based improvisation where we were silent. And that was fascinating. I’d never done anything like that. And we really spent a lot of time doing that and less than we had on “Atonement” or “Pride and Prejudice” working on the dialogue. I did some of that with Jude [Law] as well.
The whole company did this kind of movement. Not a whole has been used, but there’s a 20-minute improvised movement piece between me and Aaron that kind of charted the whole of the end of the relationship that Joe has somewhere. It was a fascinating thing, once you get over the embarrassment (and it was severely embarrassing, because that’s not how I express myself; I’m not a dancer), when we watched it back, it did completely arc that thing that was going on at the end of it.
And Aaron is not somebody who works on a textual vibe. I like text. I work with words. I love working with words. He’s somebody who really, really loves working with movement and is incredibly confident with the movement-based stuff. So it was a really interesting kind of thing coming in. That’s how we did a lot of our scenes, based on that 20-minute improvisation that we did quite early on, because it just sort of made sense.
As far as with me and Jude, we did talk a lot more. And again, just trying to figure out, “Why is there only one child?” I think what [Karenin] has been, apparently, I haven’t seen all of them but in quite a few versions before, you make him into the baddie, so you can kind of make Anna into the goodie.
You go, “This is the stiff husband who is loveless.” We all knew we wanted something a bit different than that, so we did talk about what that previous relationship could have been like, what the meeting was like, and try to kind of figure all that out.
What meaning do you think “Anna Karenina” has to today’s movie-watching audiences?
I don’t know. A lot of people have said, “Is it still relevant?” And I think it is. Tom Stoppard [the screenwriter for the 2012 version of “Anna Karenina”] said right at the beginning, “This is a thesis on love.” And I didn’t really know what he meant by that. And then as we were going on I was like, “No, you’re completely right.”
If you take love as an emotion, romance is such a small part of that emotion. You can get the wonderful parts of it. It’s the romantic part, the companionship, the friendship, the sex — there’s that whole wonderful bit. But there’s also the madness, the loneliness, the jealousy, the neurosis. And it’s very rarely looked at in its entirety.
And I think that’s what actually this book does, with all its characters, in different ways. It looks at that whole spectrum of things. And in that way, I don’t think that we’ve changed. I don’t think that that emotion has changed.
Yes, the rules governing it [have changed]. If you leave your husband now, you’re not also going to lose your child, hopefully, unless you’re in a very strange situation. The rules in society have changed, but I don’t think the emotions in society itself have changed. The ostracism of Anna is something that we still see today.
The pack turns on one in order to solidify itself. You see it in the playground. You see it in politics. You see it in celebrity culture. You see it in offices. That’s what it’s about. That’s what the story is.
I’ve only see then film for the first time the other night. I thought, “Actually, I think that’s what a period drama in a much more clear way does. It’s something that allows us to delve into that story in an easier way.” It’s almost like a method of almost leaving yourself behind and what you know behind, and actually look at a situation, and look at an emotion in quite a straightforward kind of sometimes harsh way. You couldn’t if you’re looking at it within the context of your own society or your own life.
And I think that’s what the book does, and that’s why it’s lasted as long as it has, because you keep going back. And like I did last summer, you go, “This is really a punch to the stomach, this book.” And hopefully, that’s what the film does in not just a punch to the stomach but you’ve got the Kitty and Levin bit, which is wonderful and the great side of that. But it’s looking at love in quite a harsh light.
Matthew McFadyen played your character’s love interest (the somber and uptight Mr. Darcy) in “Pride and Prejudice.” In “Anna Karenina,” he played your character’s brother (the jovial and uninhibited Oblonsky).What parts of his real-life personality did he bring to each character?
I think Matthew is much closer to [Oblosnky], and I think that’s why Joe was so over-the-moon at the idea of him playing Oblonsky, because Matthew is funny. He’s married but he’s not like [Oblonsky’s philandering] side. He is so fun!
As soon as I see Matthew, we just start giggling. And we thought, “This is going to work perfectly for a brother-and-sister thing. How wonderful if Anna and Oblonsky just find each other really funny.” So we thought, “Oh, this is great. We’ll just do that.”
For more info: “Anna Karenina” website