rootshed.com had the opportunity to sit down with Anna Karenina star Keira Knightley where she discussed tackling the iconic Tolstoy character and collaborating with Director Joe Wright for the third time. The Focus Features film expanded to 64 theaters today.
Was Anna Karenina (the book) a story that you held close to your heart?
Keira Knightley: I read it first when I was about 19 and I remember loving it, but I remember seeing her as being entirely innocent and everyone else being wrong. And then when I read it again before we started shooting this last summer I went, “This is totally different than I remember it being.” And this is a much darker character than I remember, and suddenly the question of her function within the piece, you know, I think because it’s called Anna Karenina, a lot of people go, “We have to sympathize with her all the time.” And I don’t know that that’s always the function of her within the novel, you know. I don’t think Tolstoy was necessarily always holding her up, going, “This is the person that you should all want to be.” I think quite a lot of the time he’s holding her up as a warning. And I thought that was incredibly interesting particularly if as I knew Joe wanted to do, he wanted to put the Kitty and Levin storyline in. As in most films they cut it out, you know. That’s the hopeful storyline. That’s the romantic kind of wonderful storyline. Anna’s storyline is destructive and so I think because of Kitty and Levin…we felt like we could take Anna to that…darker place.
Is it important for an actor to be on the side of the character?
Keira Knightley: I’m always on the side of the character, yeah, absolutely. I mean, although…are you always on your own side? I think…you always have to understand the character. You have to understand why they do what they do, which is the exciting part of my job and the bit of my job that I totally love. I don’t think you always have to like them. I don’t think you always have to agree with them, you know. And I didn’t always like her. I think I loved her all the time, but I didn’t always like her.
What was your reaction when you found out the staging of this movie and Joe’s idea for the style of it?
Keira Knightley: We’ve done Pride and Prejudice and Atonement before. And when we did Pride and Prejudice everyone went, “Why are you doing that? That would be crap.”…Then that kind of did well and then we did Atonement and everyone went, “Well, that’s the unfilmable novel, the very famous unfilmable novel, and they were just lucky the first time, and that’s going to be terrible.” And then that did well. And then when we said, “Okay, we’re going to do this,” everyone went, “Oh! That would be great!” And…we didn’t like it. It was suddenly very weird. I know it sounds very strange but we both worked best, at least believing that we’re the underdog. And suddenly, it being something that everyone went, “Oh yeah that’s what you do. You’ll be good at that.” It didn’t feel right, so I think when he said, “Okay, I’m going to do it in this way,” I think…I felt quite relieved you know, that…he was suddenly bringing…the possibility of failure right to the table. And he was really shaking the whole thing up…we wanted to be massively challenged and we wanted to hold hands and jump off the cliff together. And the worst that would happen is that we failed, but at least it wouldn’t have been safe. At least it would have been trying to be something.
We loved the fashion and the dresses were stunning.
Keira Knightley: What I love about Jacqueline Durran, who did the costumes for this and Pride and Prejudice and Atonement is that she works entirely from a character base. Those costumes are so full of symbolism. We all saw Anna as this bird in a cage, so the cage idea that you see in the veils, in the corset, in the actual red cage that is shown at the end of the film. We wanted death to be a major so she’s surrounded by fur, she’s surrounded with dead birds…Diamonds that are the hardest of the stones that could cut at any second. Sex is a massive part of it so some of the dresses were actually made out of bed sheets to keep that kind of post-coital effect. The dresses were based on lingerie, so the idea that they’re falling off or that the lace is coming out of them, so you’re keeping sex and death at all times. The dress at the end, we all got obsessed with the idea of the Whore of Babylon and the fall of the Whore of Babylon so we looked at paintings of the Whore of Babylon to get the color of that dress that could reflect that. That’s what I love about Jacqueline, like the dresses tell the story as much as everything else does, you know. And that goes for the actual set design as well. There’s symbolism everywhere within the movie if you want to look for it and find it. And I love that so you take something that is just a pretty dress, and then you turn it into something that is actually a massive part of the creation of the character.
The jewelry was beautiful, also. Who designed it?
Keira Knightley: Again, vanity is a massive part of Anna’s character. I mean, if you go read the book he talked about it for pages and pages and pages…so I think we all felt like that was important. With diamonds, the thing about real diamonds is when you light them they give off light like nothing else. So Seamus, the D.O.P. was like, “If you could get the real stuff then that would be great because it lights in a way that paste is never going to light.” And really fortunately I have a relationship with Chanel and Joe has a relationship with Chanel and they very kindly lent us, unfortunately didn’t give me, but lent us all of jewelry, which is great.
Is the prospect of playing this famous literary character any more daunting than say, prepping for the role of someone not as well-known?
Keira Knightley: Elizabeth Bennet was terrifying because people love her and I loved her and women often see themselves as her. And that was terrifying because you’re stepping into a fantasy realm. You’re stepping into somebody’s vision of what they want to be. Cecilia Tallis is less so because she’s an icy creature so… people don’t want to be her and people don’t want to be Anna, you know. So I think Anna is less terrifying in that way. She’s terrifying because… I mean yes, there’s that element where lots of people have played her before and lots of people have their version of who she is because they’ve read the book and they love the book. But they don’t want to be her in that same way, so I don’t know that that was that frightening. What’s always frightening is…if you’re taking a book the size of Anna Karenina and trying to do a film adaptation as opposed to a television adaptation. It’s just going, how do you get the essence of all of these characters into two hours? I mean, you’re always going to lose something. And I think that’s why I really poured over the book and Joe really poured over the book. I mean, we had a great adaptation. Tom’s adaptation was extraordinary. In the first draft that I read, the fact that he managed to get 812 pages down to 115 and it didn’t feel like he’d lost the essence of it. I thought it was an incredible feat. But again, just within her character I think the most difficult thing was taking all of that and trying to not simplify her, which I think they do in a lot of film adaptations. So I think that’s the most terrifying thing and I think that’s often why people get so pissed off with film adaptations, because you go, “Don’t take something that is trying to explore this incredibly complex thing and “babyfy” it,” you know? You actually have to kind of explore it and I think…we’re really very conscious of just not trying to simplify her.
Along those lines, what kind of acting choices did you make to bring across the complexity of your character?
Keira Knightley: I think always the thing is to explain an emotion because we all explain emotions in different ways. I think that’s really why books can get as big as they can, you know, the explanation of how somebody feels in a comprehensive way that we can all understand can take pages and pages and pages. An actor can do it in a look, I mean…we read faces a lot more than we understand words when trying to describe something like that. So often it would be 2 or 3 pages of a description of what was going on that you could actually put into half a scene or try and kind of understand the scene in a different way by going, “Okay, well I can take all of this and tuck it in here.” And just by understanding what this emotional thing is, hopefully it’s written on my face and hopefully other people would be able to understand that. I think that’s what I try and do with my job.
Can you talk about working with your male leads, because they’re particularly good.
Keira Knightley: They’re amazing. I’ve known Jude socially for quite a few years and actually we went to do a film called Tulip Fever that was based on a Tom Stoppard script. We were meant to do it. It fell through 6 weeks before we were meant to start shooting and I ended up doing Pride and Prejudice. So I’ve sort of known him from then, so it felt really wonderful that we finally got to work together after so many years on a Tom Stoppard script. It all felt like it had gone kind of full circle which is great. We work in a very similar way. We like to talk a lot, we like to talk about it, we like to have done a lot of research and bring different things to the table and discuss. Joe would say it’s because we’re too terrified of getting up and actually doing it. I don’t entirely agree with him but I don’t entirely disagree with him either. I’m a massive fan of his work. Aaron works in a totally different way. He doesn’t like to talk about it at all. He works from a movement base. So we did lots of improvisations with no words but entirely movement pieces. So we did a 20-minute movement piece that charted at the beginning of their meeting all the way through their relationship until her death. That was the kind of product of about three weeks of workshops with the choreographer, who did all of the movements and the dances for this Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. We kept on going back to those movement-based pieces, so as soon as the scene wasn’t working we’d go back to this improvisation piece and find the way that it would work through movement, which was fascinating because that’s the opposite of the way I work. So yeah, he’s extraordinary.
Anna Karenina boasts some beautiful choreography and a fabulous and dramatic ballroom dancing scene. Knightley explained that the dancing scene was one of the more challenging scenes to film.
Keira Knightley: Below the waist it’s a classic waltz, so that’s 1-2-3, 1-2-3…and then above the waist… Sidi Larbi, the choreographer, is left-handed, so all of that stuff is with the left hand, which as a right-handed person is incredibly difficult, anyway…and then the feet are doing something entirely different, and then you’re going in the wrong direction to the way that you want to go…but you can’t lead (like in a classic waltz, somebody leads you around the dance floor). Because all this is going on, nobody has a leader…Three-day shoot, it was like 12 to 14 hours and everybody got ill…It looks really beautiful…We didn’t actually get the costumes until the day we shot so we never rehearsed in the costumes, none of us. The weight of that costume is like a small child being wrapped around your middle, so not only was it sprinting, but it was also sprinting with another person hanging on to you so everyone got sick, so that was fun.
Do you think that the moral dilemma of Anna is relevant today?
Keira Knightley: I think the extraordinary thing is that it is. I don’t think that it’s in such an extreme form. I mean, clearly if a woman decides to go, she has the option to leave a marriage. She’s not going to necessarily lose her children. She’s not going to necessarily be ostracized by society. She might, in both of those cases…The rules might change, but the actions in the way that society works, I don’t think do change. I mean, we’re pack animals and the way that the pack solidifies itself is by turning on the individual. We see that again and again and again. You see that in office places. You see that in playgrounds. You see that in the media. You see that everywhere. I mean, that’s what we do. And I think that’s why that feeling of the pack turning on the individual, you can completely understand, whether it’s because you decided to have an affair or not, you know. I mean, I think almost what destroys Anna is her inability to lie, you know, when they talk about the rules of society. It’s her inability to deny the relationship and to hide the relationship is what kills her. They don’t really care about the relationship itself. That’s not the problem. They’re all having affairs. It’s that she’s not lying about it. Well, I think that’s as true today, you know. We all know this stuff goes on, but don’t get caught, don’t talk about it. I mean, I think that’s as prevalent within our society as it was back then, maybe in a slightly different area.
There was an impressive scene in the film, when they walk into the opera house and everybody’s piercing Anna. That’s a symbol of society, the contradictions in society and persecution.
Keira Knightley: I think it’s massively about judgment. The whole thing is about judgment and forgiveness, and for me, no one in that opera house, no other character had a right to turn and judge her. No other character there was more lily white, was any purer than she was, and yet they all relished in the opportunity to turn around and throw stones as we do because it makes us feel better about ourselves, you know. And that’s what’s terrifying about it, is that you recognize it. Today that’s what we all do. We’ve all been guilty of it, you know. That gossip, that kind of talking about our mate who’s done something bad. Do we have a right to judge them? No, of course we don’t. Do we judge them? Yes. And that’s what’s so terrifying I think about the whole thing.
You have had so much success working with Joe. What’s the key to your success?
Keira Knightley: I don’t know… I think we both wish that we could answer that. I don’t know why it works. I mean, I think it’s the same as friendship, why you are friends with some people, but you’re not friends with others, you know. I think it’s a similar thing in a working relationship. We are also friends but first of all, we are work colleagues…and what’s strange is it’s a very personal thing. A different director could do exactly the same thing that Joe does and talk to me in the same way, but it wouldn’t work in the same way because they’re not Joe.…I love his imagination. I love his aesthetic. I love the fact that he gives 150% of himself to every project that he does and he demands 150% from every single person that’s involved. He makes it seem like it’s the most important thing in the world, which of course it isn’t. But in a way, you want it to be, you know. And that’s sort of the magic of being part of any of his films. It’s that, it does, and that process of creation becomes the most important thing ever. And then of course you get to end of it and you’re like “oh it was just a film.” But they become very special I think because of that and the experience is very special because of that. And actually I think anyone within the creative industry…they’re vocational so you want to give 100% of yourself or 150% if you can. So I guess that’s why I love working with him.
Can you talk about any of your upcoming projects?
Keira Knightley: I got to the end of Anna Karenina and realized that I had spent 5 years doing films where either I died in all of them or something horrific happens and I was just like, “I’m not going to do anything dark this year.” I did a very lovely film over the summer called Can A Song Save Your Life with the wonderful Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Keener, which is about friendship and making an album, which is very lovely. And then I’m doing a piece of absolute pure entertainment which is the Hollywood thriller called Jack Ryan. And so I don’t die, which is great!
Anna Karenina is now playing!