In the new film ANNA KARENINA, Keira Knightley plays her titular character with such vibrant gusto and gravitas, it’s enough to make fans of Leo Tolstoy’s novel swoon in delight. The film marks the fourth collaboration (don’t forget that lovely Chanel ad, folks) for the Academy Award nominated actress and acclaimed director Joe Wright. And both have outdone themselves with this breathtaking cinematic visual masterpiece.
At the film’s press day, we (along with a few other reporters) sat down with the affable actress where she spoke about playing such a well-known literary figure, the allure of working with Wright, and the bold vision both strived tirelessly to achieve.
Q: What was the most challenging scene?
They were all pretty challenging. I think the whole stylized movement aspect of it was very difficult because I had never done anything like that before. There is a soiree where Vronsky and Anna flirt where all of the movement within that was absolutely choreographed. Making sure the performance fitted within that totally choreographed movement was something that was quite challenging. I think generally any of the scenes, really the most difficult ones are always the most complex. Any of the scenes between Anna and Karenin (her husband), were always quite difficult ‘cause we didn’t want to simplify that relationship. You want to see there’s kind of love there, but that they’re totally missing each other. There’s such a massive amount of misunderstanding and we didn’t want it to be simply he is in the right and she is in the wrong. Or he is in the right and she is in the wrong. It was trying to kind of make all of that as interesting as possible is quite tricky.
Q: When we first see you as Anna, as you are being dressed and not interacting at all with the servants who are preparing you, it’s a ballet scene. I wondered if the choreography involved every scene?
We did about three weeks of movement workshops before we started with the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui because Joe Wright (the director) wanted movement and stylized movement to be a massive part of the film. I think he saw the whole thing as like a ballet with words. That didn’t just go our movement, but the movement of the camera, the movement of the scenery and everything. You can see that it really flows into each other and occasionally goes into kind of operatic heights and then sort of flows out.. So the actual idea behind a lot of it was, at that point. Russian aristocracy they do very little for themselves. I mean servants would dress them, they hand them tea, they’d put – that was all actually based on reality. It was serving class that was mostly ignored but did absolutely everything for these people. I think Joe Wright thought that was really interesting. So we worked a lot on how exactly that would fluidly work. Like you’d go to sit down and suddenly there would be a chair there or somebody is dressing you and you’re not even paying attention and they’re handing you a cup of tea and not even paying attention. It did take a lot of rehearsal.
Q: Speaking of Joe Wright, you have worked with him time and time again. I was wondering how your working relationship with him has evolved over the course of your knowing each other? What about him keeps you coming back to work with him?
I think it’s his imagination. I think it’s totally sensational. Every film that we’ve done, you can put them into the category of period film but they’re really extraordinary pieces on their own. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE wasn’t the kind of generic kind of period film. He really had a vision of it that made it much more realistic and sort of grubby. They were quite scruffy and much younger and I think he really kind of had a vision of that story that hadn’t been done before. With ATONEMENT that one shot that is the whole Dunkirk scene was something that was purely from his imagination. And then you get to ANNA KARENINA and that is certainly part of his imagination and his kind of worlds he created. Because of that, I find him incredibly exciting. You never know where he’s gonna go. You know it’s going to be something out of the norm. It’s going to be something that pushes boundaries in some way and I find that incredibly exciting. Equally, he is obsessed by the work that he does. He gives 150% of himself to it and he expects that from people he collaborates with. And you give it because you want to because it’s so intoxicating. The opportunity – it feels like a great privilege to be able to dive into this world of make believe and pay attention to every single detail of it is an amazing thing. He has a tremendous amount of respect for everybody. He tries to get the absolute best out of everybody he works with which not everybody does. So it’s nice when they do. And I trust him. I think what was interesting about this is that we did really have to grapple with her – with Anna. She’s not a simple creature; she’s a very complex one. It took a lot of discussion and not always agreeing but always completely trusting we both wanted the best out of the whole thing.
VeryAware: Since you’re playing one of the most famous literary characters, was there anything that you learned about Anna that surprised you? Any discoveries?
I first read the novel when I was in my late teens/ early twenties and I remember her as being innocent. I remember it being very beautiful, sweeping, romantic, tragic, and all the rest of it, but I remember her as being innocent. I suddenly went back to the book the Summer before we started shooting and read it again – this is not how I remember this and she is very different. I don’t know that innocence comes into it. I think that the function that the character plays within the novel and hopefully within this film, you should have quite a complex relationship with her as an audience member or as somebody that reads the book. That kind of process of condemning her which I think you’re intended to do. I don’t think that Tolstoy is holding her up and saying, “Hey everybody! Do this.” I think he’s holding her up to be judged and to be condemned. And the terrifying part of her is you do judge her and you do condemn her and then you go, “Am I any better than her?” Of course the answer is “no.” And that makes it an incredibly interesting relationship with the character.
Q: You’ve done so many contemporary films and period films. Do you have a preference?
No. I think it’s all about story. I like the dramatic tool that is fantasy and I put period films within the category of fantasy as I would put sci-fi within that same category. I think as a dramatic tool, you leave yourself behind. Your imagination is instantly needed because it’s a world that you don’t recognize with a world you don’t know. And I think that means you have a very different emotional reaction to the characters. I think it’s no better or worse for contemporary pieces. I think in contemporary pieces, it’s about voyeurism. You bring your own experiences to life because you recognize the world. I don’t think you do that as much with the whole fantasy genre. I find that very interesting.
Q: Do all the costumes, hair, and makeup bring you into that world more quickly?
Yeah because you can put so much symbolism within the costumes of any fantasy. With this one, they were such a major part of the character. Tolstoy talks of her vanity for many pages so vanity is always within the character of Anna. But equally, the symbolism of we saw her as this bird in a cage that couldn’t get out. So that cage is in there. You see it underneath the dresses and the veils. The fact that she’s surrounded by death all the time – she’s got fur, she’s got dead birds in her hair, she’s got diamonds (the hardest of the stones) that could cut at any second. Keeping that idea of sex there. The dresses were designed to look like they were either about to fall off or there was lingerie poking through. One of the dresses was actually made with bed fabric so you keep that idea of post-coital thing within the scene.That attention to detail in fantasy is very exciting to use.
Q: Not to cast Anna as a victim, but there was the line, “Laws are made by husbands and men.” I thought is she a victim or a product of society where women were being boxed in? Is that something today that we should relate to when we look at how women are treated in the workplace?
I think we do relate to it. I think we’d be ridiculous to say that we didn’t. Obviously, thank God, the laws of divorce are there and we can get out of marriages. We won’t necessarily lose our children and we won’t necessarily be ostracized by society, but it’s not unheard of that people are. I think really it’s the essence of being trapped and I think that’s something we can all relate to. Whether you are trapped in a relationship that you don’t want to be in, or trapped in a bad state of health, or trapped in an economic sense, or trapped in a job you don’t like. I think that’s something human beings feel and that’s something she is rallying against. As far as being a victim, I think one of the negative parts of her personality is she certainly sees herself as a victim. She is also the kind of maker of her own destruction. Can you completely say that she’s a victim? I don’t know that you can, but that’s one of the more interesting parts of her.
Q: The director has such a theatrical vision of this that really captures the audience. Do you feel the same or did you have to be talked into this vision?
When we first started talking about it, it was going to be a completely naturalistic telling and then ten weeks before we started shooting, he phoned me up and said, “Come round. I’ve got something to explain to you.” I went round to his office and he’s showing me these sketches and drawings and I thought, “Oh no. Here we go.” I was also incredibly excited because, like I said before, you always know with Joe that he’s going to do something unexpected and that was it. I think the theater made huge sense. Russian society, at that time, the aristocrats were sort of going through an identity crisis. Their ballrooms were actually lined with mirrors so they could watch themselves performing. So I think this constant idea of constant performance was something that made a lot of sense. Anna is playing the role of the perfect wife, playing the role of the perfect mother, and then suddenly finds that the roles don’t fit. I think within all of those things that theater made a lot of sense. Equally being in that place, you go to the theater and you know as an audience member that you are an active part of that experience. I think we were quite interested in playing with that – that kind of idea that the audience is an active part of this film. You have to use your imagination.
Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the film when it came together?
The whole thing surprised me, honestly. Even when we were making it, we really didn’t know how it was going to come together. Being an actor, you’re a part of it so you don’t get to view it from the outside. It’s always a shock when you see it. This one even more so – how it was all going to come together and whether that concept of theater was going to work was something that I absolutely didn’t know. This is the only film that I’ve ever done where I saw it for the first time and I saw it at the English premiere of it and immediately went, “I think I’ve got to see that again.” Cause you do just go, “Wait a minute.” There’s so much to take out of it. You talk about symbolism of the costumes, it’s everywhere – within the set as well. There’s so much to kind of look at and pull out.
ANNA KARENINA opens in limited release on Friday, November 16 to be followed by a wide roll out soon thereafter.