Anna Karenina is Keira Knightley’s third collaboration with acclaimed director Joe Wright, following the award-winning box office successes Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.
The bold film is a theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel. Set in 19th Century Russia, the film powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart. As Anna questions her happiness and marriage, change comes to all around her. Listen to Keira and the cast as they talk us through the film and its story here.
We caught up with Keira Knightley, the 28-year-old British actress who plays the role of Anna, and find out what similarities she shares with her character. We also find out what it was like to move away from marriage on screen while moving into marriage in real life, if she misses the fun and action of pirates and swords and her latest cooking adventures.
How intimate is your working relationship with Joe?
Our relationship is quite intimate because we are friends and we live close to one another and I see him an awful lot. What was interesting this time was that we both expected it to be exactly the same and had forgotten that it’s been five years since we last worked together. We had done adverts in between but not a film and we realised that we’d both changed quite a lot. It took us a minute to reacquaint and I think a lot of that is down to the character and the piece. She was such a strange creature that it was a constant balancing act between trying to make her sympathetic and understandable but not too simplistic. There’d be days when Joe would go, ‘I hate her. I just hate her.’ And we’d have to pull her back.
Did you hate Anna yourself at times?
I think it’s impossible not to, just as when you behave badly yourself and go ‘God, I can’t believe I did that’. That’s why you hate her sometimes, but the hatred never comes from not understanding her. She is a character that makes you look at your own behaviour and your own morality, and makes you ask whether you are any better than that.
Do you always follow your desires?
I wouldn’t say that I always do, but if I said that I never did that wouldn’t be accurate. We are all selfish sometimes as human beings.
Do you no longer consider Anna romantic?
I think there are still lots of romantic elements in the way the whole piece looks at love in every possible way – romance being just a part of it. Whether it is lust at first sight or love that is romantic, it is what Anna gets swept up in. The tragedy is that she can’t recognise any other part of love so when it is less than that immediate romance she thinks that it has disappeared and she has failed and that she is on her own. That is the tragedy of the piece.
Is it difficult as an actor imagining living in that time when people were not free to follow their hearts?
No, that is just imagination. As much as society has changed, the rules of society are still there and anyone who breaks them is turned upon. We are a pack and we do turn; it is just that we turn at different things now. I think the feeling of being ostracised or breaking a rule you didn’t realise was so important, I can understand.
Would you draw any comparison between the goldfish bowl in which Anna lives and the one in which you live, with all the media attention?
Yes, absolutely but so can anyone. I think office politics are the same and so are playground politics. We as people do tend to turn on others, as a way of cementing ourselves together. Very often we do that to the detriment of one individual. That is one aspect. She feels hugely claustrophobic. And the problem is that she can’t escape that feeling because when she leaves the marriage, society turns against her. Then she gets it because she can’t leave the house and cannot have any movement. She is constantly trying to break out of that.
What do you think Tolstoy is telling us with this story?
I think he is making the moral point that you should not do what she does. He casts her as an anti-heroine. From my sensibility and most modern sensibilities you shouldn’t live like that. If you are trapped in a relationship that isn’t working for you, you should get out. That is a very modern sensibility and it’s tricky, because we are making Anna Karenina so you can’t ignore what is his point. Tolstoy did fall in love with Anna when writing her and tries to excuse her, but he really does pin her down.
Anna wants something very much, which she cannot have. Can you think of a similar example in your own life?
The ability to speak French. I have tried really, really hard but always fail. It keeps escaping me.
Was it strange moving away from a marriage on screen while you are moving toward one in real life?
No, because I didn’t know at that point that I was. With acting you use less of your own life experience and more of your own life understanding. You can be in a happy place and play a very unhappy character, and vice versa.
Were there any lessons you learned about relationships that might help your impending marriage?
No I don’t think you can take any. The book is saying that life goes on and you’ll tumble into another mistake even if you learn from this one. I think the tragedy for her is not recognising what is in front of her. She always wants what is over there. If you can ever get to a point where you go, ‘yeah, this is amazing’, it is not going to last. It is fleeting. That is the nature of life.
Did you enjoy the dressing up in all those wonderful clothes?
Of course, and working with Jacqueline Durran who I worked with on Atonement and on Pride & Prejudice. She is lovely and works with characters. Her work is character-based and she works with actors. A lot of designers will go, ‘This is my design. Fit into it.’ Which is fine, but Jacqueline is very inclusive. Vanity is a big thing for Anna and as she gets more desperate she becomes vainer. She has nothing else to do. She is always surrounded by death – the fur, and the birds’ feathers – and the diamonds are very cut. Everything was edgy.
Was it technically difficult as an actor to perform against Joe Wright’s very stylised setting?
You use it in your work, and it was exciting to try something new without knowing how well it might work. Technically, though, it was very, very hard because it is a stylised piece and yet you don’t want to lose the emotional impact of the characters. She is a very emotional person and you don’t want her to become too arch or too still.
After a number of strong dramas do you miss the fun and sword-fighting from things like Pirates?
A little. I love doing action movies and I am just about to start one, Jack Ryan, directed by Kenneth Branagh. I don’t do a great deal of the action, though. I run around a bit. The dancing in this film was a little like learning a fight sequence.
Do you like dancing, and if so, to what?
I like dancing but I am not very good. I am good at jumping up and down and making a fool of myself. What do I do that to? We had a fantastic Eighties party the other day and we all danced to Albuquerque by Prefab Sprout.
You said that you thought suicide was the shy person’s homicide. That is very profound…
It was something that someone said to me and I don’t think it applies to all suicides, of course. When I was researching A Dangerous Method that is something that came up and I spoke about that with Joe on this film. It struck me because I didn’t want Anna to be a victim. Her rage at the end is immense and she gets more pro-active in some ways. She wants to hurt Vronsky, so he can feel the pain that she is feeling.
What part of Anna could you most identify with?
Every part. I think that is what is so terrifying about her. Tom Stoppard and Joe were very keen for this to be a thesis about love. At the beginning I didn’t really understand that but as we went on I did. I agreed. You are taking love as romance and as companionship and as great sex, but the other sides, the negative sides that encompass that emotion, are looked at – love as jealousy, as pain, as loneliness. That is what Anna is as a character. When she is at her worst she is in desperate need. We are made up of many different aspects.
What do you make of Anna abandoning her son?
Of course it is shocking and it is a difficult thing to tackle. You think and hope that you could never do that, but you don’t know. People think they wouldn’t but in humankind we do sometimes do things which are against our own moral code.
The role is so dramatic. Did it affect you more than other roles?
I don’t think I was a very nice person to be around while shooting this. She did come home with me a bit so it was quite a relief to finish. And because the technical side was so tricky and the level of emotion had to be kept up it was exhausting and I was often in a bad mood.
Did you learn anything from Anna?
Not really. We are fed this idea about love and what destroys her is that she can only see that first flush of love. That is what we are sold but you could never maintain that for a lifetime. You realise that as you grow up, not as a negative.
What influenced you when you were young?
I loved Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing which I used to know off by heart. I was about eight when it came out and watched it over and over again. That was a big one and that led me to follow him to Hamlet and then her [Emma Thompson] to Sense and Sensibility and Howard’s End.
Any other projects with Joe Wright planned?
No but I would work him again of course!
What inspires you now?
Cooking. I’ve been working my way through the Ottolenghi cookbook!
Do you wear comfort clothes sometimes?
Yes. I have a Batman jumper I love, which makes me feel like a five-year-old!
Anna Karenina Blu-Ray™ and DVD is available to rent or purchase from 5 June 2013. We have five copies of Anna Karenina on DVD to giveaway, click here to find out more about how to enter.