Let's just call it now: This may be Keira Knightley's time to bring home a little gold man. Anna Karenina, the filmic rendition of one of the most beloved and painful novels of all time (penned by the czar of Russian lit, Leo Tolstoy), isn't just an imaginative and symbolic immersion in Alexandrian Russia, but a career-defining role for Ms. Knightley. For those who snoozed through their high school lit class, a basic primer: Anna Karenina is a married woman who elopes with an unmarried man, despite its impropriety in the Russian high-class structure. Her story is told in parallel to the tale of the woman whose heart Anna's paramour breaks — and her successful, albeit simple, marriage. Anna and her lover, Vronsky, are ostracized, judged, and then make their way (tentatively) back into society, where Anna becomes consumed with jealousy. Basically, it ends poorly for her, and the story acts as a condemnation of modern society. Heavy stuff, but juicy drama is Keira's bread and butter — and never has she shined as brightly as she does in Anna (and we earnestly hope the Academy agrees).
With such a hefty discussion about love, faithfulness, and goodness, we just had to ask her all sorts of questions: Does true love exist? What is it like to play such a nuanced, complicated character? And, dearest Keira, why do you seem to die in everything you do?
Anna Karenina is one of the most intense characters you've ever played. What do you think of her? Do you think she is problematic?
"She is. I think it was weird because I initially read the book when I was sort of in my late teens/early 20s, and my memory of it was as Anna being somebody who was sort of a victim and in the right and almost saintly...and everybody else was wrong. And, then all of a sudden, I read it again last summer, just before we did the film. And all of this is not what I remember at all, and she is not the same person who I remember at all. I saw her as much darker and questioned the function of the role within the whole piece. I think, because it’s called Anna Karenina, you expect her to be the heroine. You expect her to be the one that you should always sympathize with, and you should be seeing through her eyes. I don’t know if that's her function as a character. I think the one to be idolized is Levin, and if you like, the 'goody' is Levin. Anna definitely walks the line of being the anti-heroine. I thought if you’re having the Levin/Kitty story line within the piece, which is the real romance, the idealized kind of hope, then what’s the point of doing the same thing with Anna? So, I thought it would be more interesting if we looked at that kind of darker, morally ambiguous kind of side to her." Is that why you think it still resonates to this day?
"I think it resonates to this day because it’s about love and not just romance or just that happy bit. It isn't about love in the way it’s sold to us, but love as the thing that we’ve been fascinated and obsessed with for centuries. Love is what we are all after and yet can destroy us and is painful, or can be madness, or it can be joy and happiness. (The film) looks at the whole thing. I think that’s why it’s so complex. It has more questions within it than it has answers, because we never manage to answer the questions. Love is something that is so inexplicable, complex, and strange. That’s why you keep going back to it. That’s why, when preparing for this, even when we were talking about it, every single person — whether they were a member of the crew or the cast — could go, 'oh yes, I relate to that,' because everybody had a story within their lives that was applicable to the tale. It didn’t matter that we lived in 2011 or 2012 or in 1873, because it’s about that emotion." Watching the things that Anna goes through is really draining and difficult? How did you sustain yourself through that emotionally wrenching process?
"It was pretty exhausting, particularly because (director Joe Wright) approached the shoot as an incredibly stylized and technical piece of filmmaking. So, maintaining a character who is so highly emotional through a kind of 12-to-14-hour day is quite exhausting. But it’s just one of those things." Joe (Wright), who directed you in Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, once said, "We may question love with our rational mind, but it’s beyond our brain to process it." Do you personally think you’re the kind of person that thinks love conquers all? Or, is that a fantasy?
"I mean, I’m a 27-year-old woman. I think it would be a bit strange if I had those romantic notions about relationships...that you should have when you’re in your teens. I think that it is absolutely inexplicable and there is a lot of pain involved with love, as there are absolutely great moments. I mean, it would be a bit shit of me to stand and go, ‘Yeah, love conquers all.’ It’s romance all the time. You’d obviously go, 'Bollocks!' So, no, I think it’s a fascination. These are the questions we can never answer. Why do we feel the way we do? Why are we attracted to those people? Why, even when it’s going badly, do we go back for more? What is that within us, you know?" So, you are more of a Levin fan then, huh?
"No. I don’t think I’m a fan of either of them. I think I recognize both. I think you can rationally judge other people’s relationships (not that you’ll ever know or you'll ever have the right), but you can never, I don’t think, override emotions for rationale." You said before that everyone relates to Anna, different parts of her in their own lives. How do you relate to her?
"Ah, I’m not quite sure. I mean, I find her terrifying. I find her terrifying because I am no better than she is. I find her terrifying, because even in the moments when I judged her the harshest, I thought, would I do any differently? Have I behaved any better? Do I know that I would behave better? Would I be destroyed by this? No. I think that’s why people go back to her again, and again, and again. It’s enough to make chills go down your spine when you look at her and think I do hate her but do I recognize her? Shit, yes." Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features
"Hey! I didn't say that! That was your idea!" Ah, so true! We won’t put words in your mouth. Don’t worry. But there was this moment in Anna Karenina where you are dancing with Vronsky, and everyone around you...
"They went away." Right! Have you ever had a moment that you could relate to in your life where you felt that the whole world disappeared.
"Yeah. I mean that’s what those initial moments are, aren’t they? I mean the massive mistake is thinking that you can maintain that for your whole life.
But Aaron (Taylor-Johnson) and I didn't know what was going to happen. I think (Joe Wright) thought that he might capture something that was kind of magical. But all that happened was that we fucking pissed ourselves laughing because it just seemed so ridiculous...suddenly we were in the middle of an empty room, and under a spotlight." Okay, we have to ask: You do a lot of period pieces. Do you just love being in costumes?
"Not really. I dislike the fact that the working day is a hell of a lot longer if you’re dealing with big costume or big makeup movies. For example, I’m currently working with the same makeup team from Cloud Atlas. They said they were called in three or four hours before everybody else. So, you’re adding three or four hours to a 12-hour working day, and that’s just to make it, not to take it off. In costume dramas, you’re looking at two hours on top of a 12- or 14-hour shooting day. That’s a bitch. So, I tend to do one and then go off.
I mean, in a modern-day piece, you come in half-an-hour before, you chuck something on, it’s lovely. This one was exhausting. The whole makeup and costume department were wrecked at the end of this. Some of the costumes were literally being sewn together still on me. So, the amount of work that goes into that...you really have to take your hat off. It’s a labor of love to do anything. It was the same for The Duchess, same for Pride and Prejudice. So, that’s the downer.
The brilliant part of it is that the costume, hair, and makeup become such a massive part of the character because you are creating everything from scratch. So, within this, the symbolism of those costumes is huge. It was all about the caged bird; it was about the fur and being surrounded by death. There were dead birds in the hair that couldn’t fly; diamonds that could cut your throat at any second because they’re the hardest stone. A lot of the dresses were based on lingerie, so you were referencing sex and death constantly. There were some dresses that were made of bed fabrics. The final dress, I got obsessed with the idea of the whore of Babylon, so the color was a very specific color that we got from paintings of the fall of the whore of Babylon." Was there anything you wanted to keep?
"No. Well, actually, the diamonds. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any of those." So, after this amazing performance, what is up next for you? Are you going back home to relax?
"I got to the end of Anna Karenina and realized that I’d done five years of films where either I died or something horrific had happened. I wanted to spend a year not dying and trying to do things that were very positive. So, the next project is a film called Can A Song Save Your Life, which is an incredibly positive, hopeful piece about friendship, making an album, and possibilities. And then, the next one was a piece of absolute pure entertainment, which is a Hollywood thriller." Well, at least you didn’t die this time around. Anna Karenina is out in select cities this Friday, November 16.
Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features