Every year, a slew of period films comes and goes with little notice. However, some of the best period films in recent years all have one common denominator: Keira Knightley. The Oscar-nominated actress has portrayed several of the most substantial female characters in history. The most impressive of these are her depictions of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, Cecilia Tallis in Atonement and Georgiana in The Duchess.
However, Knightley seems to have a very special connection with the character of Anna in Anna Karenina.
Campus Circle: Anna Karenina has been done so many times on stage and screen. What attracted you to this? What about [director] Joe Wright’s vision stood out to you?
Keira Knightley: Well, I first read the book when I was about 19. I think we’d had a conversation when we were doing Atonement about great female roles and how few there are. We were trying to name them, and Anna Karenina definitely came up. So, he phoned me about two years ago, when I was working on A Dangerous Method, and went “Anna Karenina?” And I went, “Yup!” When we first started talking about it, it was going to be a completely naturalistic telling. It didn’t turn into this stylized thing until 10 weeks before we started shooting. I think, if I’d been working with somebody I didn’t know, that would have been totally terrifying.
CC: Was there something you wanted to do with the character that wasn’t necessarily in the pages of the book?
KK: No. I think within the pages of the book, it’s so massively open to interpretations anyway. Partly because he [Leo Tolstoy, author] does write from inside her head, but often he doesn’t. Often, he writes from outside, judging her and describing her. I think, because of that judgment and description, it means that there are lots of different interpretations. When I first read it at 19, I only remember her being innocent. I don’t remember judging her at all. I don’t remember seeing her as guilty in any way. I read it again last year before we started shooting, and at 26 I suddenly see this differently! I see her as being much darker. I think her moral culpability is constantly in question. I think she is held up to be condemned at certain points. I think she is also held up to be loved, to be understood and to be sympathized with. But I think the relationship with her is quite a complex one for the reader. So, I didn’t necessarily go out of the book. I think I tried to understand, as far as I thought, what her function in the book was. I thought that moral ambiguity was a really interesting thing to play around with.
CC: Do you see yourself in Anna at all? How are you alike, and how are you different?
KK: I think she’s a terrifying character. She’s terrifying because you do judge her, and you try and throw stones at her. Then you go, “Am I any better than her?” I think that answer for everybody is no. Are we all occasionally deceitful? Yes. Are we all occasionally manipulative? Yes. Do we all hurt the people that we love the most? They are the people that we hurt the most. None of us are better than her, and none of us have a right to judge her. Yet, we do, and that’s terrifying. When I talk about the complex relationship you have with that character, I think it’s because of that. It really makes you go, “I am no better than this person that I am judging.” It’s really quite a terrifying mirror that it holds up to human beings in general.
CC: Since there are so many other versions of Anna Karenina, did you ever consciously distance yourself from the other performances?
KK: I actively decided not to watch more of them. I’d seen two of them - the Greta Garbo version and the Helen McCrory BBC version. They had not been pieces of work that I’d gone back to again and again. So, I’d only seen them once, when I was a teenager. I didn’t have a huge memory of what those performances were. I decided not to watch any more, because if you make a decision that another actress has made based on that book, that’s fine.
CC: What is it about working with Joe Wright that you love?
KK: He is totally obsessed by what he does. I mean, he gives 150 percent of himself. He makes it feel like it’s the most important thing in the world. Obviously, it isn’t. I think to work with somebody that requires total immersion in the piece of work is an intoxicating thing to be around. Also, you know that if we got it wrong, he would have given it a bloody good try. We will have given it everything. I think people in creative worlds - that’s all they want. You want it to be that important, and he does that. It’s not just me who is working again with him on this - it’s his costume designer, his set designer, his lighting designer and his composer. There is a whole group of us that have come back together as a team. I think there is a massive amount of respect for everybody else’s talent and space.
CC: In the film, Anna says “I’d rather end up wishing I hadn’t than end up wishing I had.” Is that something that you live by?
KK: I don’t think it’s always possible. I mean, yeah, it’s a great sentiment. I don’t know that it’s always possible, and should be possible. It’s a good sentiment.
CC: The costumes in Anna Karenina were magnificent. I’m curious - is there a part of you that hates wearing them?
KK: Well, I mean, it adds two hours to the day. So, you’re shooting a 12-hour day, and you have to come in two hours before for hair, makeup and costume. And it takes an hour to get out of it. So, you’re adding three hours to a 12-hour day, which is mandatory if you’re doing period pieces or fantasy pieces. But every one of those costumes had an amazing amount of symbolism in them. They were all totally part of telling that story. As soon as you take clothes out of the everyday, you start to think about how you can tell the story with this medium. I find that very exciting.
CC: So, are you going to be going away from period pieces for a while?
KK: Well, I’ve just done two contemporary pieces, but it’s all about story. It’s not about when it’s set or where it’s set. I like fantasy as a dramatic tool. I think it’s a great tool, because it means that you leave yourself behind. Your imagination is required instantly in a period film, because it’s a world that you don’t know with rules you don’t know. I think I certainly relate to characters on an emotional level very differently in period pieces than I do in pieces that are more voyeuristic and present us with the world that we know. I think that’s why I enjoy doing period pieces. It’s that tool that I really enjoy.
CC: Can you talk about working on Jack Ryan?
KK: Well, I got to the end of Anna Karenina, and I realized I’ve been doing pieces of work. I pretty much died in all of them for five years. So, I wanted this year to be the year of positivity and pure entertainment. So, I did one film called Can a Song Save Your Life?, which is about friendship and making an album. Jack Ryan is a really great, old school Hollywood thriller and a piece of pure entertainment. Hopefully, it will be that! I’m currently shooting is in London. I’m nearly at the end of it. I think we finish in early December.
Anna Karenina is now playing in theaters.