Many people have a general knowledge of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy's sweeping epic of romance and tragedy. If not, then you at least know the name…or the "train" wreck of an ending (pun intended). In short, the story is about a woman (Anna) her husband (Karenin)and her illicit affair with a younger man (Vronsky). A whole lot of stuff happens in between, but you get the picture.
If you don't know much about the literary masterpiece, then you will once November 16 comes around. Director Joe Wright brings another film adaptation of the story — but with a distinct theatrical panache. Academy Award nominated Keira Knightley (who can be seen as a muse for Wright) steps into the shoes of the title character and co-stars in the movie with an impressive roster of actors including Jude Law (who plays Karenin), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who plays Vronsky), Kelly McDonald, Olivia Williams, Domhall Gleeson, and Matthew Macfadyen. We had the opportunity to talk to Knightley about playing such a loved/hated character of literary, working with Joe Wright, complex dance sequences, and the pain of dressing in corsets.
Why do you think Anna Karenina has remained relevant for so long and, more specifically, how do you think the story reflects in society today?
I think one of the major parts of Anna Karenina is the society aspect and the society turning on the individual — the pack turning on the individual. I think that the rules of society can change. I think the fact that there are rules — and they’re very strict rules – that hasn’t changed society as itself. You can talk about celebrity, but I think it’s actually in all walks of society. You can certainly see that in the media and in politics.
I think it’s what we do as human beings. We are a pack animal. We form the pack and to solidify the pack. We turn on the individual. I think that’s what happens today and I think that that’s what happened back then as well.
Anna Karenina is such an iconic character in the literary world. Some people love her, some people hate her. What did you think of her?
I think that empathy is one of the things that is most hard within being a human being. I think that’s what makes me so interested in acting. You don’t have to be particularly intelligent to be an actor. What you do have to do is empathize with the character. It’s very difficult to do that on a day to day basis. It’s one of the most difficult things to do.
What’s interesting in acting is deciding whether I like this person or if I agree with how this person behaves, I have to try and understand because I’m playing them. I can’t judge them from the inside unless they are judging themselves.
Do we manage to do that in everyday life? No, of course we don’t because we are the center of our own thing and we enjoy judging other people. We enjoy morally putting somebody else down in order to make ourselves feel better. Do we have the right to do that? Are we any better than each other? No, I don’t think so. I’ve certainly never met anybody that has a moral, higher morality than anybody else. I’ve never met anybody that’s so lily white that they have the right to judge anybody else.
That is what we do as humans. That is what you do to Anna Karenina. You judge her. You judge her deceitfulness, you judge her manipulative nature. You judge her infidelity, but you equally (ask), “Is there anything within this that I don’t have within my own personality. Have I been deceitful? Have I been manipulative? Have I hurt most the people that I love most?” Yes, because we’re humans and that’s what we do. Do we also judge that? Yes, we do.