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.
How did you inform your portrayal of Anna Karenina?
I approached it just using the book. It was weird because I had read the book when I was in my early 20’s and I remembered it as being this amazing, sweeping romance and really wonderful. I read it last summer just before we started shooting and (said), “Oh God! This is completely other than I remembered it!” I think that’s why the story is so extraordinary. You can come at it from different points of your life and see it in a completely different way.
Sometimes I thought – and I could be completely wrong – that Tolstoy hated her. He is not portraying her as innocent. At some points he writes her as the whore of Babylon. She is everything that is awful and yet he also falls in love with her and understands her. You don’t want to simplify what this is.
When Tolstoy actually first started writing the novel, Karenina was meant to be the hero. It was about this outstanding wonderful man who had a wife who committed a crime against him. As he went on writing the novel, he fell in love with Anna and started seeing it from her point of view. I think when you really read it you can kind of see that within it. That was something that was really interesting for both me and for Joe (Wright) – the idea of her being a heroine and the anti-heroine at the same time.
What’s your take on the attraction between your character and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)?I think it’s lust. I think it’s lust at first sight and I think it’s romance. I don’t think that she’s ever had either. I think because you have to look at love an entire emotion – not just the romance, the lust or the companionship, but equally the loneliness and jealousy. She doesn’t. She certainly can’t recognize anything other than that initial (lust) because she’s never had it before – and that’s her tragedy Once she’s tasted it, she can’t recognize anything else and that’s the only thing that love becomes.
She can’t recognize the love that is there between her and her husband (Karenin, played by Jude Law) because it is less than that lust. If you’ve never experienced that kind of sexual thing or romance then of course you’d cling on to it and you wouldn’t understand when it leave. It is her tragedy.
Why do you think she was attracted to Karenin in the first place? He seemed so radically different from Vronsky.
There is an explanation in the book. She’s from this very, very small town in Russia and he gives her a way out. She’s 18 and she’s been living with two aunts. He’s very well thought of and he’s a catch. She wants to get out.
With the period pieces you've done, wre you used to wearing corsets by now?
I actually wasn’t wearing them most of the time. Yes, I was very lucky. With the costumes, it’s working with Jacqueline Durran, who did the costumes for Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. She’s one of my favorites! I’d say costume designers are creative people in general, but a lot of designers would give you the concept and you have to fit yourself within the concept. Jacqueline says, “This is the concept,” but then she says, “Now let’s get to the character.” You go in and you literally just talk to her for hours on a character point of view.
What about all of that fancy jewelry? Was it all real?
The jewelry is real, yes. No, I didn’t get to keep them. (laughs). With the idea behind the costumes it was this idea that she’s a bird caught in a cage. We wanted to test around the claustrophobia. She’s also surrounded by death with the fur. She's the birds that can’t fly because they’re dead and they’re coming out the top of her hat. The fabrics for the dresses were based on lingerie fabrics. The cut of the dresses were kind of lingerie. The texture was like bed sheets that we actually used. So, it’s this idea of sex and death being combined. The only color that we brought into the jewelry was rubies – so it was blood red. Obviously the frame, the frame underneath the dresses was a cage.
That's called a crinoline, right?
Yes, the crinoline. Then the veils were kind of a cage. That’s why I love her because you can use all of that imagery. Vanity is such a massive part of her personality. It was written about quite extensively in the novel. Working on that principle her wardrobe had to be something very beautiful but constantly from a character point of view.
How was it like filming that elaborate and amazing ballroom scene? It looked difficult.
Yes. It was very difficult. (laughs)
How long did it take to shoot that whole sequence?
I think it we had about three days – maybe four. Everybody got ill. It was really, really, really intense. A lot of the concept of the film came from Joe being completely inspired by this choreographer named Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui] – who I didn’t know until I saw one of his pieces in London. I thought, “Wow, you can do that with movement?” Movement is something that you normally don’t play with in film at all. We shoot close up, so you don’t have to. (Body movement) is quite an interesting thing. I certainly realized that when I got on stage. I thought, “Woah, there is a whole body here and what do I do?” I’m not used to having to do that. Joe is really interested in of what he could do with that movement seeing as we’ve so rarely use it in film to tell story.
We did about three weeks of workshops and movement workshops before we started and did various different kind of “ improvisations” based on movement. Also Sidi is left handed. Most of the tricky stuff is with the left hand, which for us right handed people is kind of also quite tricky.
How was it like having Aaron as a dance partner?
I have say, Aaron is phenomenal. I work with words. I would do a lot of research. I read a lot. I work on text an awful lot. Aaron is very, very movement based, so he’s phenomenal. He picked up the dances within about five seconds whereas it took everybody else about three weeks to do it.
Have you been watching Aaron’s work before you worked with him?
I’d seen Nowhere Boy] and I thought he was wonderful. I saw Kick-Ass and I thought he was really, really good. It is always interesting when you meet somebody that works completely differently. I know it’s a strange thing but he’s so confident with the movement side of that, and that’s how he gets into character. I like a lot sitting around the table or talking about character – that’s how I kind of get into it. He totally is the opposite. It’s really interesting working with him. You can actually see it in his work.
Finally, you've worked with Joe Wright many times before. How was your collaboration this time around? Is it on “another level”?
It was different, yes. We did Pride and Prejudice and then we did Atonement incredibly soon after. We made the two within two years. We didn’t realize it because I have seen an awful lot of him. We actually hadn’t made a film for five years, but we have done like three commercials. We did sit down and said, “wow, we’ve really changed quite a lot in our approach to work”. We changed in a way that I wouldn’t be able to say. It wasn’t like doing Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice where you play a person that people love and are meant to love and women see themselves as or want to be. It wasn’t like Cecilia Tallis in Atonement who can be a bitch and is very pent up becausesomething is trying to burst out. They were kind of simpler to kind of get your head around. With Anna Karenina, we’re again talking about the Tolstoy thing whether you were meant to like her or not. It was a tricky character to wrangle.