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Interview: Keira Knightley of 'Anna Karenina'

'Playing Anna? She's terrifying ...'

By James Rocchi Nov 22, 2012 3:52PM

With a big and booming laugh that flashes a toothy smile, Keira Knightley is far removed from the staid, bourgeois repressions she embodies -- and breaks out of -- as the lead character in "Anna Karenina," Joe Wright's adaptation of the Tolstoy novel. We spoke with Knightley in Toronto about Wright's decisions, her process and how happy endings may elude her on-screen ...


MSN Movies: This is one of the classic novels of world literature. It's a big sweeping adaptation by a director you've done amazing work with before. But at any point, were you intimidated? Were you a little put off by the prospect of bringing this iconic character to life?


Keira Knightley: Yes (Laughs) In the short answer, yeah. I mean, yeah, she's terrifying. And it's a terrifying prospect to try and capture the essence of that book in a film. It's 820 pages; it's a big book. And trying to kind of not simplify the story is very daunting, also the fact that it's been done so many times before, and people have failed to do it so many times before. So yeah, I mean every character is daunting. I think strangely with her, it was less terrifying than Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice" because with that character, women see themselves as her. They love her; they want to be her. That made it completely terrifying. With Anna, people are fascinated by her, but they don't want to be her.


BING: 'Anna Karenina' l Leo Tolstoy

Right. Nobody wants to sign up for the Anna Karenina…


... Express train, no. (Laughs)


Really? 'Express train?'


Yeah, I did go there.


Yeah. And that's another question I have is, you spend the entire day acting in this series of doomed loves and terse conversations and you're wearing bustles and wigs and surrounded by the stagecraft apparatus of a Russian imperial state. What do you do after a day of filming to get the Russia off of you?


You fall asleep. I mean, literally I think I (would) get home every single night, have a glass of wine, and just pass out.




And that's it. It was exhausting, and I think that that's sort of one of the reasons I love working with Joe so much is that he is totally, the piece that he's making takes over his life, and that's what he demands from everybody else. So it is an exhausting process, but you put your heart and your soul into it. And I sort of think with anything in particular with filmmaking, what is the point of doing it if you're not willing to put your heart and your soul into it, and particularly doing something like "Anna Karenina" where it's been done so many times before, and where Joe was trying to kind of create this completely different world, this different way of storytelling. I think everybody put everything they had into it, which meant that when you got home at the end of the day, you're exhausted when you went to bed. (Laughs)


The decisions Mr. Wright made, the inter theatricality of it to make it very much like a stage in this sort of Brechtian way, that came in late at the game. Do you know him well enough that when he said, "I'm doing this," and you look at his plans, you're just "All right"?


No, my first reaction was, "Oh, no." (Laughs) I came in about 12 weeks before we started shooting. We were originally meant to be doing quite a naturalistic fashion shooting in Russia and in England, and then all of a sudden he phoned me 12 weeks before we started and said, "Come around to the house. I think I've got something that I kind of want to explain to you." And his office was just covered in drawings and storyboards. I think we all had a sense that if you're doing this story that's been done again and again. And if you're working in this team that's worked together several times before, you have to try and push yourselves and you have to try and do something a little bit differently. I think if it had been a director that I'd worked with less and knew less well, I wouldn't have been as willing to jump off the cliff with him. But as it was a group of people that I really do admire so much and love working with, I think it was a sense that you go okay well what's the worse that can happen? The worse that can happen is we fail, but it would be a tragedy if we didn't try so we might as well try.


After this film and "Atonement," are you thinking about saying to Mr. Wright, "I'll gladly work with you again but only if good things happen to my character"?


(Laughs) In "Pride and Prejudice" lovely things happened to my character. You know, he's killed me off twice.


Yes, you're two for three.


Should I take that personally? (Laughs)




Possibly. Yeah, no. I think what we really liked was we've done our own sort of fashion of a trilogy, literally a trilogy. It's quite nice. (Laughs)

For more on "Anna Karenina," check out our video interviews with the cast: 

"Anna Karenina" is in limited release. 

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