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Keira Knightley and Director Joe Wright Discuss Anna Karenina

New Takes On Old Tales

Nov 15, 2012 Keira Knightley
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Keira Knightley and filmmaker Joe Wright have a great chemistry working together. The young actress landed a starring role in the director’s 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, for which she earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. That same magic struck again with their second collaborationan adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, in 2007which received a nod for Best Picture. For his third film with Knightley, director Joe Wright once again looked to the literary world for inspiration, choosing to adapt Leo Tolstoy’s landmark novel, Anna Karenina.

“I’ve had the great privilege of watching her develop from a stunning ingénue to a great actress,” says Wright of his leading lady. “I think this performance is her crowning achievement so far. She’s a woman now, and when I’d worked with her she was a young woman or a girl, and I wanted to invest this film with that womanliness she’s grown into.”

“We’re friends, but we’re also work colleagues. It’s a very personal thing,” Knightley says of her relationship with Wright. “A different director could do the same thing that Joe does and speak to me in the same way, but I don’t think it would work because they’re not Joe. I love his imagination, I love his aesthetic, I love the fact that he gives 150% of himself to every project that he does, and he demands 150% from everyone he works with. He makes it seem like [the film] is the most important thing in the world, which of course it isn’t, but in a way you want it to be. That’s the magic in his films.”

Anna Karenina, like their two collaborations before it, came with its share of challenges. All three were based on daunting source material; in the cases of Pride and Anna, they were competing against dozens of previous adaptations that had already been filmed. It was finally the duo’s successful track record that helped silence many of this film’s prospective naysayers.

“When we did Pride & Prejudice, everyone went ‘Why are you doing that? That’ll be crap,’” says Knightley. “‘She was in Pirates [of the Caribbean], and she’s shit. He’s only done TV, and he’s crap, and it’s going to be crap.’ And then that kind of did well. And then we did Atonement.... ‘That’s an unfilmable novel, they were just lucky last time, and it’s going to be terrible.’ And then that did well. And then when we said we were going to do this, everyone was like, ‘Oh! That’ll be great.’ And we didn’t like that…I know it sounds very weird, but we both work best when we at least believe we’re the underdog.”

Though at this point she’s no stranger to playing beloved literary characters, Knightley finds a level of challenge in each role Wright’s selected her to play.

“Elizabeth Bennet was terrifying, because people love her, and I loved her, and women often see themselves as her,” Knightley says of her character in Pride & Prejudice. “That was terrifying, because you’re stepping into a fantasy realm, stepping into somebody’s vision of what they want to be. Cecilia Tallis [in Atonement] was less so, because she’s an icy creature, and people don’t want to be her. And people don’t want to be Anna. I think Anna is less terrifying in that way. There’s that element where lots of people had played her before, and lots of people have their version of who she is because they read the book and loved the book.”

Though she fully commits herself to a darker take on Anna than we’ve seen in previous adaptations, Knightley hasn’t always had such an unsympathetic view of the character.

“I read it first when I was about 19, and I remember loving it, but I remember seeing [Anna] as being completely innocent, and everyone else being wrong,” she says. “But when I read it again last summer before we started shooting, it was totally different than I remember it being. This is a much darker character than I remembered. And suddenly, the question of her function within the piece; because it’s called Anna Karenina, sometimes we think we have to sympathize with her all the time. I don’t think Tolstoy was holding her up as a character we all think we should be. I think he was holding her up as a warning.”

One of the many interesting decisions made by Wright is the choice to use one stage to represent several locations in the film. As the characters move about from one Russian high society locale to another, the backgrounds and extras shift around them, as if the audience were watching the action unfold on the stage, rather than in a film.

“I was seeking a more expressive form of telling this story, something that would get me closer to Tolstoy’s invention,” he says. “One of the things that interested me most about St. Petersburg was this sense of it being kind of fake. Peter had made the decision to build a city modeled on Europe, and he brought in these French and Italian architects, and he’d decided that every single aristocratic family must build a house in this town. There’s something kind of not real about it. It’s so beautiful, and so perfect. I find it fascinating that it’s almost like a [theater] set built to make a statement about who these people were.”

“When he said we’re going to do it in this way, I think I felt quite relieved,” adds Knightley. “He was suddenly bringing the possibility of failure right to the table and shaking the whole thing up. We wanted to be massively challenged, and we wanted to hold hands and jump off the cliff together. The worst that would happen is we’d have failed, but at least it wasn’t safe.”

Another inspired choice was to cast Jude Law as Anna’s older politician husband, Karenin. Normally cast in handsome starring roles, Law appears here as the balding and cuckolded man who comes out on the wrong end of Anna’s affair.

“I think Jude is a great character actor trapped in the body of a leading man,” says Wright.

“[Jude and I] work in a very similar way,” Knightley elaborates. “We like to talk a lot, we like to have done a lot of research. We like to bring different things to the table to discuss. Joe would say that’s because we’re too terrified of getting up and actually doing it,” she laughs. “I don’t entirely agree with it, but I don’t disagree with him, either.”

Knightley, despite finding much success in recent years playing tragic heroines, doesn’t necessarily always want to play such somber roles. Her recent films include the apocalyptic Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, and the highly depressing sci-fi picture Never Let Me Go; it’s not a huge surprise that she may be looking for a change of pace in her upcoming movies.

“I got to the end of Anna Karenina and I’d made so many films where I died at the end of them, or something else horrific happens,” says Knightley, with a laugh. “I have to not do anything so dark this year.”

[Anna Karenina opens November 16th.]



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