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Anna Karenina - Keira Knightley interview

Anna Karenina

Interview by Rob Carnevale

KEIRA Knightley talks about some of the challenges of playing Anna Karenina in Joe Wright’s new version of the classic Tolstoy novel.

She also discusses why some aspects of society haven’t changed, why she needed something lighter (and involving singing) as her next role and why she feels playing Elizabeth Bennett was more terrifying than Anna Karenina. She was speaking at a UK press conference for the film.

Q. Anna is a very complicated character. How did you research her? Did you read the book? Did you look to history books?
Keira Knightley: Yes I did read the book. I’d read the book before, when I was in my late teens or early 20s and it was quite weird because I just remembered it as this incredible romance… this sweeping, kind of beautiful thing. So, when we first started to talk about it that was my memory of what it was. So, obviously I read it again last summer just before we started shooting and suddenly I went: “My God, this is dark! This is not at all what I thought it was from my memory of it.”

Joe and I both had big discussions about not wanting to simplify her and not wanting to make her too easy. I don’t think that’s the point of her. I think she’s this incredibly complex, strange, dual-like creature and we wanted to bring all of that out as much as possible. So yeah, I did do a lot of work on the book and I think we all read Natasha’s Dance, the Orlando Figes’ book and he also came in and spoke to us, which was really helpful.

Q. As a modern woman, what would you think about living in that society?
Keira Knightley: It’s a tricky one when you’re looking at it because from the last time I read the book I think what it’s actually morally saying is that you shouldn’t do what Anna does. You shouldn’t leave your husband, you shouldn’t cheat and I think from our modern sensibilities the idea of not leaving an unhappy relationship… it’s not something that I agree with. I think you should get out if you need to get out.

So, I think from that moral standpoint it’s a different thing. But I think societies haven’t changed. I think the rules in society change. I don’t think that society has. We have rules; very, very rigid ones and when somebody breaks it the whole pack turns against them. That’s still what happens today. So, I think yeah being a woman then and the literal laws and the state they were in were absolutely horrific. But I think the idea of the pack animal turning against you is something that we still live with today.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of playing Anna?
Keira Knightley: I think it was all a big challenge and an incredibly enjoyable and exciting one. But I think it was the tightrope walk when you decide to play one of the main characters as entirely sympathetic. It’s always frightening because you have to ask if you’re going to lose the audience and if you lose the audience are they just going to go ‘oh shut up and jump under a train!’ So, the desperation to make sure that they could also understand… we discussed it all the time, how far can we take the manipulative side of her, the destructive side of her before she actually turns into somebody who is repellent? So, it was a constant discussion and a juggling act.

Q. The dancing in the film is mesmerising. Did you find it difficult?
Keira Knightley: Yes, really, really, really difficult [laughs]! Luckily, I had a lovely partner! I think I’m quite quick at picking things like that up but I found this almost impossible. But Aaron [Taylor-Johnson] picked it up in about five seconds and just showed everyone up.

Q. How was being reunited with Matthew Macfadyen again but this time playing brother and sister?
Keira Knightley: We just giggled. I think it was because we were trying to learn to dance and initially it was just us together. And we just found it absolutely hysterical so we brought that into our brotherly and sisterly relationship.

Q. There was a TV version starring Claire Bloom and Sean Connery. How aware were you of not just stepping into the boots of these iconic characters from the book but following all of these amazing actors that have played the parts previously?
Keira Knightley: I think taking on any character is frightening and particularly so when there’s been so many different versions of it and it’s a character that’s so well known. I think actually playing somebody like Elizabeth Bennett is more terrifying because it’s a character that people love, or women love, and they fall in love with and they see themselves as. I don’t think Anna is necessarily a character… people don’t see themselves as Anna. They don’t have this love for her. They see her as this strange creature. And from that point of view it’s not as terrifying because you’re not stepping into something and going: “No actually, she’s not you, she’s me!” But there’s always a responsibility and particularly when it’s a story that’s been done so many times.

I have to say I haven’t seen all the versions, I‘ve only seen the Greta Garbo version and I saw the TV version, the Helen McRory version, which I thought was wonderful. But I hadn’t watched them again and again and again and again. They weren’t something that I had massively in my head. And again, like I said when I read the book I remember them as being incredibly romantic, so it was sort of quite freeing actually, re-reading the book and seeing them in a completely different way. I sort of felt you could re-write it and do something that was not simply playing her as the heroine, but also playing her as the anti-heroine kind of at the same time. I haven’t seen all the other versions, so maybe somebody else has done that. But I don’t know.

Q. You’ve danced in this movie and you sing in your next one, Can A Song Save Your Life? How was that and how was working with John Carney?
Keira Knightley: I can safely say that I’m not a singer and I’m not a dancer but I gave it my best shot in both. It was great. I think this was an incredibly intense, wonderful experience but incredibly dark and like I said, the depths that Anna goes to were quite tiring. So, I really fancied this year doing something incredibly positive, so I went away to New York and made a film that’s incredibly positive with John Carney and that was very nice.

Read our review of Anna Karenina

Read our interview with Joe Wright