Joe Wrights’ adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina, which premièred at TIFF, stars Keira Knightley as the unstable heroine whose affair leads to her tragic downfall. It is a highly stylized film, rich with stunning period detail from the theatrical sets to Knightley’s costumes.
The actress tells us that in every detail of her wardrobe, there is meaning which matches her character’s emotional state.
M&C: You’re so fortunate to have this incredible emotional arc. Did going all out for A Dangerous Method free you to attack the erratic Anne Karenina?
Knightley: Absolutely. With A Dangerous Method one of the reasons I wanted to play it in the way we played it was to break all the rules of being subtle. My personal tastes are quite subtle, less is more in performance but there is a point where you go actually you really want to do something that goes completely against that in order to come back and be able to play with it.
Yes, it was something I wanted to play with. It helped as does every experience which lends itself to the next one. It did. I think also the amount of research of psychological stuff which always helps. I did use the specifics, but thinking about people in a different way.
M&C: Is it a challenge to take on a role that has been done so many times before?
It’s always a challenge, any role is a challenge. It was more frightening to take on Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice because she’s so loved and women see themselves as her. I don’t think Anna is that same thing, she’s not somebody that you go “Oh that’s me” or “I’m in love with her”.
She’s this strange curiosity and because of that she’s always slightly over there, so it was less frightening. In my opinion, it could be completely wrong, but there is am ambiguity about how Tolstoy feels about her. I really thought he hated her, really hated her and I don’t remember that from the first time I read it and so you could play her in so many different ways.
M&C: Did you keep any of the gowns?
Knightley: I’ve got one of the underskirts which is very beautiful and I wonder if I can wear it normally, because it’s not that full shape, it’s normal up and down but it’s beautiful chambray or muslin. It keeps wrinkly and it’s absolutely stunning so I have one but I can’t actually wear it. It does appear too much like a period costume. I will wear it in the garden!
M&C: The contrast between the delicate black lace veil over her face at first when she’s happy and at the end when it’s almost monstrous is stunning. That was a telling image.
Knightley: Yes, the lace was good one! Jacqueline Durran, a brilliant and lovely woman did it. Most designers go with the concept and you have to step into it and wonder how it will work with the character but the concept is it. Jacqueline had a concept but it was so character-based. She invites the actors in to talk for ages and come up with themes. And there was this constant thing with Anna. Her vanity is massive.
It’s talked about in the book a lot and this is a vain creature which is fun because “Hey well, let’s do it” but it was constant. She is a bird in a cage. We wanted that constant feel of being trapped. She constantly wore furs and so was always surrounded by death. And these bird wings that can’t fly, diamonds that are the hardest of cuts. The only time we brought color into the jewelry was this one ruby so you have the blood and then the lines of the dresses were based on the lines of lingerie so you’re bringing sex and death into it.
And the face covered with lace is the cage. We really liked the concept and we worked on those ideas while keeping in mind that she is vain and always looking pretty. That’s why I love Jacqueline so much because she’ll bring that imagery into it which is a help in playing any character.
M&C: Joe Wright did great things with sound too. I’m thinking of the alarming, accelerating beating of the feather fan she uses so furiously.
Knightley: Yeah, that’s amazing. Again the wings, the idea of the bird in the cage so it was equally that kind of caught bird in the cage. That horrendous thing when they fly into a room and fly against a window we talked about that and that manic thing which it was.
M&C: How long did you work on that dizzying dance scene in full costume?
Knightley: It wasn’t quick! I want to say it took about two or three days, but it was quite intense with 14 hour shooting days. Everybody got sick, everybody. Aaron by that last day was literally running off to puke. He was sick, sick, sick and because we were shooting in winter in England it was cold and we were in a studio and there was no air, and it just went round and round.
Everybody constantly was very sick on that one. It was extraordinary. But the dancers were amazing; we were working with this choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui who is Belgian. The stylized version came from Joe having seen his work in London and he was inspired by it and what you could do with movement. He created the waltz that would tell the story. It was this yin and yang melding which took us a month to learn and was incredibly complete and it looks amazing!
M&C: At the end of a project that is so busy and intense and takes all your attention, suddenly it ends. How do you get out of it?
Knightley: It was quiet a relief. We did her death last and that took a week for the bitch to die. It was that awful thing, “My God, it’s a long march to the train station!” Because the shooting was so stylized you’re doing several shots for a scene and fourteen different takes, and its waiting for seven takes for the focus to be perfect to be seen through that mirror he’s shooting when you turn and time that tear to roll down.
And the level of that emotion has to be held up for twelve or fourteen hours of the day. It’s not like you can go out afterwards! You go home and you’re in your bed and aaarggh!! Which is wonderful, and with Joe and his team, that’s what you sign up for. It’s intense but amazing because of that. We finished three days before Christmas last year and I just lay down for two weeks, that’s it, done.
M&C: How did you keep your energy up?
Knightley: (Holds up a cup of coffee) I think that’s it really. Everybody was exhausted because of the nature of the story. It’s wonderful that it does rub off but we are all pretty tired by the end.
M&C: It must have been really special, even though it was anxious.
Knightley: Anxiety’s fine! That’s the way you know you’re working
M&C: So what’s next?
Knightley: I got to the end of that and I thought “My God I need to do something different” So I go to New York and make a movie *about friendship and making an album and nobody dies and it’s all positive and next I’m doing a thriller** and I’m running around and in a very Hollywood-y way but I just thought pure entertainment for a little minute or two is absolutely fine and then I’ll go back to the other because it’s wonderful, but just a little bit of entertainment for a while. That’s been this year which has been great.
M&C: Do you ever take rests?
Knightley: Good question.
M&C: No you don’t you’re at every film festival with big movies.
Knightley: Actually I didn’t work much for the first half of the year so it’s just the second half that’s going to be intense. With enough coffee it will be fine.
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