Keira Knightley on ‘Anna Karenina’: She Went From Heroine to Villain

Keira Knightley said the lens through which she saw her eponymous character in "Anna Karenina" changed repeatedly

Keira Knightley went on an emotional rollercoaster as she conceived the personality of her eponymous character in "Anna Karenina."

Getty ImagesFirst, she loved her as the heroine. Then, she saw why Leo Tolstoy, the novelist that created her, hated her.

Finally, she reconciled the two views.

"Do I have a right to judge her? No," she told the audience Thursday night at the Landmark Theatre at TheWrap's Screening Series. "That's what makes her so fascinating and terrifying."

Knightley plays the tempestuous duchess, who falls in love with another man and leaves behind her son and husband, in the story set in 19th century Russia.

The actress said she pored over the book for weeks, making obsessive, color-coded notes throughout it.

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"I first read it when I was 19 or 20," she told TheWrap's awards editor Steve Pond at a Q&A after the showing. "She was innocent and totally in the right and everyone else was wrong and she was a victim."

"My memory of her was as being the heroine. So I found it actually quite profoundly shocking when we went into production last year," she added, saying on re-read, her opinion changed.

Directed by Joe Wright, this adaptation of the 1877 novel was written by playwright Tom Stoppard.

"I only read Tom's first draft and still thought she was the heroine. But then it was shocking how differently I saw her," Knightley said. "My view of Tolstoy saw her — I could be wrong — but I think he hated her."

Knightley traveled to Russia and throughout England with Wright to scout locations for the film. She said at each spot, they were met with disappointment.

"In Russia they'd say 'we've had seven versions of 'Anna Karenina' shot here before,'" she recalled. "Went to England, and they said 'we had like five Keira Knightley movies shot here.'"

Wright wanted something original.Getty Images

One night, he called Knightley over to his apartment in London, where they live in the same neighborhood. She walked in to find him with dozens of illustrations of an elaborate theater front.

"His office was like a madman's cave," she said. "I saw the drawings of this theater and I just went, 'oh, fuck.'"

"I went off saying, 'I want to see that,'" she added.

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Wright told her that, departing from the naturalistic adaptation that Stoppard had written, he wanted this film to be a "ballet with words."

"'I want you dancing with the camera and all of the scenery,'" Knightley recalled Wright saying to her. "Obviously that means it goes wrong a lot."

She described twirling through the elaborate set, timing everything from her footsteps to a well-placed tear rolling down her cheekbones, to moments of silence and stillness as they moved through scenes that looked more like a tableau than a movie set.

"We didn't entirely know exactly how things stuck together," she said. "But there were times when we planned to do this whole thing in a stylized movement way, and the stillness can be the most powerful thing you have."