Keira Knightley: ‘Anna Karenina’ Star on Jumping Off Cliffs and Dancing Through Sex Scenes

As Joe Wright's boldly theatrical version of "Anna Karenina" hits theaters, Keira Knightley describes how she terrified the boys and confounded expectations 

Before "Anna Karenina," we knew that a Joe Wright/Keira Knightley literary adaptation would be like: classy, pretty, energetic but well-mannered, like their Oscar-nominated work together, "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement."

But "Anna" is nothing of the sort. This is Leo Tolstoy's epic novel of passion and betrayal as Baz Luhrmann or Ken Russell might have imagined it, an extravagantly stylized take that sets the entire film (or most of it, anyway) inside a decaying old theater to emphasize the theatricality of the Russian gentry of the time.

Anna Karenina

Beginning with its screenings in Venice and Toronto this fall, the film has both excited and confused audiences. When I saw it in Toronto, I wrote that it was "bold and occasionally silly but more often thrilling" — but this week, TheWrap's reviewer Leah Rozen wrote, "[T]he obvious artifice distances the viewer from fully entering into the emotion of the story and the characters."

But then, as she told TheWrap, Keira Knightley knew that's what she was getting in for.

You seem to have made a wildly divisive movie here — people either go with the conceit, or they don't.
As soon as you try to do anything that's so off-the-wall and not naturalistic, you always have people who'll go, "No, I don't get it." But it was amazing how many people who were at the premiere who said, "I am so inspired."

It's a lovely word, when somebody says they found it inspiring. I do think it's inspiring, because it breaks all the rules, and that's really an extraordinary, frightening thing to see.

People might certainly approach this movie with certain expectations: It's Joe Wright, it's Keira Knightly, it's a classic novel, we know what that's going to be. And it's not that at all.
It's definitely not. That that was sort of part of the reason that we all loved doing it. I think when you're doing a version of "Anna Karenina," which has been done so many times before, and you're working with a group of people who have worked together a number of times before, there's sense of that we have to do something a little different, we have to shake it up, we can't be safe.

And you know, the worst that can happen is that you fail. And if you fail, at least you're failing together, which is always nice. We all just thought, let's just jump off this cliff.

But when you signed on, Joe hadn't chosen the theatrical conceit, had he?
No, it was going to be a naturalistic telling, right up until about 12 weeks before we started shooting. And I think in doing the research, Joe got fascinated with this idea that Russian aristocrats in the 18th and 19th centuries spoke French or Italian, dressed in the French style, their food was based on French food, their etiquette was based on French etiquette, their houses were built in the French style. They'd have tiny secret roots in the Russian style, but they'd never show anybody.

He got obsessed with the idea, which I also found incredibly interesting, of these lives lived on a stage, lived in the constant pretense of being French, of being something that they weren't. If you put it in this theatrical setting, this heightened, stylized fantasy world, you could get the idea that there's a level of play-acting going on with every single one of the characters.

When he broke the news to you 12 weeks before shooting, though, I imagine you didn't immediately say, "Oh, great."
I went, "Oh, no." I remember standing in his office, and there were these drawings everywhere of this theater world. I said "OK, I don't get it whatsoever," and he just started describing it. And when he described the race sequence, where a horse falls from the stage into the auditorium, I went, "Oh, let's go then."

Partly because, why wouldn't you try? When we did "Pride and Prejudice," I was that crap girl from "Pirates" who pouted a lot, and he was a TV director, and everyone went, "This is going to be awful." And then when we did "Atonement," and it was this unfilmable novel that was never going to work.

We were always the underdog, and that's when we work well. And suddenly when he said we were going to do this, everybody was, "Oh, you know how to do that." We didn't like that. Suddenly there was this expectation that I don't think either of us were comfortable with, in a funny way. So it kind of made both of us think, We have to try something different.

As an actress, though, it must mean that you had to play certain scenes in a more stylized, theatrical manner than you were planning to do.
Yes, there are moments when it is heightened. We didn't want it to be a minimalist performance. The whole point of Anna is that she is being driven by her emotions. If she was being rational, a lot of the things that happened in the story wouldn't have happened. She is completely an emotional being.

Very often when you're doing big emotional performances, you're working in quite a minimal setting. You'll do two or three shots, you'll do two or three takes. But with this, suddenly you're doing a scene that's shot through this mirror, and you have to time your teardrop to come down as you turn and hit that beam of light that's coming across your forehead. And you're doing it 14 or 15 times. It adds a certain level of complexity to the whole thing, which is rather interesting.

It strikes me that not only the dance scenes, but also the sex scenes, are very choreographed.
The sex scene is actually a choreographed dance [by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui] that we shot two ways. There is a wider shot where you can actually see that it's dance. What ended up on film is the close-up version that we shot, so that you get the idea of these two bodies that are entwined and you can't figure out whose is whose. But it was actually a dance.

No wonder it looked choreographed.
Yes, exactly. That'll do it.  It has been performed many times onstage, and it's normally performed between two men. And I think Joe liked the idea that it was performed between two men — that within the sexual act, different people take control at different times.

In doing something as stylized like this, you are always walking a tightrope. And I think we clearly thought that the wide shot of this actual dance was too much for this sex scene. But it will make a very nice DVD extra, I should imagine.

Is it true that Joe came to you on the set at one point and said, "I think I hate her?"
Yeah. She's a fascinating character, because the question of whether she's the heroine or the anti-heroine is a constant. And the answer is very ambigous. I think she's both. When I was re-reading it last summer I was thinking, Tolstoy absolutely hates her.

There are points where he's writing like she's the whore of Babylon, and there are other times when it feels like he completely loves her and understands her and she is the victim. I think both Joe and I felt that about her. We were very conscious of not wanting to simplify her.

In some ways we have made her more likeable than she is in the novel, but we also kept that manipulative, deceitful, needy aspect to her. And there were times when we would be doing a scene, and he would just say, "I hate her."

Not necessarily what you want to hear as you're playing her.
I'd say, "You can't say that to me right now." But in a lot of the sequences with Karenin [Jude Law], we actually did play the extremes. We played her as the absolute villain of the piece, and we played her as the absolute innocent. We normally found something in the middle, but we wanted it down on film that there were those two kind of different parts to her.

Did you keep the book close at hand to consult the 700-or-so pages that couldn't make it into the screenplay?
I terrified all the boys. My copy of "Anna Karenina" was completely annotated and had lots of very colorful post-it notes all over it, so it was about twice the size of everybody else's. And I would quite often go back to it. I thought, Is there something we can add from the book to make this more interesting?

What was the color coding for?
[laughs] Well, that's very tricky. The color coding is each different character, each different situation. If there's an action that completely changes the course of the character, that gets a different color. It's absolutely, completely anal, but it makes me feel like I've done a lot of work, and terrifies other people, so it's really great.

The next time you and Joe work together, are you going to look for ways to complicate the task, the way you did with this one?
To make it as difficult as possible? Yeah. It's a flaw, I think, in both of our personalities – but again, why wouldn't you try? You have to try to do something a little bit different, something that takes you out of your comfort zone. I think you constantly have to change the bar. Maybe not raise it, but change it.