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Knightley's Anna Karenina Loses The Innocence

Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright have worked together on three film adaptations of period novels. (Focus Features)

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has been adapted for TV or film at least 25 times. It's a title role made great by screen legends Greta Garbo and Vivian Leigh, and now, it's Keira Knightley's turn.

Knightley reunites with Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright in a new adaptation of the book. Here, she talks to Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about bringing the title character to life.


Interview Highlights

On the opening sequence

"Anna finds herself in the role of the perfect wife and the role of the perfect mother, and suddenly that role doesn't fit. So I think the first thing we did talk about was this idea of her, in the opening sequence, her dressing for the role of Anna Karenina. There was even talk very early on of do you take it one step further and do you actually see me, Keira Knightly, dressing as the actress dressing as the role of Anna Karenina? We thought that would be taking it just one step too far."

On reading the novel

"I think I first read it when I was about 19. Definitely late teens, early 20s. And it's really strange cause it's the first novel I've ever reread and I was totally floored by how different I found it. I remembered it as being obviously very lush and tragically romantic and sweeping and all the rest of it. But I distinctly remember her as being innocent. I was entirely on her side. And I was really, really shocked when I came to it again last summer before we started shooting and totally didn't see her as innocent. And found her very difficult. And found Tolstoy's or what I perceived to be Tolstoy's opinion of her very difficult."

On the character of Anna Karenina

"If you make her totally sympathetic, that is to simplify something that I don't think should be simplified. I don't think anybody in life is entirely sympathetic. I think that's what I found so terrifying about the character in general is that I did judge her, I do judge her. And yet, you're constantly asked the question, 'But are you any better than her? Do you have a right to judge?' And of course the answer is no. And that's kind of a terrifying realization, but also a totally fascinating one and something we were constantly playing with how far you can take that dark aside. Because I think sometimes in the book, she can definitely be seen as the villain.

"I think one of her most destructive parts in her character is the inability to lie. She cannot handle the lie. What's fascinating about that society that she's in as a whole is that they're all having affairs. Everybody's having affairs. She's not doing anything that anybody else isn't doing. The problem is, is that she can't lie about it. And therefore she tells him. She goes further than that — she actually says she hates him, which I think at that point is true. She is horrendously truthful when she wants to be."

On getting acting advice from her father

"My dad gave me my probably one and only acting lesson before I did Pride and Prejudice, where he sat me down — I was 18, I think — and he sat me down and he went, 'Right. You've been doing really well on getting by on instinct alone but I think you actually need a couple of tools here.' So he basically talked me through a bit of Stanislavsky and gave me a very, very good note actually, which I've always said. He said, 'Beware of playing anger.' He said, 'Anger isn't very interesting. If you think you're going to go there, really think about it because maybe there's a more interesting route.' And I've actually always held to that because I think he's quite right."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" has been adapted for TV or film at least 25 times. Garbo and Leigh have played the title role in the past. And now, it's Keira Knightley's turn. She has reunited with director Joe Wright in the new adaptation of the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Wright set the film on a stage - literally - so that the audience in the movie theater feels as if it's watching a live performance. And it opens with Keira Knightley's Anna getting dressed as if we're watching an actress backstage before the curtain rises.

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: Anna finds herself in the role of the perfect wife and the role of the perfect mother. And suddenly, that role doesn't fit. So I think the first thing that we did talk about was this idea of her - in that opening sequence - her dressing for the role of Anna Karenina. And there was even talk - very early on - of do you take it one step further and do you actually see me, Keira Knightley, dressing as the actress dressing as the role of Anna Karenina. We thought that would be taking it just one step too far.

RAZ: Your description of that reminds me of some notes I took when I was watching the film, which was meta. I wrote meta and then meta again, because it's like a play within a movie, and then you think Keira Knightley within Anna Karenina and...

KNIGHTLEY: Yeah. Yeah. And, I mean, I think that's what Joe has been fascinated with, that idea of, I think particularly in cinema now, you know, we're used to a very kind of stark naturalism, even to the point where, you know, if it's written in the script and she walks to the house, you will see her walking along the road. You will see a shot of the front of the house, you will see her walking into the house all before you've actually started the scene, which actually just takes place in the house, you know? And I think he was quite interested in breaking that down.

Film is fantasy. It is never real. However real we try and make it look, it is always fiction. And so in a funny way - and I don't necessarily completely agree with this but I certainly understand it - you know, I think Joe was looking to sort of say, OK, if you say that this is not reality, does it therefore become more honest, more kind of truthful? And does the fact of labeling it a fantasy and never trying to pretend that it's a reality actually make it more real in a funny kind of way?

RAZ: When did you first read this book?

KNIGHTLEY: I think I first read it when I was about 19 - definitely in my, sort of late teens, early 20s. And it's really strange because it's the first sort of - I think it's the first novel I've ever reread. And I was totally floored by how different I found it. I remembered it as being, I mean, obviously, very lush and tragically romantic and sweeping and all the rest of it. But I distinctly remember her as being innocent. I was entirely on her side. And I was really, really shocked when I came to it again last summer before we started shooting and totally didn't see her as innocent and found her very difficult and found Tolstoy's, or what I perceived to be Tolstoy's opinion of her very difficult.

RAZ: That he was judgmental of her?

KNIGHTLEY: That he was judgmental but also (unintelligible) I mean - and people will hate me saying this and probably completely disagree - but I thought that there was a latent misogyny that was sort of, you know, going on in there. And I was really shocked by it. And possibly because he was judging her and that I don't think that the role of Anna is that heroine that he's holding up, saying, hey, don't we feel sorry for her and she should have the right to do this? I think she's actually...

RAZ: Except with the right of love.

KNIGHTLEY: Yeah, absolutely. And, I mean, I think that it's in there. But it's not just that. It is actually holding her up as a warning. And I found that fascinating, and I found it was also something that was interesting to play with.

RAZ: It's interesting because you say the first time you read it, you really - you were on her side. You were...

KNIGHTLEY: Yeah.

RAZ: ...completely with her. And then you reread it and that changed. And when - the way you portrayed her, you can't totally be with her, but you can't also be unsympathetic.

KNIGHTLEY: Yeah.

RAZ: I mean, she's a very difficult character to like and to dislike at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNA KARENINA")

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) ...or was it that you wanted to spend Sunday with Princess Sorokina?

AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Vronsky) Please, don't spoil everything. I can't see Maman tomorrow because she won't have the papers she has to sign.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) In that case, let's not bother. I'll leave on Sunday or not at all.

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Vronsky) That's absurd.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) It's absurd to you because you have no understanding of my life here.

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Vronsky) Anna.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) No, you've stopped loving me. You've given up everything for me, and it's turned you against me. Why lie about it?

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Vronsky) Stop. I put off our departure for a day or two and you tell me I don't love you.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) Because I've been living off your love and there's none left. So this is over. Finished.

If you make her totally sympathetic, that is to simplify something that I don't think should be simplified, I don't think anybody in life is entirely sympathetic, you know? And I think that's sort of what I found so terrifying about the character in general is that I did judge her, I do judge her, you know, and yet, you're constantly asked the question, but are you any better than her? Do you have a right to judge? And, of course, the answer is no. And that's kind of a terrifying realization but also a totally fascinating one and something that we were constantly, you know, we were constantly playing with how far you could take that dark aside, because I think sometimes in the book, she can definitely be seen as the villain.

RAZ: I want to ask you about a scene from the film. This is - your character is watching her lover, Count Vronsky's taking part in this race, and his horse trips up and he falls off. And she screams out: Alexei. This is a scene where after the race she's in a carriage on her way with her husband...

KNIGHTLEY: Yeah.

RAZ: ...and this is what he says to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNA KARENINA")

JUDE LAW: (as Karenin) I have to tell you...

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) Yeah.

LAW: (as Karenin) I have to tell you, you behaved improperly today.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) How is that?

LAW: (as Karenin) By making plain your feeling when one of the riders fell. Your conduct was improper. It must not occur again. I have said it before. Perhaps I was mistaken.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) No, you were not mistaken. I am his mistress.

RAZ: Why does she admit it? Why doesn't she hide it?

KNIGHTLEY: Well, I think one of her most destructive parts in her character is the inability to lie. She cannot handle the lie. I mean, what's fascinating about that society that she's in as a whole is they're all having affairs.

RAZ: Everybody is.

KNIGHTLEY: Everybody's having affairs. She's not doing anything that anybody else isn't doing. The problem is, is that she can't lie about it, and therefore she tells him. She goes further than that. She actually says she hates him, which I think at that point is true. She is horrendously truthful when she wants to be.

RAZ: Hmm. I'm speaking with actor Keira Knightley about the new film "Anna Karenina." You grew up in a theatrical family. Your father's an actor. Your mom's a playwright. Did your parents sort of ever help you figure out how to prepare for roles? I mean, was there kind of a ritual or was there...

KNIGHTLEY: No, not really. I mean, my dad gave me my probably one and only acting lesson before I did "Pride and Prejudice," where he sat me down - and I was 18, I think - and he sat me down and he went: Right, you've been doing really well getting by on instinct alone, but I think you actually need a couple of tools here. So he basically talked me through a bit of Stanislavsky and gave me a very, very good note, actually, which I've always had.

And he's like: Beware of playing anger. He said: Anger isn't very interesting. If you think that you're going to go there, really think about it because maybe there's a more interesting route. And I've actually always held to that because I think he's quite right. But he did give me that piece of advice just before I was going to play Elizabeth Bennett. So, I mean, but that's really the only time.

RAZ: Do you ask them, or do they give you honest critiques of your performances?

KNIGHTLEY: My dad is quite frightening. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHTLEY: He's one - I mean, no, my mom is endlessly supportive...

RAZ: Proud.

KNIGHTLEY: ...and loves everything - yeah - and wonderful. And I love her for it. My dad, I'm always quite frightened of showing things because it's not that he would never be brutal at all, but I absolutely know exactly what he thinks. He really liked this one, which was great.

(LAUGHTER)

KNIGHTLEY: But, yes, he has been pretty honest in the past.

RAZ: There's a scene in the film where Vronsky tries to convince you to leave your husband after finding out that you're pregnant.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNA KARENINA")

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Vronsky) There's an end to living in corners, drifting day to day on lies. Now, we can be together.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) How can we, Alexei?

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Vronsky) Tell Karenin everything.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) And do you think my husband will make you a present of me?

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Vronsky) Leave him.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) Leave him and be your mistress?

TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Vronsky) Yes. Run away.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna Karenina) I would never see my son again.

RAZ: Who does Anna ultimately choose? Is it her son, is it her husband, is it Vronsky?

KNIGHTLEY: Well, I suppose she ultimately chooses Vronsky, although did it possibly despises him for it in the end? But I think the choice is that. You know, I think the great tragedy of Anna Karenina - apart from the obvious one - but the great tragedy is her inability - once she's tasted romance and perhaps lust for the first time, she cannot recognize love as being anything else. She cannot recognize, for example, the love that there actually is between her husband and herself. And she becomes like an addict.

And I think, you know, it's quite understandable. We all know kind of serial romantics, you know, those people that kind of just look for that honeymoon period again and again and again. And I think that that is absolutely Anna. You know, once she's tasted, that is it, and that is the only thing that she can equate love with. And it tears her apart.

RAZ: Keira Knightley is Anna Karenina in the new film, which is now open in theaters across the country. Keira Knightley, thank you so much.

KNIGHTLEY: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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