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.
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."