NYGossipGirl Interview: Keira Knightley
The film, which is set in late-19th-century Russia high-society, follows aristocrat Anna Karenina, who enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.
NYGossipGirl chatted with Knightley during a roundtable interview about the demanding role, what it was like working with director Joe Wright again and her upcoming projects.
Can you talk about playing this complex character, because I think she’s one of the most complex ones you’ve played.
Knightley: She is. I think it was weird because I initially read the book when I was sort of in my late-teens, early-20s and my memory of it was as Anna being somebody who was sort of a victim and in the right and almost saintly and everybody else being wrong. And then all of a sudden, I read it again last summer, just before we did the film. All this is not what I remember at all and this is not the same person that I remember at all. I saw her as much darker and questioned the function of the role within the whole piece. I think because it’s called Anna Karenina you expect her to be the heroine. You expect her to be the one that you should always sympathize with and you should be seeing through her eyes. I don’t know that that’s the function of the character within the piece. I think the one to be idolized is Levin, and if you like, the goody is Levin. Anna definitely walks the line of being the anti-heroine, not always. She is also the heroine. I thought if you’re having the Levin/Kitty storyline within the piece, which is the romance, which is the idealized kind of hope, then what’s the point of doing the same thing with Anna. So, I thought it would be more interesting if we looked at that kind of darker, more morally ambiguous kind of side to her.
Is that why you think it still resonates to this day?
Knightley: I think it resonates to this day because it’s about love and not just romance or just that happy bit, not love in the way it’s all sold to us but love as the thing that we’ve been fascinated and obsessed by for centuries. Love is that thing that we are all after and yet can destroy us and is painful and can be madness and can be joy and can be happiness. It looks at the whole thing. I think that’s why it’s so complex. It has more questions within it than it has answers because we never manage to answer the questions. Love is something that is so inexplicable and so complex and strange. I think it’s a novel that looks at all of that. I think that’s why you keep going back to it. That’s why within preparing for this, when we were talking about it, every single person, whether they were a member of the crew or the cast could go, oh yes, I relate to that because everybody had a story within their lives that was applicable to the situations. It didn’t matter that we lived in 2011 or 2012 or in 1873 that it was written because it’s about that emotion.
Check out the rest of the interview after the jump!
I was exhausted by watching some of the things you went through. How did you sustain yourself through that emotionally wrenching process?
Knightley: It was pretty exhausting. It was a character like that, particular because of the way he was shooting it, it was an incredibly stylized technical piece of filmmaking. So, maintaining a character who is so highly emotional through a kind of 12 to 14 hour day is quite exhausting. But it’s just one of those things.
Joe was telling us that he played music for you guys. Were you taking a breaks and dancing to music?
Knightley: No. He was taking a break and dancing. I was putting my own music in, which was normally something incredibly depressing as he was listening to house music and dancing over in the corner.
What were you listening to?
Knightley: Elgar, a lot of Elgar, cello concertos, anything to make you cry, a bit of Tchaikovsky if she was going really mad always helps.
Joe actually said while he was in here, “We may question love with our rational mind but it’s beyond our brain to process.” Do you personally think you’re the kind of person that thinks love conquers all or that reality kind of sets in?
Knightley: I mean I’m a 27-year-old woman. I think it would be a bit strange if I had those romantic notions about relationships that I think you should have when you’re in your teens. I think that it is absolutely inexplicable and I think that there is a lot of pain involved with it, as there are absolutely great moments. I’m sure everybody here is a grownup, we’ve all experienced…I mean it would be a bit shit of me to stand and go, ‘yeah, love conquers all.’ It’s romance all the time. You’d obviously go bullocks. So no, I mean I think it’s a fascination. It’s the questions that we can never answer. Why do we feel the way we do? Why are we attracted to those people? Why even when it’s going badly, do we go back for more? What is that within us, you know?
You’re more of a Karenin fan, than a Vronsky fan?
Knightley: No. I don’t think I’m a fan of either of them. I think I recognize both. I recognize all of them. I think you can rationally judge other people’s relationships, not that you’ll ever know and not that you ever have the right, but you can never, I don’t think, have your own…I don’t know how you can override emotions for rationale when you’re dealing with an emotion. I don’t know how that works.
So you’ve not become an expert?
Knightley: No. Has anybody?
You said before that everyone relates to Anna, different parts of her in their own lives. How do you relate to her?
Knightley: I’m not quite sure. I mean I find her terrifying. I find her terrifying because I am no better than she is. I find her terrifying because even in the moments when I judged her the harshest I thought would I do any differently? Have I behaved any better? Do I know that I would behave any better? Do I know that I wouldn’t be destroyed by this? No. I think that’s what’s so terrifying about her and that’s what’s so fascinating. I think that’s why people go back to her again and again and again. It’s because that’s what it is. That’s what she’s talking about. It’s enough to make chills go down your spine when you look at her and think I do hate her today but do I recognized that? Shit, yes.
Can you describe how your relationship and your trust level with Joe has evolved over the course of three films?
Knightley: There is an amazing amount of trust. I mean I think that’s sort of the overriding thing within the relationship. Even when we have our bickering moments, I mean we are quite like siblings.
That’s what he said too.
Knightley: Yeah. We do bicker. But there is never a question that I love him to pieces and I completely, implicitly trust him. I think that’s the same the other way. That’s part of the reason why when he said only 12 weeks before we were going to start shooting this, “By the way, I’ve completely changed the concept.” I think a lot of directors I would have worked with, the alarm bells would have been going and I would have been going, ‘oh shit.’ This one, we were like let’s jump. That has to do with trust. I admire his imagination. I love his imagination and I have a great respect for it.
What was it like working with Jude Law?
Knightley: Wonderful. I was meant to work with Jude. Actually, I did Pride and Prejudice because the film I was meant to do– which was which was written by Tom Stoppard—was going to be me and Jude Law. It fell apart six weeks before it was meant to start shooting. So, I was suddenly available and ended up doing Pride and Prejudice. So, it felt like a wonderful thing that we finally got to work together on Tom Stoppard’s script and working together. I’ve known Jude socially for quite a few years. I’m a big fan of his because he’s a character actor. I mean he’s a damn good looking man and he’s very good at those leading roles. But he is essentially a character actor. What was really extraordinary about this was he was on stage at the same time that he was shooting a good portion of this. He was in Anna Anna Christie by Eugene O’ Neill. So, seeing him in that play…I can’t remember what the character is called–this big sailor, this massive beast of a man and then coming to us during the day and being this kind of small kind of contained creature and then knowing that he was playing that every night and then being Jude in the middle. I mean the schizophrenia of that mix was quite extraordinary and I think says a lot for the talent of the man, because they were pretty much all five star reviews that he got for Anna Christie, and deserved them. And then was coming and playing this other very, very different creature. I mean Jude was actually, when he was shooting this, he was massive. He was big. Again, through those costumes, they managed to kind of shrink him.
What about working with Aaron Taylor-Johnson?
Knightley: Aaron is amazing. In fact, I’m lying, he was rehearsing with us for Karenina and then because he had to have his hair done, I think he literally started with us the day he finished the play because then he could have his hair done. That’s the way it was. Aaron is amazing. He literally works the opposite to the way I do. He’s movement-based. So, with Jude and me, we’d sit around a table and we’d have notes and we read the book and we’d be discussing for hours and all the rest of it. Then Aaron doesn’t like to do any of that. Every bit of the emotion, he can’t necessarily describe it but he can do movement-based improvisation. So, we’d do 20 minute improvisations with no words whatsoever that were entirely movement. He is completely comfortable within that realm. I’ve never seen anything like it actually.
Working with all these actors and their different techniques, did you find you’re taking some of these techniques with you into your next project or anything that you’re like I’m going to try this movement-based acting?
Knightley: Yeah. I mean the movement-based, there’s a lot of schools for that. I mean he keeps on talking about a specific school, something beginning with M. I don’t know what he’s talking about when he’s talking about it. But there’s a lot of different schools. I’m sure he’s mentioned it if you’ve spoken to him. He would have said it. So, there are a lot of schools for that, and this one being a massive one that’s still going. I think it’s very interesting. It’s incredibly helpful for stage. I mean generally speaking, in film, it’s in vogue at the moment for close-ups. You really rarely work in wide shots anymore. They did in the Master. The Master has done it completely brilliant. But it’s really rare to see that in film. So generally speaking, I might say I’d like to be a movement-based actor but if you’re working in a close-up it doesn’t matter what my foot’s doing, I mean it’s a close-up. Saying that, I think it’s great to have those tools, always.
In light of all that, when you saw the film put together, it must not have been what you were experiencing as it was being made.
Knightley: No. It never is.
This film in particular must have been a bit of an interesting revelation to see finalized and edited.
Knightley: Yeah. I mean I’ve never seen a film that I’ve been a part of where it’s finished and I’ve instantly gone I really want to see that again. Wait a minute, what was that? Yeah. I think he’s done an extraordinary piece of work. I think it’s one of those things where even if you don’t like it, the imagination that it’s taken to kind of go into it is amazing. I’m incredibly proud of him for him doing it because it’s a ballsy move. I’m really proud of him.
Did you like to get back into costume? What did you and did you not like?
Knightley: What do I dislike? I dislike the fact that the working day is a hell of a lot longer if you’re dealing with big costume or big makeup movies. If you’re doing a film like Cloud Atlas, for example, I’m working with the same makeup team at the moment as did that. They were saying they were called in three or four hours before everybody else. So, you’re adding three or four hours to a 12 hour working day and that’s just to make it, not to take it off. So, in costume dramas you’re looking at two hours on top of a 12, 14 hour shooting day. That’s a bitch. I mean that’s really why I tend to do one and then go off. I mean a modern day piece, you come in half an hour before, you chuck something on, it’s lovely. This one was exhausting. The whole makeup and costume department were wrecked at the end of this. I mean partly because a lot of the costumes were still being made right the way through the film. I mean they were ready as we needed to shoot. I mean some of them were literally being sewn together still on me. So, the amount of work that goes into that. I mean you really have to take your hat off. It’s a labor of love to do anything. I mean it was the same for The Duchess, same for Pride and Prejudice. Any costume piece, the amount of work from those departments is massive. It does mean a much longer working day. So, that’s the downer. The brilliant part of it is the costume and hair and makeup become such a massive part of the character because you’re creating everything from scratch. So within this, the symbolism within those costumes was huge. It was all about the caged bird, it was all about the fir was being surrounded by death. There were dead birds in the hair that couldn’t fly, diamonds that could cut your throat at any second because they’re the hardest stone. A lot of the dresses were based on lingerie ideas, so you were bringing sex and death constantly. There were some dresses that were made of bed fabrics. The final dress, I got obsessed with the idea of the whore of Babylon, so the color was a very specific color that we got from paintings of the fall of the whore of Babylon. I mean the symbolism within all of those was massive. The spider of the hair, the hair becoming like a spider, the tentacles coming out of it. The, Medusa-like hair and the pillow. I mean that’s what I love about working with Joe and working within fantasies is that you can put so much symbolism into every single part of it.
Was there anything you wanted to keep?
Knightley: No. Well actually, the diamonds. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any of those.
Was there any discussion of doing a dialect?
Knightley: Doing a Russian dialect? Yeah. I mean there always is. When you’re doing a story that’s based in…if you’re meant to be French or you’re meant to be Russian, do you do it in a French accent, do you do it in a Russian accent. Then you go, okay, if you’re doing it in the Russian accent, why aren’t they speaking Russian? If you’re not doing it, should it be an English accent, but why should it be an English accent or should it be an American accent? I mean sometimes they go for this very strange…and I’ve done it, Mid-Atlantic accent, which is basically we don’t know. It’s not going to be anywhere so maybe it should be there. I mean it’s going to be one of those discussions that goes around and around. We did accents for Dangerous Method because the character that I played was not speaking in her native language. So, she was meant to be a Russian living in German or Switzerland. I can’t even remember. We thought that was a very important part. You wanted to see the mark of somebody who had been taken from their homeland and put somewhere else. Here, we’re dealing with everybody from the same place speaking the same language. Because we were all English actors, I think we just went English accent is as right or as wrong as any other.
With back to back films and the intensity of this particular film, can you talk about spending time chilling out now in England or holiday plans?
Knightley: Basically, I’ve been working solidly since May. I finish in December and I can’t imagine finishing yet. So, I don’t know.
Is this the film you’re shooting with the same makeup team as Cloud Atlas?
Knightley: Yes, which is called Jack Ryan, which is a big, old Hollywood thriller.
What attracted you to that one?
Knightley: I got to the end of Anna Karenina and realized that I’d done five years of films where either I died or something horrific had happened in all of them. I wanted to spend a year not dying and trying to do things that were very positive. So, the first one that I made is a film called Can a Song Save Your Life, which is an incredibly positive, hopeful piece about friendship and making an album and possibilities. The next one was a piece of absolute pure entertainment, which is a Hollywood thriller.