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"All through my life what I've loved doing is watching movies. I love the escapism of film, I love stories. So it is incredible to be able to be in them as much as I am, to see them from the first stitch in a costume to the end product."
Keira Knightley on Her Starring Role in ‘Anna Karenina’
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As the reigning queen of the period drama, Keira Knightley was the natural choice to play the title role in the latest film version of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “Keira is an incredibly strong woman and utterly fearless—qualities I wanted to play up in this movie,” says director Joe Wright, who worked with the actress on two previous period dramas, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Wright envisioned a different Anna Karenina from the highly romanticized Hollywood versions starring Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. Along with the expected epic production filmed on 100 different sets with 83 speaking parts, he and screenwriter Tom Stoppard avoided the realistic trappings of the period drama in favor of a theatrical new vision. This presented a unique set of challenges, one reason that Anna Karenina, for Knightley, “became the hardest project I’ve done.”

Most of the action takes place in a theater, as though it were a live performance. What was the thinking behind that?

In 1870s Russia you had a whole society pretending to be something they weren’t. They dressed as French people, and they read books on the etiquette of how to behave like a French person. As Joe [Wright] points out, their whole existence became a performance with imported ideas of decorum, manners, and culture.

Could you talk about the role of costumes in the film?

A massive part of Anna’s character is her vanity. As everything starts crumbling around her, she takes more and more stock of her appearance. The reason I love working with [costume designer] Jacqueline [Durran] is she works from a character base, and everything is full of symbolism. We viewed Anna as a bird trapped in a cage. Her veils and corsets are like cages. She wears diamonds, the hardest stone that could cut her throat at any second. We wanted sex to be part of the symbolism as well, so a lot of the dresses were based on a lingerie idea with bed lace poking out. We used bed-linen fabric in one of the dresses to keep that post-coital vibe in it. The last dress Anna is seen in was based on a couple of paintings we studied of the fall of the Whore of Babylon .

How did you like working with Aaron Taylor-Johnson [who plays Anna’s lover Vronsky]?

He’s an amazing creature. He works in exactly the opposite way I do. I like to sit at tables, talk about the characters, and go through a book and find different bits of research. Aaron completely works with movement. He’s entirely comfortable in it. His whole body can create a character in a way you rarely see in screen acting because we work in close-ups.

Describe your first exposure to Leo Tolstoy.

I read War and Peace first, then Anna Karenina when I was 19. My memory of Anna is that it was beautiful, sweeping, and romantic. I remember Anna being the saint and the victim. Then I re-read the book last year and saw she was much darker.

How frequently did you reference Tolstoy’s text?

My copy of the book has lots of colored Post-it notes. The colors are for different characters, events, and ideas; or for charting, for example, the violence within her character or her relationships with other characters. When I worked with [director] Ian Rickson a couple of years ago on the stage, he said the actors he liked to work with the most are like detectives. You have to figure out how and why characters tick. With Anna, I actually had some people come up to me and say I didn’t make her horrible enough.

Being a young woman in the 21st century, what shocks you the most about your character in imperial Russia that maybe you couldn’t relate to?

There wasn’t anything I couldn’t relate to, and that was the most shocking thing in itself. Certainly being a woman now is much easier. Nonetheless, we live in societies with rules, and if you break them, the pack [can] turn against you. In that way, no matter where you live, you can understand why Anna feels ostracized and trapped by rules that don’t necessarily fit. She gets destroyed by being the most honest person in the whole film. That honesty, that lack of ability to live within a lie, is what leads to her destruction.