"Anna Karenina," of course.
The latest film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's 19th-century Russian domestic tale, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley (the duo's third collaboration, following "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement"), has a decidedly different spin: the drama of marriage and adultery in high society take place on a stage, with a chorus of actors spinning in and out of frame throughout. Anna (Knightley) must choose between being a virtuous wife in her marriage to Karenin (Jude Law) or pursuing a passionate (and forbidden) affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), while society looks on with judging eyes.
Moviefone caught up with Knightley in New York ahead of the film's Friday release to talk about putting a new spin on a classic tale, playing a hate-worthy character and her best advice for corset fittings.
The film looks gorgeous, and there's so much dancing that I'd almost categorize it as a musical without singing. You must have rehearsed like crazy. Yes, for the dance sequences we did. We had three weeks before we started where we were doing basically workshops with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who choreographed the whole thing. We'd do movement improvisations where we'd figure out how it was that we used our bodies to tell stories -- we weren't allowed to use words. There's a part at the beginning of the movie where Guro [Nagelhus Schia], who plays the maid, was dressing me. That was all an improvisation piece that we came up with in the workshop.
Did that kind of movement and dance come naturally to you? [Laughs] No! It was something that was incredibly exciting about the whole piece, and when [director] Joe [Wright] described it, it was like, okay, he's always been very into blocking, so there's a lot of movement within all of his films, like spinning in and out of camera shots and all that. He felt like that was a natural progression of what he'd always been fascinated with. I was well up for trying something totally different that I'd never tried before. It was really hard. The dance sequences, all of that stuff, were really, really hard, and I'm not a natural dancer.
"Anna Karenina" has been adapted for the screen many times. Apart from the staging of the story, was there anything you did to try and make this iconic role your own? How are you different from other Annas? I've seen two film versions: I've seen the Greta Garbo version, and Helen McCrory did a BBC version in 2000. But they weren't things that I'd come back to again and again and again, I didn't have a memory of what they were. I read the book for the first time when I was about 19, and I remembered it as being very beautiful and her as being innocent, and it being kind of this sweeping love story. When I read it again before we started filming, I went, "This is totally different than I remembered it." She is much darker and the question over the function of her within the story -- is she the heroine or is she the anti-heroine? -- I thought, is constantly up for question within the book, and whether you're meant to condemn her or whether you're meant to agree with her is constantly up for question. I just thought that was an interesting take.
I think it's also difficult: when a piece is called "Anna Karenina," you think of Anna as someone who you should always be able to sympathize with. I think quite often people have played it like that. Particularly if you're taking the Kitty-Levin story out of it, you can play it like that: Karenin sorta becomes the baddie, Anna and Vronsky are kind of the great love. But if you put Kitty and Levin in, that becomes the great love story, the great romance. If they're in there, then you kind of have to do something else, or else you'll have the same story twice.
The two couples act as foils for each other. Yes, exactly. As one couple goes down, the other goes up. I think we also felt like it was possibly more interesting to look at what that darker, slightly more ambiguous side to Anna is.
Did you like her? I didn't always like her. I loved her, and I totally understood her. I think she's terrifying. She's terrifying because she's like all of us. She's so very human. You look at a lot of her behavior and think, "God, I don't agree with any of that." And then you think, "Am I any better than that?" I don't think I am. And I think that's what's so fascinating about her is that in a way, it's sort of like looking at quite a frightening mirror of yourself and of everybody else, because you sort of go, okay, she leaves her son. I'm not a mother, but I find that incredibly difficult, to forgive her for leaving her child. Would I do any different? I'd like to think that I would, but I don't know that I would. And I think that's why it's such a fascinating story. It makes you question everything that you think.
You've done a ton of period pieces -- you must really know your way around a wig and a corset by now. Yep, I do. Very well. Always breathe out in a corset fitting. That's my main advice to anybody.
Did it take forever to get into costume? Your hair was really dramatic in this movie. To tell the truth, the hair was a wig, so it takes about 20 minutes to bind all of my hair to my head as close as possible and then put on a wig cap, and then about 10 minutes to get the thing on and another 20 to dress it. So that had a life of its own. As for the costumes, unless you actually can see a corset, I'm not wearing one. Which was great. A lot of the costumes are actually based on 1950s couture, so they're actually not 1870s, so they were actually surprisingly comfortable. It was nice that suddenly we weren't doing this naturalistic telling, so everyone had freedom to take out of exactly that and move it slightly sideways into this fantasy world. It's a fantasy, I think, as opposed to period drama. Actually, one of the costumes was made of denim, which certainly wasn't around in 1873. It was nice to play with all of those sort of things.
You've done three movies now with Joe Wright, spanning seven years of your career. Do you feel that you've grown as an actress while acting in his films? I have changed as an actress. Technically, I guess, I'm a bit better than I used to be, I know what I'm doing a bit more. But I think that sometimes an actor's technical ability can take away some of the sort of magic that they had when they were very young and untrained, as it were. I don't know if I'm better, I'm certainly different. I'm not sure.
I remember seeing you in "Bend It Like Beckham," when you were 16 or 17. What advice would you give to your younger self, going from little indies like that to massive, Oscar-nominated productions ? Chill out? I think that would be it, really. I've definitely done my learning on screen, which is a terrifying place to do that kind of thing. But no, I think I've always, and still do, wanted to get better and find different influences and do different things and I think I've managed to do that. Which doesn't always mean the performances or pieces of work are going to be better, necessarily, it just means that they're going to be slightly different going off in different directions, which I like.
As far as advice...go out more. Get more drunk. Chill out. That would be my advice to my 16-year-old self. I was quite serious.