Keira Knightley reunites with director Joe Wright for another dramatic period piece. This time it’s Leo Tolstoy’s esteemed 19th century novel Anna Karenina, which features Knightley in the titular role. She is, after all, Wright’s go-to actress when it comes to strong female characters. But Tolstoy’s doomed heroine is far more complex than Elizabeth Bennet (Pride & Prejudice), and Knightley knows that. In a recent interview, she told us that she found the character terrifying, and offered her interpretation of the story. She also talked about Wright’s stylized vision for the film, and gave us some intel about Jack Ryan.

Anna Karenina has been done so many times onstage and onscreen, what attracted you to this? What was it about Joe Wright’s vision that made it stand out for you?

Keira Knightley: Well, I first read the book when I was about 19. Obviously, anyone would say that she’s an amazing character. When we were doing Atonement, Joe and I had a conversation about great female roles and how few there are, and we were trying to name them. Anna Karenina definitely came up within that conversation. He phoned me about two years ago, when I was working on Dangerous Method, and he just said, “Anna Karenina?” And I went, “Yup.” He went, “Okay, we’ll only do it if Tom Stoppard does the adaptation,” and I went, “Okay,” and he said, “Okay I’ll phone you back.” Two months later he told me Tom was doing it, and I was like, “Great!” So that was it.

The script obviously wasn’t there yet, so it was purely on the potential of what that story and that character in that collaboration could be. When the script was first written, and when we first started talking about it, it was going to be completely naturalistic telling. And it didn’t turn into this stylized thing until ten weeks before we started shooting. When [Wright] phoned me up and said, “I’ve got something to tell you.” And I went into his office, and it was this mad man’s lair of these weird drawings and storyboards everywhere. And he said, “Right, we’re going to set it in a theater.” And I think that if I had been working with somebody that I didn’t know, that would have been totally terrifying. But because I do know him, and we’ve worked together so many times, and there is an implicit trust there, I think the reason I wanted to work with him on this was because he was never going to do something just straight.

Even when you look at Pride & Prejudice, it was deeply naturalistic in that everyone was a bit scruffy and the hemlines were a bit off, and there was mud over everything. It was a very different telling. Atonement, the same thing. It was the infamously unfilmable novel, so the fact that he tackled that [made me realize] there was going to be something else that he would bring out of [Anna Karenina].

Was there something that you wanted to do with the character that wasn’t in the pages of the book?

Keira Knightley: No. Within the pages of book, it’s so massively open to different interpretations anyway. Partly because [Tolstoy] does write from inside her head, but often he doesn’t. Often he writes from outside, judging her and describing her. I think that because of that judgement and that description, it means that there are a lot of different interpretations. When I first read [the book] when I was 19, I only remember her being innocent. I don’t remember judging her at all. I don’t remember seeing her, in any way, guilty. And I read it again last year, before we started shooting, and when I see this, at 26, I suddenly see this differently.

I see her as being much darker. I think her moral culpability is constantly in question. I think she is held up to be condemned at certain points. I think she’s also held up to be loved and to be understood and to be sympathized with, but the relationship with her is quite a complex one for the reader. Because of that, it’s open to a lot of different interpretations. I didn’t go out of the book [to figure out] how I was going to play this role. I tried to understand, as far as I thought, what her function within the book was, and therefore what her function could be in the film fashion. I thought that moral ambiguity was really interesting to play around with.

Where you able to relate to Anna Karenina in any way?

Keira Knightley: She’s a terrifying character [because] you do judge her, and you try and throw stones at her. And then you go, am I any better than her? And I think the answer for everybody is no. Are we all occasionally deceitful? Yes. Are we all occasionally manipulative? Yes. Do we all hurt the people who we love the most? They are the people who we hurt the most. None of us are better than her. None of us have a right to judge her. And yet we do. That’s terrifying. When I talk about the complex relationship that you have with that character, that’s because of it. It really makes you go, “I am no better than this person that I am judging.” And it’s quite a terrifying mirror that it holds up to human beings in general.

It’s completely understandable. You have a woman that’s been married since she was 18, she gets to 28, she’s never had an orgasm, she’s never experienced romance, of course she suddenly feels lust for the first time. She suddenly has a taste of romance for the first time. She equates that with love, and only that with love. She doesn’t see that there is many forms of love, and that is a honeymoon period that will change into something else. That’s her great tragedy.

As soon as that bit, that little honeymoon period bit, starts to change, she thinks the love has disappeared. And therefore she thinks that he’s cheating on her. She thinks that the whole relationship is doomed and that she’s been left alone, and actually, it’s different. She just doesn’t understand what’s going on. I think that’s understandable too. We all know series romantics. Probably we’ve been them at some point. As grownups we all know that that bit isn’t what a whole relationship is. But it’s completely understandable that you’d feel that it was. So I guess all of me and none of me is the same as her.

As strong as the male dynamics are with Anna in the film, it’s the female relationships that define her. How did you work with the girls in establishing your onscreen chemistry? That is part of the unsung beauty of the film. 

Keira Knightley: You’re right. Nobody else has picked up on that. Well, I think she ends up despising Kitty because of her purity and the possibility, and because she was that, and she could’ve been that, and she wasn’t given the opportunities. There’s a part in the book, which isn’t in the film, but I thought was a massive part of the character, is the first time and only time she meets [Dmitrievich] Levin, she thinks, “This is Kitty’s husband, and I hate Kitty because she detests me, and I’m going to make that man fall in love with me.” And she does. That’s a f–cked up thing for somebody to do. And so you have to look at that as being a part of the character.

Within how we worked together, they are wonderful girls. Kelly MacDonald is one my favorite actresses of all time. Her performances are just divine and so working with her was just a total dream come true. I’d watch anything that she does. She’s sensational. Ruth Wilson is also a phenomenal actress and [out relationship] was fun because it was that bitchy relationship that everybody has had. Men and women. They are strange friendships that are competitive and odd. The Kitty one, I think we softened a lot. If you put that scene in [where Levin falls for her], you never get sympathy for Anna back. In film, it would be very difficult. There was an original scene version between her and Kitty at the beginning where you see [Anna] look at Kitty and see the younger woman and detest her for being the younger woman. We realized we couldn’t take it that far, but that was definitely underneath everything.

Anna Karenina has been adapted many times, did you feel the need to gravitate away from those other performances? Were you ever thoughtfully distancing yourself from what other actresses had done?

Keira Knightley: I actively decided not to watch any more of them. I’d seen two – the Greta Garbo version, and I’d seen Helen McCrory, who is a wonderful English actress, who did a version in 2000 on the BBC. They had not been pieces of work that I had gone back to again and again. I’d only seen them once when I was a teenager. I didn’t have a huge memory of what those performances were. I decided not to go back and watch anymore. I thought, you make a decision that another actress has made based on the book, then that’s fine, but it’s an accident, or it’s not you going, “Oh yeah I’m going to nick that from her performance.” That’s not fun.

What is about working with Joe Wright that keeps you coming back?

Keira Knightley: He’s totally obsessed by what he does. It’s an obsession. He gives 150% of himself. It’s 24-7. He makes it feel like it’s the most important thing in the world, and obviously it isn’t. But to work with somebody that requires 150% from everybody, that requires total immersion withing the piece of work is an incredibly intoxicating thing to be around. Also, you always know that even if we get it wrong, we would’ve given it a bloody good try. We will have given it everything.

People within creative worlds that’s all they kind of want. You want it to be that important and he does that. And I think equally, because it’s not just me that is working with him again on this, it’s his costume designer, his set designer, his lighting designer, his composer. I’m sure I’ve missed someone. There’s a whole group of us that are a team. There’s a massive amount of respect. Everybody respects everybody else’s talent and space. And there’s a lot of trust.

The costumes were magnificent. How much of you loves all the costuming and all that attention to detail and is there a part of you that is “Ugh, another layer”?

Keira Knightley: It adds two hours to the day, so you’re shooting a 12-hour day and suddenly you do have to come in two hours before for hair, make-up, costume and it takes an hour to get out of it. So you’re adding three hours to a 12-hour day, which is just mandatory if you’re doing period pieces or fantasy pieces. So there is that added thing and you do get to the end of a job like this and go “I really don’t want to do a period film for a while because I’m f–king exhausted.”

But the whole process, and particularly with Jacqueline [Durran], who did the costumes for this, the process of building that character from the ground up. Every one of those costumes had an amazing amount of symbolism within it – they were all totally part of telling that story. She was a caged bird, so that idea of the symbol of the cage being that and the cage underneath the dress that you see at the end and then the veils, the idea of keeping death close to her at all times so she’s wrapped in fur, she’s got dead birds in her hair. The jewelry is the hardest of all stones that could slit her throat at any moment.

And keeping sex there all the time so you’ve got these dresses that look like they’ve got lingerie coming through or falling off. One of the dresses was actually made of bed linen because we wanted to keep that post-coital kind of thing there the whole time. The dress that she dies in – I got completely obsessed with the idea of the whore of Babylon and the fall of the whore of Babylon. We found so many different paintings of that, that we tried to find that color for that dress. That’s why I love working within fantasies, not just period dramas. As soon as you’re taking clothes out of being what we do everyday, you start going, how can you use this medium to tell this story? I find that very exciting.

Anything that you loved just to wear?

Keira Knightley: F–ck no! I mean, hey, I would have liked to keep the diamonds! That would have been quite fun, but I didn’t get to keep them.

Are you going to stay away from period for a while?

Keira Knightley: No. I’ve just done two contemporary pieces, but no. It’s all about story. It’s not about where or when it’s set. I like period and fantasy as dramatic tools. I think it’s a great dramatic tool because it means that you leave yourself behind. Your imagination is required instantly in a period film because it’s a world that you don’t know, with rules you don’t know. I relate to characters on an emotional level very differently in period pieces or sci-fi pieces or fantasy pieces than I do in pieces that are more voyeuristic and present us with the world that we know. I think that’s a very different relationship with the story. I enjoy doing period things, it’s that tool that I really enjoy.

Can you talk about working on Jack Ryan?

Keira Knightley: I got to the end of Anna Karenina and realized that I’d been sort of doing pieces of work that were incredibly dark and I pretty much died in a lot of them for five years. I wanted this year to be the year of positivity and pure entertainment.  So, I did one film called Can a Song Save Your Life, which is about friendship and making an album and possibilities. And Jack Ryan is a really great, old school, Hollywood thriller and a piece of pure entertainment, and hopefully it will be that.

Are you currently shooting it?

Keira Knightley: I am currently shooting it in London. I’m nearly at the end of it. I think we finish early December.

Anna Karenina opens in limited theaters Friday, November 16th.