Back when Keira Knightley became a household name thanks to her feisty turn in the summer smash “Pirates of the Caribbean,” few probably predicted she’d end up where she is today as one of the most acclaimed and risk taking actresses of her generation.
Save for reuniting with that film’s producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, for “King Arthur” and the two “Pirates” sequels, Knightley has for the most part stuck to challenging and unpredictable choices, her latest being Leo Tolstoy’s titular doomed romantic heroine in “Anna Karenina.”
The period epic marks her third collaboration with director Joe Wright, following “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice,” for which she was nominated for her first Oscar. While their two previous films together were straight up film adaptations of their source novels, “Anna Karenina” finds Wright performing a highwire act by setting much of the Russian epic (adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard) on an actual stage.
[Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. “Anna Karenina” opens in select theaters this Friday via Focus Features.
Indiewire sat down with Knightley in Toronto, prior to the film premiering on Friday night, to discuss her take on the character, and her return to blockbuster fare with her upcoming role in “Jack Ryan,” opposite Chris Pine.
Congratulations on a beautiful work.
It’s an extraordinary thing.
To be expected from Joe Wright.
To be expected from Joe Wright in a very unexpected way.
So I’d like to start out with a weird admission. “Bend It Like Beckham” is always treated as your breakout film, but I first remember seeing you in the teen horror film “The Hole,” opposite Thora Birch.
Wow, there you go. That has never ever come up before. I actually got “Bend It” because of “The Hole.” It never got an American release.
What’s it like to look back on that and see where you are today?
Um, I don’t know that I have looked back on that [laughs]. No, it’s extraordinary. To realize I’ve been doing this pretty solidly for ten years — it’s an amazing thing. I have this big body of work; some that I’m proud of, some that I’m less proud of. There’s been lot of experiences.
I haven’t see “The Hole” since it came out. A lot of people talk about “Bend It Like Beckham.” I haven’t seen it since I was 17, but it’s still sort of relevant. Teenage girls still come up to me, and go, “I love that film.” So yeah, I feel very lucky that I’ve worked on a number of films that have been kept alive.
Do you revisit your own work?
I haven’t revisited anything yet. No, I’ve pretty much only seen things when they first come out. I will maybe at some point. It’s funny.
Have you seen “Anna Karenina” yet?
I did. I only saw it two days ago for the first time.
Were you able to step back and appreciate it for what it is?
I think particularily with something like this, because the concept is such an extraordinary thing. To tell you the truth, there were so many different ways it could have been cut together. Within the performance, there were a lot of options as to how harsh…she could have really been the villain. We took it to that extreme while we were shooting it. We were walking a tight rope right down the middle. It was interesting to see where he took it.
Just seeing it the other day, what was in and what wasn’t, was really interesting. Before two days ago, I didn’t know whether it worked or not [laughs]. I’m really proud of it. It’s always difficult from a performance point of view, because you never play the character the same way twice. Coming at it from a year — I did it a year ago — you can’t remember what the choices were about. It’s always going to be something that some people don’t get. It’s especially risky.
Technically, the shoot must have been so challenging for you. You don’t just hit your mark and deliver your lines. The film’s plays like an extended dance sequence, the way that Wright staged it.
Yes. We had about three weeks of rehearsal before we started. A lot of that was movement based. Joe got absolutely fascinated with how to bring movement more into film performances. I think it will be something that he keeps working on. The reason that you don’t have movement in film, is because the closeup is so in vogue at the moment. So most of the time actors don’t use their entire body, they just use their face. It was an interesting process to do these workshops. The rehearsal between me and Aaron, we didn’t really work on the script much at all. We did a ton of movement based improvisations to chart out the characters’ journey.
It was a tough one, because a lot of times when you do stylistic work, the performances have to remain quite minimal because you’re doing it 14, 15 times with different set ups. But we knew we wanted to keep that emotional intensity to her, because if she was entirely rational all the time, she wouldn’t do the things that she did. She works from her emotions.Going back to the extremes of Anna — how did you approach playing her? Do you see her as a villain?
The ambiguity I think is what we both found so exciting. She’s an extraordinary creature because she’s everything. She’s an innocent and a victim. But she’s also guilty and manipulative and needy, as well as being this wonderful, energetic person.
I read the book for the first time in my late teens, and I remember just being swept away and thinking it was so romantic and wonderful. Coming back to it last summer, I suddenly went, whoa, this is really different from what I remember. A lot of people disagree with me on this, but I think Tolstoy hated her at some points while writing it. He is holding her up to be judged. It’s almost like he’s going, this is the whole of Babylon. This is the destructive female.
It’s probably why it’s been done so many times. You can’t quite get to grips with her. As much as you hate her sometimes and judge her, the character equally makes you go, am I any better than you? Am I not also deceitful? The people that we often hurt the most, are the people we love the most. We are all as guilty, and as innocent, as she is. Hopefully to less extremes.
With this and “Pride & Prejudice,” Joe Wright has had you embody two of the most beloved literary icons. Are you forever grateful to him?
Yeah, massively. And to Working Title I have to say. It was Working Title who were forcing his hand with me on “Pride & Prejudice.” He didn’t originally want me. We had this funny meeting in Montreal for the first time, and it didn’t go well. It was partly because I was shooting something else and I had to get up at five the next morning, and his plane was three hours delayed. He came in and he was pissed off because he had had to fly in all the way to Montreal, and he already didn’t want me. So he was like, what the fuck. We had a strange meeting.
Working Title made him meet me again, and it was that second meeting in London where were both like, oh…
What cinched the deal?
He says it was because I looked so scruffy. I think we told each other to fuck off quite quickly.
Professionally, when did it hit you that you had a good thing going?
It was instant. He did “Nature Boy” for TV, which had also been a massive favorite of mine. It’s always easier to work with someone when you love their work.
Now the three times you’ve collaborated with Joe, you’ve done period love stories, two of them tragic. The two times he’s worked without you, he did films set in the present day — one of them an action flick. Are you egging to do something completely different with him?
I don’t know! I mean, yeah. We’re really into the idea of this being some weird literary trilogy. We liked that. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the kind of creative relationship that I’ve had with him.
At those points where people were like, nah she’s shit, he’s always been such a mascot telling me I could do it. He’s been a support for my entire career, well for the last eight years (the proper professional bit). That’s an extraordinary thing. Whether we do anything else after this, who knows. You never know.
I was surprised to learn you were cast in the CIA action picture “Jack Ryan,” as Chris Pine’s wife. It seems like a departure for you.
Yeah, I don’t do that. I don’t play wives!
Tell me why this role is not what I think it is.
[Laughs]. Do you know, at the end of “Anna” I realized that for five years I have played people who have pretty much died. Even in the fucking comedy everyone dies. I wanted to do something a bit more upbeat. So this year I’ve stuck to pure entertainment, which I haven’t done since the last “Pirates” movie, which was nearly six years ago.
“Jack Ryan” is totally pure Hollywood entertainment. As far as having just the wife, I’m going to try to work really hard to make sure she’s not ‘just the wife.’ It’s a challenge. But I’m always up for a challenge. You have to kind of just go with it.