Gofobo Interview: Keira Knightley & Director Joe Wright Rediscover 'Anna Karenina'

While you may have read it at some point in your life or perhaps even caught one of it's various cinematic incarnations, it's safe to say that you've never experienced the story of Anna Karenina quite like this. The highly stylized, third collaboration between Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright takes Leo Tolstoy's epic love story and presents the movie as if it were unfolding on an elaborate playhouse stage.

It all started with a phone call. Two years ago, Wright called Knightley with the question ‘Anna Karenina?’ - to which the 27 year old simply replied, 'Yup'. "The script obviously wasn't there yet so it was purely on the potential of what that story, that character and that collaboration could be," recalls Knightley. As pre-production rolled along, Wright made another phone call to his star just 10 weeks before they were set to being shooting. "I told her that I wanted to set it in a theater and the first thing she said was, Oh Fuck!" he laughs. "But she quickly understood as she's been doing a lot of theater recently and had an understanding that what I suggested was done all the time. It's just not often done in film."

Over the course of seven years, Wright and Knightley's working relationship has grown and matured much like the actress herself. "If I had been working with somebody that I didn't know, that would've been totally terrifying. But we've worked together so many times and there's an implicit trust there," she says about the last minute change in the movie's landscape. "I always knew he would bring something out of it that I didn't quite expect it was going to be." Wright also recognized the potential degree of difficulty and realized how beneficial it was to their mutual creative processes. "I've been wanting to find a way of stylizing cinema, trying to get closer to the emotional story that I was telling and allow the audience a more participatory experience," he says. "Also it made it more challenging and Keira and I both work best from a place of being the underdog. We're always testing and pushing each other, so we like to feel like we've got something to fight."

Set in 1874, the film follows Anna Karenina (Knightley), a Russian socialite who exhibits a seemingly perfect and lavish lifestyle alongside her husband Karenin (Jude Law), a soft-spoken and powerful, government official. While visiting her problematic brother, Anna has a chance encounter in a Moscow train station with a young and handsome soldier named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). As she desperately tries to re-focus on her family life, Vronsky follows her to St. Petersberg, where they embark on a scandalous and passionate affair that threatens her home, societal standing and future.

Despite it's longstanding history, Knightley didn't rely on previous discussions to uncover a personal connection to Anna. "When I first read it I was 19 and I only remember her being innocent. I don't remember seeing her in any way guilty. I read it again before we started shooting and I suddenly saw it differently," begins Knightley. "She's a terrifying character because you do judge her and throw stones at her. Then you go, 'Am I any better than her?' 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 that we love the most? None of us have a right to judge her and yet we do," she explains. "I thought that kind of moral ambiguity was a really interesting one to play around with."

The casting of Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson added additional levels of balance for the actress and plot enhancement for the director. "Karenin needed to be someone that one can imagine Keira marrying when she was 18. She didn't marry him for his money, so I wanted someone who was both appealing and yet shut off," claims Wright. "Jude is a great character actor trapped in a leading man's body and (he) chose to play that role quite sympathetically." Of the main characters, Vronsky is the only one Tolstoy left with an ambiguous age description, which pushed the director to make his own conclusions. "The way Vronsky falls in love seems to be very young and puppyish, so it seemed appropriate that he should be around 21. Aaron was able to appear as this terribly arrogant, self-important young man who is a bit of a cad," admits the director. "By the end, we realize he does love her and he is loyal to her, he's just way out of his depth."

Knightley also worked closely with fellow long time Wright collaborators, costume designer Jacqueline Durran and production designer Sarah Greenwood to utilize Anna's wardrobe as an extended medium of storytelling. "The whole process of building Anna was from the ground up and every one of those costumes had an amazing amount of symbolism," she says noting her caged dress frames, razor sharp diamonds and accessories of dead birds. Although beneficial to her on-screen identity, Knightley has mixed emotions about the actual process of such design. "You're shooting a 12 hour day and you come in two hours before for hair, makeup, costume and it takes an hour to get out of it. So that's 3 hours which is just mandatory if you're doing period pieces," she laughs. "You get to the end and go, 'I really don't want to do a period film for awhile cause I'm fucking exhausted!"

With positive buzz mounting since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, what makes Anna Karenina more interesting than its theatrical setting is the dynamic between its director and leading lady. "We challenge each other more now than we did when we were making Pride & Prejudice. She was only 18 then. We understand each other's limitations or capabilities," Wright states. "I've watched her turn from great ingénue to great actress and it's been an amazing privilege." Echoing a similar appreciation is Knightley, who views period films as a dramatic tool to capture imagination and an alternate sense of emotion and rules. "To work with somebody that requires total immersion in the work is an incredibly intoxicating thing to be around. You always know that even if we get it wrong, (Wright) would've given it a bloody good try. We would have given it everything."

Anna Karenina opens in limited release on Friday, November 16th.