I was meeting up with Keira Knightley at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City for an interview on inspiration, costumes, and technique for her role as Anna in Joe Wright's ambitious Anna Karenina - charting the tragic affair of a married aristocrat - which opens this week in the US.
Knightley recalls her first encounter with Tolstoy's masterpiece: I was probably 19 when I read Anna Karenina and my memory of it was as very beautiful and sweeping and romantic. And getting very bored in the agricultural Levin bits [the best friend of Anna's brother, sensitive landowner, and often described as Tolstoy's alter ego]. And of her being a saint, her being the victim. And then, when I went back to it in 2011, I just went, 'Wow, this is not what I remember at all'. She is much darker and the question over whether she is the heroine or the anti-heroine and how you were meant to see her morally… Anna is the destructive love, the love that is painful and madness.
Anne-Katrin Titze: In a telling scene, a character who represents society, says about Anna: "I'd call on her if she broke the law - but she broke the rules." A great difference, especially for women.
KK: We live in societies with rules. And if you break those rules then the pack turns against you. And I think in that way you can completely, no matter where you live or when you live, understand what's going on for Anna and what happens to her. That feeling of being ostracised, of being trapped by rules that don't necessarily fit. The idea that she gets destroyed almost, by being the most honest person in the whole film. And it's that honesty, that inability to live within a lie, that leads to her destruction.
AKT: There is a lot of storytelling going on with your costumes.
KK: Oh, yes.
AKT: And with how you wear them. From the bird cage you are wearing as a dress to your probably single-handedly bringing back the veil into fashion. Maybe together with Anna Dello Russo [Fashion Director and Editor-at-large for Vogue Japan.]
KK: It sure looks like it, doesn't it?
AKT: The two of you can do it - two Annas. How did you work with the clothes to create Anna Karenina?
KK: Well first of all, a massive part of her character is vanity. It's written about for pages and pages and pages in the book. Leo Tolstoy goes on about it a lot. And that's quite an interesting part of the character. We didn't necessarily talk about it, but in the book, as everything starts crumbling around her, she takes more and more stock of her appearance, and that becomes a greater and greater thing that she is holding on to. So with that we got really good costumes.
AKT: Can you talk about your collaboration with costume designer Jacqueline Durran?
KK: I think the reason that I love working with Jacqueline, who did the films Pride And Prejudice and Atonement as well, is that she really works from a character base and everything is full of symbolism. And so, you've already mentioned it, we saw her as a bird trapped in a cage. So you have the idea of the veils as cages. You literally see the cage underneath the dress. The corset of the cage. We had the fur - surrounded by death, you know, she's being throttled by it. Dead birds on her head that can't get away. The kind of cut-glass diamond, the hardest stone, that could cut her throat at any second.
The diamonds and all the fabulous jewellery are the real thing, loaned by Chanel, for whom Keira represents the Coco Mademoiselle perfume. Although the action takes place in an 1870s setting, Joe Wright decided to also model the costumes on 1950s couture. Especially the bodices and jackets connect the two previous centuries and catapult them into our own.
KK: We wanted sex to be a part of that as well, so a lot of the dresses were based on a kind of lingerie idea. The back slightly falling off or lace poking out. We actually used bed linen fabric in one of the dresses to keep that kind of post-coital vibe in it. And then the last dress she is seen in, I got obsessed by the idea of the whore of Babylon, and the fall of the whore of Babylon. So finding that final colour for that dress in the last sequence…
AKT: The oxblood?
KK: Yes, that was based on a couple of paintings that we found of the Fall of the Whore of Babylon. So that was in there as well.
Keira learned to do script word counting from Ellen Burstyn when they starred together on London's West End in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour last year.
Knightley recounted: Counting the word guilt or the word shame, or whatever the word might be, the word love, and just the fact of the number of times it was used, you suddenly saw the whole piece in a different way. So I sort of did that thing as well for Anna Karenina - and shame being a massive one...
She also likes to do detective work for a project, the books and scripts are filled with multi-coloured post-its.
AKT: I never thought I would connect Anna Karenina with Sabina Spielrein [Carl Jung's patient and later colleague] when you worked with David Cronenberg, but there is a link, surprisingly.
KK: Neurosis, yeah, there's a link. I mean, because of the amount of research I've done on Sabina Spielrein for A Dangerous Method, a lot of that definitely influenced the thoughts I had playing Anna Karenina. And the reason for her suicide in this was actually based on a conversation I had with a psychoanalyst as research for Sabina, which was when she described suicide as the shy person's homicide. A thought that always struck me. I mean, it's not all suicides, obviously. And I thought that was a really interesting idea for Anna, that it was an act of great violence, but an act of great rage turned inward. And it's described like that in the book. She does it in order to make Vronsky suffer. She does it so that he will pay. You know, it's out of an amazing amount of rage. And I thought that was it, as opposed to her giving in to the fate of it. It's not quite the same in the film. There's a quietness to it. Not quite that kind of thing, but it's where I started with it. And I definitely tried to put the thread of that shy person's homicide throughout the sense of characterisation.
Keira's Karenina is a beautifully asymmetrical portrait of a woman, whose son, even after she abandoned him, says to her that: "No one in the whole world is better than you." The film lifts off during the dances, the theatre as life metaphor fills with new meaning, and when death comes by train, a sensual and desperate creature enters into myth.
Keira Knightley noted that the premiere of Anna Karenina in New York was postponed due to the impact on the city caused by superstorm Sandy on Monday, October 29: "A lot of my friends on the Lower East Side have been without power and still have no heating," as of November 8.
Read our interview with Joe Wright on Staging Karenina here.