Keira Knightley on playing Anna Karenina and fawning over Kelly Macdonald

“She’s never had an orgasm. She’s never experienced romance [and] she suddenly feels lust for the first time.”

Talk about a girl having problems, right?

Thankfully, actress Keira Knightley was talking about the fictional problems of her character in the new film, Anna Karenina, which just opened in select theaters this past weekend.

In the new film, directed by Joe Wright (who also helmed Knightley’s Pride & Prejudice and Atonement) and written by Tom Stoppard, Knightley breathes life into the titular character, a 19th century Russian mother and wife who questions her happiness and, when she ventures to temptation with someone younger, she risks losing everything including herself.

“You have a woman that’s been married since she was 18. She gets to 28,” Knightley said during the recent press junket in Beverly Hills. “She suddenly has a taste of romance for the first time and she equates that with love and only that with love. She doesn’t see that there [are] many different forms of love and that that is a honeymoon period that will change into something else and that’s her great tragedy.”

The role might appear daunting to most actresses but Knightley admitted that she’d read Leo Tolstoy’s renowned book when she was 19. Breaking down the character, Knightley talked about how Anna’s morality in the book and, subsequently, the film, constantly comes into question for her actions. “I think she is held up to be condemned at certain points,” the Academy Award-nominated actress explained. “I think she’s also held up to be loved and to be understood and to be sympathized with but I think the relationship with her is quite a complex one for the reader and I think, because of that, it’s open to a lot of different interpretations.”

Being so familiar with the book helped Knightley, who first came to the attention of film audiences with her role in the popular female soccer film Bend It Like Beckham. She said she didn’t go from the book asking herself “how am I going to play this role?” Instead she looked at who the character of Anna really was. “I think 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 and I thought that kind of moral ambiguity was a really interesting one to play around with.”

Despite the heightened dramatic situation Anna gets herself in, the actress shared that this is still a character that audiences can relate to more than may be comfortable. “She’s terrifying,” Knightley said, “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 and I think it’s because you go, ‘are we all occasionally deceitful?’ Yes. ‘Are we all occasionally manipulative?’ Yes. ‘Do we all hurt the people who we love the most?’ They’re the people that we hurt the most. I mean, none of us are better than her. None of us have a right to judge her and yet, we do and that’s terrifying.”

While talking about the character of Anna and everyone around her in the film, one cannot talk about this adaptation without referencing the 19th Century fashion that Knightley and her co-stars (Jude Law, Kelly MacDonald and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wore in the film. However, the fashion in the film did much more than make the actors look good. “Every one of those costumes had an amazing amount of symbolism within it,” Knightley said. “They are all, totally, part of telling that story, from the idea that [she] was a caged bird, so that idea of the symbol of the cage being there and the cage underneath the dress that you see at the end.”

Speaking of Macdonald, who plays Dolly, Anna’s sister-in-law, Knightly gushed about her admiration for her co-star’s work. “Kelly Macdonald is one of my favorite actresses of all time,” she said. “I think her performances are just divine and so, working with her was just a total dream come true and I’d watch anything that she does.”

Knightley may have a number of period pieces under her belt but she also talked about several contemporary films coming out soon. In fact, she said that choosing her film roles comes down to one primary thing. “It’s all about story. It’s not about when it’s set or where it’s set. I like period. I like fantasy, as a dramatic tool,” she said. “I think it’s a really 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 and I think that you or I, certainly, 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 kind of more voyeuristic and present us with the book that we know.”

Ready to take a break from darker films where she said her characters often end up dying, Knightley shared, “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? (co-starring Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld), which is about friendship and making an album and prosperity and Jack Ryan (starring Chris Pine and Kevin Costner) is a really great old-school, Hollywood thriller and a piece of pure entertainment and hopefully it will be that.”

Period piece or Hollywood blockbuster, audiences can feel rest assured that while we don’t have a Bend It Like Beckham 2 in the works, there will be plenty of Knightley gracing the big screen for a long time.

Anna Karenina is currently in select theaters. To find out if the film is in your area, visit the film’s website.

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