Keira Knightley Discusses Portraying Anna Karenina


Keira Knightley plays the famed literary character, Anna Karenina, in Joe Wright’s imaginative cinematic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. (Trailers/

While seated among a dozen journalists huddled around a table in a library inside the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, actress Keira Knightley immediately admited that she is acting for us. This reveal was not meant to be manipulative or malicious, but instead an exploration on the implicit social mores and role-playing that still pervade our society today, over a century after the Imperialist Russia-set “Anna Karenina.”

“I think we perform all the time,” Knightley said. “I mean, I’m performing the role of an actress, you’re performing the role of a journalist, when we go home we’ll be performing a different role… I mean, yeah, I think we do that 90 percent of the time.” Even if it all was just a charade, the brief performance she gave for us while discussing her new film could not have been more intelligent, sincere and down-to-earth.

It is not a huge surprise to see Knightley tackling the role of Anna Karenina. After all, whether it is her Oscar-nominated turn as Elizabeth Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice” or her role as Elizabeth Swann in the swashbuckling “Pirates of the Carribean” franchise, she always seems to gravitate towards films depicting the past.

But rather than approaching the character of Anna as something of a history lesson, she was able to find a striking amount of relevance and urgency to the classic story, which sees Anna putting her social standing into jeopardy upon engaging in an affair.

“There wasn’t anything that I couldn’t relate to, and that was sort of the most shocking thing in itself,” Knightley said. “Absolutely, being a woman now is much easier… But there wasn’t anything that was that far away. I think we live in societies with rules, and if you break those rules then the pack turns against you.”

Knightley’s aforementioned synonymy with period pieces, as well as her real-life role as one of the faces of the high-fashion mega-brand Chanel, means that the costumes had to have a substantial purpose, aesthetically as well as emotionally.

“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 kind of thing that she’s holding onto,” Knightley said. “The reason that I love working with [costumer designer Jacqueline Durran]… is that she really works from a character base, and everything is full of symbolism. We saw her as like a bird trapped in a cage, so the idea of veils as cages, [and] you literally see the cage underneath the dress [with] the corset as the cage… And the last dress that she’s seen in, I got obsessed by the idea of the fall of the whore of Babylon.”

Tackling such an influential and well-known figure is undoubtedly daunting. The task of bringing Anna Karenina to life posed a bit of a different challenge than, say, Elizabeth Bennett, as she is not always the most likable of characters. “The question of whether she’s the heroine, or the anti-heroine, and how you’re meant to see her, morally is constantly in question,” Knightley said. “I actually had a couple of people come and go ‘you didn’t make her horrible enough!’” Knightley extolled. “And I think, sometimes, there is a truth to that. She’s pretty dark in the book.”

As our allotted time came to a close, a bizarre mash-up of questions unrelated to the film were posed, with a journalist asking if Knightley had been affected by Hurricane Sandy and if she had any New Year’s resolutions.

“I wasn’t affected by Hurricane Sandy… [but] a lot of my friends who live in the Lower East Side have been without power and still have no heating. I don’t have a New Year’s resolution. I haven’t thought of that yet, sorry.”

And with that, she was whisked away to do more press interviews, giving her the chance possibly to give another equally convincing performance to a plethora of other journalists.

“Anna Karenina” hits theaters on Nov. 16. You can read Clint’s review on