Without question, acclaimed actress Keira Knightley has been flexing her creative muscles this year, having starred over the summer in the brilliant, offbeat dramedy "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" -- and in time for holiday and awards season, she's back with the title role in a new adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy classic romance drama "Anna Karenina."
Of course, the concept of mixing things up isn't exactly new to Knightley. After her breakthrough role in the rip-roaring "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" in 2003, she's done everything from romantic comedy with films like "Love, Actually" to sci-fi with the vastly under-appreciated mind-bender "The Jacket."
Still and all, Knightley is often associated with period dramas, thanks to her creative association with director Joe Wright on "Pride and Prejudice" (which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination) and the Best Picture Oscar nominee "Atonement." And while Knightley said she loves working on period films, she's always on the lookout for something new.
"If I keep doing the same thing, I get bored, so my tastes tend to go to something wildly quite opposite," Knightley told me in a recent interview. "Generally speaking, my heart is in the darker drama. That's what I really love watching and that's the sort of material that makes me incredibly excited. But once I've done that for a while, I end up yearning for something much lighter and modern. For me, the most exciting thing about my job is getting the opportunity to change and do different things."
Now playing in select theaters and opening nationwide Wednesday, "Anna Karenina" tells the tragic story of an aristocrat (Knightley) who daringly plunges herself into an affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in late 19th century Russia. Despite the willingness of her powerful statesman husband, Imperial Minister Karenin (Jude Law), to forgive her, Anna can't shake her love for Vronsky -- even if it means separation from her young son and exclusion from society.
With "Anna Karenina," Knightley finds herself immersed in a period drama once again, but delivered with a different spin, creatively. Wright presents the film within the framework of stage play to tell the story from a whole new perspective.
"When Joe told me about the take he had on the story, I thought it was extraordinary," Knightley said. "I didn't necessarily know if it was going to work at the time, but it was definitely worth a try. I loved the fact that he was not wanting to make a traditional version of the story, and wanted instead to do something a bit more stylized."
As an actor who loves performing in front of a live audience as much as a camera, being a part of a film and essentially part of a theatrical production, in one fell swoop, presented Knightley with the best of both worlds.
"I loved the fact that Joe was taking the story into this sort of fantasy, surreal world, where you are using the space of the theater," Knightley gushed. "It's such of a magical space, where people go in and are going to know that they're going to use their imagination, where in a way with cinema, you don't. Very often in films, the whole world is presented to the audience -- so combining that magical space of the theater and putting into the world of a film was a really interesting thing."
With about 25 film and television productions of "Anna Karenina" produced in the last century in the U.S. and the U.K., Knightley said she was quite well aware that she had her work cut out for her in bringing the iconic character to life. And while she admitted that diving into the role was intimidating at first, it wasn't as nerve-wracking as taking on the spirited lead in the adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel "Pride & Prejudice."
"In a strange way, Anna wasn't as terrifying as playing Elizabeth Bennet -- not because of the people who have played her before, but because the character is somebody people love and they see themselves as her," Knightley explained. "Anna is not that. Anna is a very curious creature that has fascinated people, but she's not somebody people want to be or fall in love with. So in that way, it was less daunting."
Knightley said her first exposure to "Anna Karenina" was with Tolstoy's novel -- and her perception of it has definitely changed over the years.
"When I first read the book at 19, I definitely saw Anna as innocent and a victim, and everybody else as being hideous. I saw her as almost being saint-like," Knightley, 27, recalled. "Then, when I re-read the book again before we made the film I suddenly went, 'Whoa. She is not what I remember her being. She is much darker.' So that's what we based this version on -- that perception of her being somebody who isn't necessarily the heroine, but is also the anti-heroine."
Knightley said what helps the guide that perception is Wright's inclusion of the parallel storyline of the romance of Kitty (Alicia Vickander) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) in the film. For those who haven't read the novel, Levin is a country landowner who desperately tries to win the heart of Kitty, who is the sister-in-law of Anna's older brother.
"A lot of adaptations have cut the whole Kitty and Levin story out, but Joe wanted to keep that in," Knightley explained. "Levin's story is the romance in the film. That's the hope. In a way the point of the story is the purity Levin is trying to attain. Anna's love is the destructive one."
"A lot of time, when the Kitty and Levin part has been taken out, people have turned Anna's story into their story and managed to make Anna the saint," Knightley added. "But if you're keeping that Kitty-Levin storyline in, then suddenly, the functions have to be different. It suddenly allows you to take Anna to that much, much darker place, which for me, was one of the thrills of playing her -- it is treading the line and holding her up and is saying she is morally questionable. I think you sympathize with her, understand her and sometimes love her, but you don't always like her."
Knightley said perhaps the biggest appeal of playing Anna was the chance to get inside the head of somebody who was willing to go to such extremes in her life -- and on the flip side, remain impartial about Anna's decisions.
"If you're talking about why I'm an actress, that's it -- that's what makes it so fascinating, trying to figure out how somebody else ticks and not to judge them," Knightley observed. "That's the most difficult thing to do -- to not bring judgment in, but to just try to understand them. It's fascinating, trying to do characters where there is fine line. Can you forgive her for leaving her son? I don't even have kids, and I don't know if I could forgive her, but, if I were her, would I behave any differently? I'd like to think that I would, but do I know that I would? No. I think that's what so fascinating and so terrifying about Anna."
No matter what side of the equation you think or know you land on, the fact that "Anna Karenina" gives opportunity for audiences to contemplate such a quandary is what satisfies Knightley the most. It's what she desires as a fan of movies, but doesn't always get.
"I f------ despise it when I go to the cinema and feel patronized," Knightley said bluntly. "I think it's wonderful when you go and you can say, 'This person is tricky.' It's wonderful because you get to dive in and explore that person. That's what's exciting about drama."