Director Joe Wright’s vision for the Leo Tolstoy classic “Anna Karenina” has been called “bold,” “daring” and “ambitious” — words that could also be used to describe the effect the director and his leading lady, Keira Knightley, have on each other.
“Keira is quite fearless, and she encourages me to go to places I wouldn’t necessarily be brave enough to go to myself,” says Wright, who proceeded with the film only after Knightley, whom he’d directed to an Oscar nomination in 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice,” had agreed to take on the lead role.
Still, his gutsy new vision for the Tolstoy classic — it’s set mostly on the premises of a decaying theater, including a horse race scene that thunders across a proscenium stage — was a surprise he dropped on the actress a mere 10 weeks ahead of filming.
“He said, ‘Come around to my office. I need to explain something to you,’” remembers Knightley, seated recently beside Wright over tea at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. “I went in and it was covered with drawings of this old stage, and I went, ‘Oh ...”
“You said it was going to polarize people, and they’re going to love it or hate it,” says Wright.
“But it was so ballsy that I was really impressed,” says Knightley. “And I said, ‘Yeah, go on then. Polarizing people is good.’”
The movie has inspired more rave reviews than pans since its mid-November opening, proving once again that the two of them seem to do their best work together (they also teamed for “Atonement,” which won the Golden Globe for best drama in 2008 and landed six Oscar nominations). As in similar cinematic relationships — Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, say, or Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart — it’s a case of a director finding a star who seems to embody the spirit of what he wants to say.
“Keira’s a bit of a punk rocker in that she refuses to conform to the image people project onto her and onto women in general,” says Wright. “We share a kind of rebellious nature. If someone tells us to do something, we’ll very often do the opposite.”
When fate first threw them together, neither was keen to meet the other. Wright had been compelled by his producer, Tim Bevan, to fly from London to a movie set in Canada to meet Knightley, then 18, for the lead role of Elizabeth Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice.” “He said he’d greenlight the movie if I got her,” says Wright, who was tackling his first feature film. “That’s the only reason I went.”
“My agent said I had to meet Joe, and I said, ‘There’s no point; I’m not going to get this,’” says Knightley. “There was a level of antagonism on both sides, and it led to quite an icy meeting.”
“I remember it as being quite heated,” counters Wright. His flight was delayed, and he arrived two hours late to find Knightley waiting for him in the hotel bar. “She was in a state,” he recalls. It was 11 p.m., and she had to be up at 4:30 a.m. to be back on the set. “She had an attitude — she questioned everything. There was nothing placid or pretty about her behavior. I knew that Lizzy had to have a fire in her belly, and I came away from it thinking, ‘Yep, she’s Lizzy Bennett.”
“Did you? I never knew that,” says Knightley. The movie, which reaped an unexpected box-office bonanza, changed both their careers. “He was one of the only people that believed in me as someone other than a pretty girl who could pout a bit. I’d already had a level of fame, but I knew I was at the beginning, trying to learn things. Here was somebody going, ‘You’ve got some work to do, but you’re good.’” She laughs.
The liquid fire she brings to her acutely felt character work has never been more evident than in her complex, grown-up and devastating portrayal of Anna Karenina, the Russian antiheroine whose affair with a young officer destroys her marriage and her place in society. “I’m not sure that I modernize characters,” says Knightley. “I just respond to their emotional lives, and I don’t think we’ve changed that much, as people.”
“It’s a clearing away of all the period stuff,” says Wright of their mutual approach. “To get down to how we relate to them as human beings.”
Each was raised in a British theatrical family, but the symbiosis between the director and the actress goes even deeper — both are dyslexic, which means they struggle with reading and develop other ways to discover meaning.
“You find other patterns and make other connections that you can understand,” Wright says.
“I guess it means that we communicate in a similar way,” Knightley adds.
Their homes in London are just a few doors apart, but when they get together, it’s usually to talk about their personal lives, they say. Each of them fell in love with someone they met during that first film collaboration — Wright with Rosamund Pike, who played Elizabeth Bennett’s sister Jane, and Knightley with actor Rupert Friend, with whom she had a long relationship. Both have moved on; Wright is now married to Anoushka Shankar, with whom he has a toddler son, Zubin, while Knightley is engaged to marry James Righton, the keyboardist in Klaxons, a British rave band.
“The kind of work we do is about revealing yourself, which can make you quite vulnerable,” says Wright. “So it’s good to be around people who know you and who you trust, and who you love, basically. By the time we got to doing ‘Anna Karenina,’ Keira had been through some stuff that wasn’t great but that was … “
“Useful,” Knightley supplies, laughing.
“You can’t help but put your life experience into your work,” says Wright. “There’s more emotion available to her now, when she’s able to let her guard down and access it.”
Even so, working with Wright can be a challenge, Knightley allows. “It’s all consuming,” she says. “It’s 150%, total obsession. There isn’t a life outside of it.”
“I resent any life outside it,” Wright confirms with a smile.
“Still,” says Knightley. “I’d rather that than someone saying, ‘It’s just a job; don’t worry about it.’ It’s difficult at times but always incredibly inspiring.”