Knightley dons the hats, veils, and upholstery silks as Anna Karenina, a character once played by Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. Working with her "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice" director, Joe Wright, and Tom Stoppard's adaptation, Knightley drives a radical restaging of Leo Tolstoy's Russian lit classic. She plays an aristocratic wife and mother who betrays her chilly husband (Jude Law) with dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
While the English star, 27, wears the costumes and jewels, they never wear her. The actress brings a warmth and intimacy that make this historical character relatable to lonely wives in any era who play with the fire of passion outside their marriages and burn with the consequences. She gives Anna a contemporary urgency, and following on her overlooked turn in "A Dangerous Method," she has become a top contender for the 2013 best-actress Oscar.
Last week, Knightley talked to Yahoo! Movies about ripping off her bodice as Anna, and looking forward to a few lighter projects in the future:
Thelma Adams: This movie strikes me as incredibly choreographed — is that true?
Keira Knightley: Joe [Wright] liked the idea that he was filming a ballet with words. The blocking for "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement" was also particularly specific. In "Anna Karenina," it's evident in the dance between me and Vronsky and the whole of the sequence with society and the fireworks. And the sex scene is also choreographed.
TA: The Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who plays your rival for Count Vronsk, and has a racy bedroom scene in "A Royal Affair," told me that "when it comes to sex scenes, there are probably no scenes that are as rehearsed. There's no improvising in a sex scene." Do you agree, Keira?
KK: No and yes. It depends who you are working with.
TA: In David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" last year, you had a startling S&M scene opposite Michael Fassbender. Was any of that improvised?
KK: Cronenberg very kindly, very specifically choreographed that scene. I had the safety net of choreography. Yet, as much as I say safety net, if you see two people pumping away on each other, it's not very sexy. Choreography allows sex scenes to be sexy.
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TA: Between your role as Sabina Spielrein in "A Dangerous Method" and Anna, you've played back-to-back portraits of passionate female sexuality — the first treated as hysteria, and the second, I would describe as a tragic destabilizing force.
KK: You could argue that; it certainly leads to tragedy. What I saw in Anna was the story of somebody who's been starved. She's 28, with a 10-year-old child, and she's never experienced a romance. Once she tastes lust and romance, she cannot equate love with anything else. She doesn't understand that love is a spectrum. Once that initial first burst of passion cools, she can't recognize that Vronsky's love continues, or that her husband loved her in his own way. She's someone whose want is insatiable. That's her tragedy. If, at 28, you've never experienced romance or orgasm, how would you know it wouldn't sustain itself in the way we do now?
TA: This is now your third major film collaboration with Wright. Would you describe yourself as Wright's muse?
KK: I'm definitely not his muse. I think his wife is. She definitely was a muse for the whole piece of "Anna Karenina." His celluloid sister — that's who I am. What Joe has is a team: cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Jacqueline Durran, and the production company Working Title Films. We work together again and again and again because we all have a similar work ethic. We have a massive respect in each other and in each other's imaginations and taste, as much as I will come in and out. When Joe came up with this idea, we said let's give it a go. With "Pride & Prejudice," everyone disparaged our casting. "Atonement" was the unfilmable novel. With "Anna," I felt a great sense of relief when Joe said we'd turn it on its head and not do a straight adaptation.
TA: Up next, you're doing a popcorn thriller with Chris Pine, rebooting the Jack Ryan franchise.
KK: I'm shooting that now back in London. When I got to the end of "Anna Karenina," I looked back on a five-year period of work where I died in nearly everything. I didn't want to do that. So first I have "Can a Song Save Your Life?" with Mark Ruffalo. It's my foray into pure entertainment. I shall be going back to the darkness, but it was good to have a respite.
TA: And Sir Kenneth Branagh will be directing you in "Jack Ryan" with Chris Pine. I love that — after "Thor," Branagh has become a big action director.
KK: Branagh's the reason I really wanted to do that movie. I watched his "Much Ado About Nothing" until the video broke. Who would have predicted that he directed "Thor" and then "Jack Ryan"? Thrillers are difficult to do because they require storytellers, so I think that's why he's perfect. He's a master storyteller.
TA: And Chris Pine isn't bad either.
KK: Chris is a very lovely man. He's making a wonderful Jack Ryan.
TA: A year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival at a dinner for "A Dangerous Method," you told me you were going to do Anna, one of the great roles for women. And, yet, we were discussing the general paucity of leading roles for women.
KK: Yes. There are still very few. And I'm fortunately offered some of them. I don't think I have a right to complain. It's not like I'm directing or producing. But maybe I will one day. Who knows?
See a clip from 'Anna Karenina':