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Keira Knightley, the star of Anna Karenina, has never been to Russia

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Husam Asi with Keira Knightley

During her acting career, Keira Knightley has portrayed three iconic Russian women, Lara in Dr. Zhivago, Sabina in Dangerous Method, and she can currently be seen as the eponymous Anna Karenina, but when I meet her at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Toronto, where she has come to attend the premiere of Anna Karenina at the Film Festival, she tells me that not only has she not been to Russia or learned a word in Russian, she doesn’t know much about the country.

“It seems completely perverse,” the fashionable and eloquent actress concedes, shaking her head. “With Lara in Dr. Zhivago, I just read the novel; I was only 16 and I don’t remember what I made of it. When I played Sabina in Dangerous Method I did a lot of research into the psychology of it and nothing into the Russian kind of cultural aspect of it because I didn’t have time and the books were very long.”

But when she was offered the part of one of the most iconic characters in Russian literature, Anna Karenina, the British actress was compelled to imbibe some of its underlying culture.

“I worked on the novel and then Orlando Figes’ book Natasha’s Dance, which is a cultural history of Russia so I learned a bit about 18th and 19th century aristocracy,” she nods her head contently.

Knightley was also excited about the initial plans to shoot some of the movie in St. Petersburg. “I was like ‘Finally, I’m going actually to make it to Russia,’” the animated actress enthuses. “But then all of a sudden it changed and we shot the whole thing in Shepperton Studios just outside London, so I would love one day to actually make it to Russia and see for myself.”

Indeed, having visited several locations in Russia, director Joe Wright opted for a theatrical approach in adapting one of the greatest novels ever written on screen, completely divorcing himself from the conventional approach of previous renditions.

The core of the 19th century tragic love story and its characters, however, remained intact. It follows Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), the wife of a government official (Jude Law), as she embarks on an illicit affair with a cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

“We were thinking about Anna as sort of playing the role of the perfect mother and the perfect wife, and suddenly finding that she’d been miscast. So I think that way the two, the ideas, the concept of the film and the ideas from the character were one thing. The difficulty in putting them together was trying to keep her as this very emotional being that she is within this incredibly stylistic setting which was technically rather tricky,” Knightley explains.

In her first encounter with Tolstoy’s masterpiece at the age of 20, Knightley was swept away by its profound romance, thinking that Anna was wonderful, innocent and a martyr of love, but when she visited it again last year, while preparing for the movie, her impression of Anna was very different.

“She is much darker and much more complex,” she stresses. “I thought that Tolstoy absolutely hated her at certain points. He is not holding her up saying this is what we should all do. I thought at certain points he’s nearly holding her up saying this is the whore of Babylon. This is the corrupt woman. But also saying ‘I am in love with her, I completely understand her, her fight against hypocrisy admirable and wonderful.

“So we really wanted to get those two sides, that walking that line between being the heroine and anti-heroine and not simplifying her because I think she’s more interesting than that.”

Indeed the initial bliss that love endowed Anna with, quickly turns into a curse, when the affair becomes public. The society, which tolerates and accepts the philandering of her brother, vilifies and ostracises her and even deprives her of her own son. Yet, she accepts her inconsolable misery, refusing to succumb by giving up her love.

“We are looking at love, the emotions in its entirety, not just in that kind of sparkly romantic, wonderful kind of head-over-heels, happily-ever-after sort of way but equally on the other side that compromises, the loneliness, the jealousy, the madness; I think that’s true to life,” Knightley animatedly explains.

Inhabiting this compelling character has shed some new light on love for the 27-year-old. Being loved and adored by millions of fans around the world doesn’t satisfy her; she only values and treasures the love of a few.

“I think that people who don’t know me might love an imagined image of me,” she muses, her finger touches her chin. “For some reason, my face, whatever I wear, whatever story I choose to tell fits in with somebody’s imagination and they love this thing which is actually outside of me and is something that actually doesn’t exist as much as it exists here for a function. A few people actually love me which I am very fortunate about, but I do see these two things as an incredibly separate and I found that that’s the easiest way to deal with having a public image and then a private one.”

Last year, the London-born actress got engaged to someone she loves, musician James Righton, though she says that the engagement caught her by surprise. “I am not somebody that I ever thought would get married,” she laughs.

The daughter of an award-winning playwright, Sharman McDonald, and stage and television actor, Will Knightley, began acting at the age of 3, but only after playing a footballer in the surprising hit comedy Bend It Like Beckham did she attain international recognition. Soon after that, she joined Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean, which cemented her as a bone fide star.

Later she became best known for starring in costume dramas, such as Pride & Prejudice (2005), for which she earned an Oscar nomination, Atonement (2007) and A Dangerous Method (2011). Initially, she was perturbed by working on too many of those period films, but she gradually came to terms with it and learned to love it.

“This is obviously my taste,” she enthuses. “I love history; I love reading historical novels and watching period pieces as well as performing in them. I think it’s something to do with the fantasy aspect. I think when you’re dealing with a time and a place that you don’t know, you leave yourself, culture and situation in life behind, and you get completely immersed in different characters and different emotions. Whether it’s a historical piece or a science fiction piece, they both do similar things for me, so that element of fantasy is what I love.”

The avaricious reader has been reading a lot about the French revolution, and she wishes to play Josephine Bonaparte, whom she finds fascinating. But for the moment, she is looking forward to starting to work with Sir Kenneth Branagh on his new espionage thriller, Jack Ryan.

“I get a lot of my scenes with him and I’m very excited,” she chimes excitedly.

A rare combination of the playfulness of a little girl and the wisdom of an old lady, the highest paid British actress is far more fun and jovial than the dark characters she often plays on screen. She is evidently someone who truly loves her craft and toils to excel in it, without letting fame poison her grand ambitions or distract her from her real goals.

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