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The Making of Anna Karenina

Interviews with the screenwriter and the star

Allan Cubitt, screenwriter | Helen McCrory, starring as Anna

Helen McCrory Helen McCrory was born in London, the daughter of a diplomat and a physiotherapist. She grew up in Norway, Nigeria, Cameroon, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Madagascar and Paris, among other places, and decided she wanted to be an actress at the age of fourteen. She has performed on stage, television and film. Her credits include Streetlife (1995), a gritty television drama from the BBC; The James Gang (1997), a film with Toni Collette and John Hannah, and Dad Savage (1998) with Patrick Stewart and her co-star in Anna Karenina, Kevin McKidd. She appeared most recently in Hotel Splendide (2000) and in the British television series North Square (2000).

What made you decide to become an actress?

I think that moving around a lot, as a child, makes you very interested in other people. You have to develop an ability to adapt very quickly ... all you care about, obviously, is fitting in and being popular. It gives you a sort of a natural interest in other people, and that's really what acting is for me. You know, I find other people far more interesting than myself, and if somebody's going to pay me to play them, it's great.

Acting has allowed me to live so many different lives and to experience so many different countries and cultures ... I don't think I saw a film or a play and thought, "This is it." There's no sort of background in my family of theatre or directing or anything.

You started out in stage work with the Royal National Theatre in London ...

Richard Eyre, who was the head of the National at the time, took me on and gave me these fantastic parts considering I was inexperienced and untried. I stayed at the National, on and off, for about four years. I did "The Seagull" and Bernard Shaw and Macbeth and various other things. I enjoy doing film and television, but I primarily see myself as a theatre actor because that's what I've done most so far.

Is it the feedback that you appreciate? Having a live audience?

Yes ... I also think there's a humanity required in theatre that isn't required in film. I can watch the most beautiful image of a person or a scene and it can be completely aesthetically satisfying in a film. In theatre, there's a sort of humanity necessary that means you have to work harder as an actor. It's much more interesting.

If I was a director I'd want to do film. I think it's a wonderful director's medium.

Most of Anna Karenina was shot in Poland...

Yes, it was just fantastic. I'm really proud of the piece and I don't think it would have been as successful if we hadn't filmed it in Poland. To start off, coming from London ... to go out there and see those vast snow drifts, going across plains and mountains and forests way, way off, gives you that sense of isolation that many of Tolstoy's characters experience. Our director was very keen to emphasize in our adaptation that these people belong to the land. Anna's scene out in the moonlight is a sort of epiphany... Levin, with the threshers in the fields ... you know, you find yourself in Mother Russia.

Driving to work at five AM, freezing, looking out on that is inspiring. They'd only had the Velvet Revolution about fourteen years ago. The [Polish] people know what it's like to be crippled by the society that they live in. So, they had a real empathy for the stories of the characters and the fact that these people do end up committing suicide -- friends of theirs ended up disappearing in the middle of the night because they were writing for the wrong paper. People do die for things they believe in, and these people knew real people who had.

You see both huge national pride and a fear of what's about to happen. We were filming in Warsaw and we'd see all these European, American, Japanese companies moving in, capitalism affecting this old state and their fear of change ... just as Tolstoy has the train representing the coming of Europe ... he was terrified of the changes ahead for Russia.

Were the Polish authorities welcoming?

We had to wait a month before we got a church for the Kitty and Levin [wedding] scene because all the local dioceses said, "We refuse to have any filming of Anna Karenina in a church because it is a book about an adulterous whore."

It still strikes a nerve for them ... this is a very Catholic country. You do not run off with your lover. You know, it really helps when you're talking to [crew], when they're dressing you before a scene, and they say, "It's a terrible scene you're about to do now," and you say, "Oh yes, it will be upsetting, won't it?" You're thinking, "Oh, because Anna runs off with Vronsky." And they say, "Yes, you know, she will go to hell for this." It's brilliant, because it puts your characters right there, you're living it.

What was the best part of the shoot for you?

The best part, I think, was the romance of making the film. Ultimately, for me, it is an incredibly romantic novel, I mean in an epic way. One evening, we were filming at the train station ... there was a huge, blood red moon and suddenly -- I'd never heard a steam train before ... We'd been waiting two hours for it to come in; it had been stuck on the track. Tempers were fraying and phone calls were being made to London. And suddenly, in the distance, you saw these two red eyes ... it began to snow that night as well, and the train whistle blew and it was just extraordinary.

It was one of those shoots that was really exciting to do. It was hard, but I felt that people did attempt to create something more than just another four hours of television.

And the worst part?

The exhaustion, the absolute exhaustion. Though it was very strange; I didn't recognize it for quite a long time. I was doing another project and I was out of the country filming. I came back to screen the film and in episode two, when Anna's stressed and very jealous -- maniacally jealous -- I looked at that scene and I was shocked at how distraught I was.

It was one of those places you take yourself to ... and that's exhausting, crying every day for four months. It's my job, and of course it's a wonderful part to play, but it's exhausting.

You were familiar with Tolstoy but you only read Anna Karenina after you were cast in the role. Was the novel what you expected?

Not at all. Of course, any great novel has an originality about it that you'll only find in those pages. I'd seen the Garbo film (1935) before, and when I was going up for the part of Anna I also saw the version with Sophie Marceau (1997). I wanted to find out what other people had done with it. Basically I was cheating: I wanted to see the film without reading the novel (laughter). It's a thousand pages! I might not get the part, it's about a thousand pages and I was very busy! (laughter).

But by just seeing the films, I didn't realize how much of it is really Levin's novel -- I always thought that Anna was the center of the novel, but in fact not only is it really Levin, but it's also Russia and Tolstoy's criticism of Russian society at the time.

The insight and the social perception this man had was extraordinary. He was predicting what Russia would become one hundred years before it happened. That was the sort of element of the novel that really captured my imagination when I read it.

To what extent did the ghost of Garbo hang over your shoulder -- or was that even a factor for you?

Yes, Garbo is such a haunting creature ... whether you're playing Anna Karenina or not you remember her in close-up the moment she steps off the train. The day that we were actually filming that scene the director [David Blair] said, "I'm not even playing it on close-up," I blanched. I went, "What?!" "No," he said, "I literally just want Anna and Vronsky to bump into each other and move off, because that's what it is in the novel."

There's a part of you that's saying to him, "But people will have seen the film; they want this moment, you know?" He put his foot down. In a way what he was doing was, I think, protecting his actors and also just making his own version.

You wrote an article about Anna Karenina for The Guardian [the newspaper, based in London] in which you said that when you were cast in the role many people compared your physical appearance as Anna unfavorably with that of Garbo ...

I have played romantic leads before and I've played girls who were supposed to be 'the pretty one' in the village. On stage I played Garance in "Les Enfants De Paradise." She's supposed to be a beautiful woman. Although I wouldn't consider myself a beautiful woman, as an actress I consider myself ... you know, if you have a good director of photography you know what you can do. Or, indeed, if you're on stage, it's the personality. This type of criticism had never, ever cropped up before, and it was very strange; it was quite hurtful, as it would be to anyone.

It seems that the character is as much of an interesting person as a beautiful person.

Absolutely. Tolstoy describes her as having unusually large facial features and a low forehead ... I had padding all the way through it and people were worried. They said "Why are you doing this -- you've got a full figure, there's no need to pad yourself out." Well, you don't want to play things just so that people today understand them. At the end of the day the best I can do is make you want to read Tolstoy, not to think, "Oh, isn't Helen McCrory an attractive girl!" You know what I mean? That's not acting, that's modeling. That's serving your own ego, and if acting is about anything it should be about losing it.

You developed a real passion for Anna and you felt some pressure to defend her ...

However much we've moved on today, a woman running off with a younger man is still much more looked down upon than a man with a younger women. However much we say it's not, it is. People say, "Well, you know, he's going through his fifties and she'd had three kids, oh well. Stupid man." But if a woman runs off ... "Oh my God, what's happening? Where is the epicenter of the world?" Panic, panic! I was quite amazed by some comments that I got from chatting to people; the subject came up, and people would say "Isn't it wonderful? You know, I'd always thought that women who did things like that were just, you know, bitches," and I'm like, "Really? How reasonable of you! And I changed your mind. Oh good. Can I meet your poor wife, or is she the mouse under the bar beside you?"

Has Anna become a part of you that you bring to future roles?

I think it stays with you ... my job's always just trying to imagine that I'm in a particular situation, and I think the process of doing that does change you as a person. You just become more empathetic to people you might not have understood before. I think roles only stay with you in that way.

Now, where do you go after playing Anna Karenina?

I've done a show called In a Land of Plenty (for the BBC) which is in ten parts; I'm in the first two. I did The Count of Monte Cristo (as yet, unreleased) with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce. Right now I'm doing Charlotte Gray with Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup, and an adaptation of a Kingsley Amis novel called Lucky Jim.

Do you have an ideal role that you hope to play one day?

No, not really, but I do want to do Camille because that hasn't been done for awhile and I think it's about time.

Allan Cubitt, screenwriter | Helen McCrory, starring as Anna

Essays + Interviews:
The Roots of the Story | The Making of Anna Karenina
Tolstoy's War with Love | The Woman Question

Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | A Tolstoy Timeline
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