The Oscar-nominated actress outlines what attracted her to the role of Anna Karenina and talks about her upcoming projects.
Actress Keira KnightleyOriginally aired on November 14, 2012
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Keira Knightley to this program. Starting this Friday, you can catch her in the film adaptation of the Tolstoy classic “Anna Karenina.” Before we get to the new project, though, here, just a small sampling of some of her other memorable work.
[Montage of Keira Knightley’s work]
Tavis: You whispered to me during that clip reel, so many period pieces. Is that a surprise to you?
Keira Knightley: I think it always is (unintelligible) seeing them together. (Laughter) I mean, you’d think that I’d know, wouldn’t you?
Tavis: You did the work, yeah.
Knightley: I was there, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, you were there, yeah.
Knightley: I’m like, wow, yeah, there’s a lot.
Tavis: Is that a good thing, though? I like that.
Knightley: It’s great, I like that. I like that, yeah. No, it’s great. It’s just I think it always, because I read scripts and I don’t go, “Oh, that’s a historical piece.” I go, “Ooh, that’s an interesting story,” or “That’s an interesting character.” Then you suddenly see them and you think, that’s a lot of dresses. Wow.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) And a lot of hair.
Knightley: A lot of hair. A lot of hair. (Laughter)
Tavis: We’ll get back to some of that in just a moment, though, but first, “Anna Karenina,” the film also stars Jude Law and hits theaters around the country this weekend, so now a scene from “Anna Karenina.”
Tavis: Ah-ha. Another period piece.
Knightley: Another period piece. (Unintelligible) hair and big dress, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. All right, so let us explore this, shall we?
Tavis: What is the – I heard your point earlier that you look at a script and you say “Interesting role, I want to do this.”
Tavis: But there must be something here that draws you to –
Knightley: To back then.
Knightley: I think it’s the element of fantasy, actually. I think it’s the fact that you can kind of – you leave everything you know behind you. You leave yourself, you leave your society, you leave your country, and you just connect with it on a totally emotional level.
I find that really interesting. It’s a world that’s rules you don’t know, so the rules can be created, so the drama can always be created, and kind of almost freed within that. I quite like it as a kind of dramatic conceit. I find it an interesting way to draw myself in and to draw people in. I guess it’s something to do with that.
Tavis: Yeah, I get it. I’ll take that.
Knightley: Okay, thanks, (Laughter) Whew, that’s lucky. Okay.
Tavis: Yeah, I accept that. I read this in my research for our conversation. I could be wrong, so if I’m wrong, you just tell me that I’m wrong and we’ll move on.
Tavis: But I read that when you read the script for this, you went back to re-read the Tolstoy book, which you had read before.
Knightley: I read the – yeah, I read the book when I was about 19 for the first time.
Tavis: Right, right. You read it again this time.
Knightley: I read it again this time.
Tavis: So you know what I want to ask you now.
Knightley: I know what you want to ask.
Tavis: So go ahead and answer it then.
Knightley: He wants to ask whether I saw it differently, right?
Tavis: You’re really good at this.
Knightley: I know, I know, a mind-reader.
Tavis: Yeah, okay. (Laughter)
Knightley: Yeah, I did. I saw it totally differently. I remembered it as being obviously sweepingly romantic and tragic and sort of very beautiful, but I remembered her as being the innocent, as being the wronged party, as being – everybody else was in the wrong and she was in the right.
I suddenly read it again last summer, before we did the film, and went (gasps), “Ooh, this isn’t what I remember, and she is not what I remember.” And the function of the character within the piece I don’t think is to be the absolute heroine.
I think that there’s a moral ambiguity to it, where you should condemn her at certain points, and I was kind of really interested at looking at that.
Tavis: Does she fit squarely, then, now that you’ve read this a couple times and now obviously played the part, for you, at least, does she fit squarely in the heroine category, the anti-heroine category, or is it a combination of the two?
Knightley: It is a combination of the two, I think. I don’t think that Tolstoy was holding her up, going, “You should do this.” I think he’s holding her up for a certain amount of moral condemnation, and within her character she’s very manipulative. She is deceitful, she is needy.
She is also wonderful and loving and full of laughter and full of life, and amazing. But you can’t ignore the negative sides to her personality, which is, I think, why she’s been so fascinating for hundreds of years.
Tavis: Is that the reason why you wanted to play the character? I’m going back to your earlier point now, that you look at scripts and you say, “This is something that’d be fascinating to play.” So when you saw this particular script, what made you want to play this character, Anna?
Knightley: Well, I said yes to it before I read the script.
Tavis: Even before you read the script?
Knightley: Yeah, yeah.
Knightley: Because of my memory of the book. Because even though I’d remembered her as being much more simple than I then saw her, I still went, “That’s a great book.” How could you turn down playing Anna Karenina?
Tavis: Right. So when you read it a second time, because again, to your point, you accepted the part before you actually read the script, based upon your initial reading of the text.
Tavis: So when you re-read the text and saw that she was a much more – my word, not yours – complex character, did that heighten your, were you more excited to play it, or did you say, “Oh my God, what have I done here?”
Knightley: A little bit of both.
Tavis: Oh, yeah?
Knightley: Yeah, a little bit of both. It wasn’t, “Oh my God, what have I done here,” it was “Oh, wow, this is going to be much more difficult than I thought it was going to be.” Trying to walk that tightrope – it is a tightrope of kind of going you can’t play a character that is this sort of lead character that an audience detests, because then they won’t care what happens to her and it’s important that they care what happens to her.
But equally, you don’t want to simplify her. So it was, I did suddenly go, “Ooh, yeah. This isn’t going to be as easy as I thought it was going to be.”
Tavis: Yeah. I’m not an actor, and that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want to damn the profession. But to my mind’s eye, at least, and I could be wrong, so you tell me. Maybe it’s different for every actor, so it’s an unfair question to ask as a broadside.
Tavis: but there is, to my eye, at least, a degree of difficulty in playing characters in these period pieces, and here’s my read on it. If you’re playing a character that’s contemporary, obviously, you want to be believable. Every actor wants to be believable.
Tavis: But it’s much easier for me to connect with you if you’re in an era that I am familiar with –
Knightley: You understand.
Tavis: – and that I understand.
Tavis: So I would think there’s a degree of difficulty in playing those period pieces, but I could be wrong. You tell me.
Knightley: I don’t know, I think it depends. Yes, yes, you’re right, sometimes, and I think a lot of actors would say that the most difficult thing to do is to play something close to yourself, which actually, American actors are generally better at than English actors. I don’t know why that is.
But yeah, there is – it takes a real leap of imagination to deal with a period piece, because everything is stylized about it. Nothing is what you know, and you have to learn the whole thing and make it, and turn it into that second skin. So yeah, there’s always that kind of imaginative leap that is definitely required that you can kind of get away with not thinking about things when you’re doing a contemporary piece, because you can, “Well, I know the world around me. I know the rules. I know all of this.”
Also, things like dialogue is often stylized in period pieces, and it isn’t, really – sometimes it is, but not normally in contemporary pieces. So that adds an extra level, trying to make that kind of stylized dialogue not sound hokey. It’s always an interesting part of the whole experience.
Tavis: This is your first time on the program; hopefully not your last. So the next time you come on, you’ll know never to do what you just did, which is to say something that begs me to go back and interrogate it.
Knightley: Oh, no.
Tavis: Yes. (Laughter)
Knightley: Oh, no. My first mistake, okay.
Tavis: Yeah, you’ll know next time you come on not to do that.
Knightley: Right, well.
Tavis: So the mistake you made was suggesting, making this comparison between British and American actors when it comes to playing certain characters.
Tavis: At least speculate for me on why you think that difference exists.
Knightley: I think America wonderfully celebrates the individual. I think you’re very good at saying “I.” “I like this.” I think generally –
Tavis: That was very nicely put. We’re arrogant, just say it.
Knightley: No, no, I actually don’t mean that.
Tavis: We’re not “celebrating the individual.”
Knightley: No, you do.
Tavis: We’re arrogant and we’re pompous. (Laughs)
Knightley: No, I think that – look, I’m English. You can’t get more arrogant than that, I mean, come on. (Laughter) I think English, you apologize about yourself. We have a level of apology, of kind of going, “I think this – sorry, sorry I think this.”
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Knightley: There is a general kind of don’t stick your head up too high because it’ll get shot off, kind of type thing. So I think it’s much easier for English actors to go, “Oh, I don’t want to play me, because I shouldn’t be here, so I’ll play that person.” I think there’s something culturally within that that kind of makes us.
I also think you come from a history of film. This is the place of film actors, and film actors are – normally it’s much closer to themselves, because you’re working in close-up, so it’s easier. We come from a theatrical tradition, where the character is put on top of us, because it’s a bigger, broader kind of thing. So I think there’s kind of several things that lead to it.
Tavis: Let me ask one of those arrogant, pompous, American questions.
Knightley: Yeah, go on. (Laughter) That’s your words, not mine.
Tavis: Yeah, I know, I know, I know.
Knightley: I was celebrating the individual. (Laughter) You’re going away with the arrogant thing.
Tavis: I’ll take full responsibility for it. So when you were a kid growing up in the UK and you latch on to this acting profession, how much did you dream, want, desire to make it in theater, in film, in America? So to your point, since we’re so steeped in film, how much was it – would you have been content if your career had stayed across the water, or is this part of a dream for you?
Knightley: My absolute aim was to work in London theater. It didn’t really go further than that, and it was, partly because my dad is a theater actor and my mom is a playwright, so that was what I’d grown up with. That’s what I’d known.
I didn’t even imagine that there would be American films. It was sort of something beyond. I absolutely didn’t. When it happened and when I started getting these films, it was a complete shock. So no, it hadn’t been. It had been beyond what I’d imagined.
Tavis: There’s a great line in a film, “Broadcast News.”
Tavis: I think the line is, it’s a question, really, what happens in life when your life exceeds your dreams.
Knightley: Ooh, that’s a good one.
Tavis: Yeah. What happens when your life exceeds your dreams? I raise that to ask so, your goal is to act, initially, just, if you can get to the theater in London, you’re happy.
Tavis: So then all of this worldwide fame happens for you. How do you navigate through that? How do you think you’re mastering all the exposure and the paparazzi and the expectation and the celebrity and the Oscar buzz? How do you think you’re handling all that?
Knightley: Well, at the grand old age of 27, and I’ve been doing this for, like, solidly for the last 10 years, I think I’m all right at the moment. I think I’ve kind of got into a little bit of a groove of kind of being able to be quite chilled out about things and go with the flow.
There was definitely a period where I couldn’t handle it, and it became – I just couldn’t figure it out. I think partly it was because it wasn’t actually something that I was aiming for. I think you always kind of go, “Would you like to be rich and famous?”
You go, “Yeah, yeah, wicked, whatever, yeah, brilliant.” But I don’t think – but because it hadn’t been something I was going, “I am going to Hollywood, I am going to do this,” it was a total shock, and I absolutely wasn’t prepared for any of it. There was a period of being very frightened by it, and I think I’m incredibly lucky. I have a very close family and a very close group of friends, and they literally just kind of protected me, and that was wonderful.
I think now, I’m incredibly lucky. I have amazing experiences, and you learn to deal with the things that are presented to you. You learn to deal with the positives and the negatives, and hopefully cling on to those positives, which is good.
Tavis: Speaking of being rich and famous, I suspect that any parent would be happy, or at least comfortable, with the success that you’ve had now at the ripe old age of 27.
Tavis: But given that close-knit family that you referenced a moment ago, were your parents encouraging of you to go in this direction or discouraging, given that they have been in the business?
Knightley: They didn’t want me to act, no.
Knightley: No, and they – actually, I started acting when I was six, and the reason I started acting was because they found out that I was dyslexic, and I’d wanted to act. I wanted to have an agent and do it properly and all the rest of it, and my teacher at school said, “Well, if you’ve got a carrot to dangle in front of her, because she has to learn to read.”
They said, “Well, she wants to act,” and they said, “Well, use it. Let her do it.” So I was only ever allowed to act during some holidays, and only if my grades went up. So it was used as that kind of thing. But they also thought it would, that I’d get it out of my system, so they were like, “Oh, brilliant, she’ll hate it. Within two years, this will be done. It will be a phase and it’ll go away,” and it didn’t.
I think they’re very sweet. They are very proud. They’re very encouraging and all the rest of it. I think if they had their way, I’d be a lawyer, definitely. Still. (Laughs)
Tavis: We see how well you have managed and are managing the career as a thespian. The dyslexia, how have you managed that over the years?
Knightley: Well, hugely, acting helped, and having to go to auditions as a kid and standing in front of a room of people and the unbelievable embarrassment if they handed me a piece of paper and I couldn’t read it. There was just no way.
Sight-reading I still find incredibly difficult – like if I had to read a teleprompter, I couldn’t do it. So it used to be that I’d have to get a script at least a week before an audition or anything like that, and I’d really, really, really work on it.
Now it’s much better. By the time – you have something in England which is called “being statmented,” which basically means you take a test when you’re 11 and if you are deemed to be very dyslexic you’re given extra time in exams and extra help at school.
By the time I was 11 I was deemed to be fine, so I clearly had it and it kind of miled away. If I get tired, the words do jump around, which is quite exciting. (Laughter) They could be anything. But it’s much better now. I am a slow reader, but it’s much better now.
Tavis: So this is the third time that you and this wonderful director have connected. I’ve over the years talked, of course, to a number of actors who, for whatever reason or reasons, find a level of comfort with a particular director who they go back to two, three, four, some more than that, times in their career. Talk to me about this relationship and why it exists.
Knightley: I wish I could answer it. I don’t know. I’m really, really lucky. I love his imagination. I think we have similar taste and we describe emotion in a similar way.
Tavis: We should give him a name – Mr. Wright. (Laughter)
Knightley: Mr. Wright, Joe Wright, Joe Wright. This guy, yeah, this guy we’re talking about.
Tavis: Yeah. Yeah, he does have a name, yeah. I’m sorry, that was my mistake. I’m sorry. (Laughter)
Knightley: I just, yeah, I love his work, and we do describe emotion in the same way. I know that sounds like a really small thing, but actually, it’s really rare. I think people do describe the way they feel in very different ways, and we’ve always had a shorthand as far as that goes, which helps on a film set.
I think there’s a massive level of trust. You kind of – he is incredibly respectful to the people that he works with, and he wants the best out of everybody. Because of that, you feel like you can try things. You feel like you can kind of go in any direction and he’ll always bring you back or he’ll push you more. I’m very lucky to have that relationship.
Tavis: Yeah, as is he.
Knightley: Thank you.
Tavis: I want to go back to this comment you made earlier about this ripe old age of 27, because you’ve been at this for a while, but the longer you’ve been in the game, it seems to me, the more – I want to phrase this the right way – the more strategy – my word, not yours – one has to engage to figure out how to direct the career.
So my point is, you’re 16, there is a strategy, but you’re trying to get this thing off the ground and make it work.
Tavis: Once you get to 27, let me put it this way – I believe it is the case that success is more harder to manage in some ways than failure. So at this point, how does one go about making choices? How does Keira go about making choices for what comes next in this career, or is that way too much overthinking for you in terms of how you choose your parts?
Knightley: I don’t think there’s a strategy as far as I need to do this. It’s not – I don’t know what I’m doing next, for example. There is a kind of – I’m very selfish, actually, about the way I choose my work. It’s what am I interested in right now, which is why I can’t pre-plan like a year in advance, as some people can.
I have to go, “Where is my head at, what is it that I’m fascinated in? Okay, well, it’s in this direction.” Because otherwise, I don’t think my work is as good if I’m not completely fascinated by the subject. So it’s that. I do think it’s right. There’s luck. To get that, and I’m sure you know that, to get that first kind of moment where it’s all happening –
Tavis: That’s my whole career, luck. (Unintelligible)
Knightley: Well, I think – but come on, anybody’s is. I had an amazing amount of luck in the first kind of couple of years that various films, I got the films that I did because I went up for hundreds of them and didn’t get most of them, and I happened to get “Bend it Like Beckham” and “Love, Actually,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
They all happened to be an amazing success. Then it’s hard work, I think. Then you kind of, if you’re given the opportunity, and it’s amazing if you are, it’s then really about trying to get better, trying to kind of improve and do interesting work.
Tavis: That’s why I said sometimes, success can be harder to manage than when you’re getting started.
Knightley: Yeah, I do think the hard work, that’s really when you kind of have to nail your colors somewhere and you have to kind of – yeah.
Tavis: To your point of that filmography, fair to say that “Bend it Like Beckham” was that project that turned the corner for you?
Knightley: Yeah. I got “Bend it Like Beckham” and then “Love, Actually” all in one year, and then I got “Pirates of the Caribbean” the year after. I think yeah, “Bend it Like Beckham” was the first time that I’d had a success. Yeah, it was the first successful kind of thing that happened. I think one of the reasons that I got “Pirates of the Caribbean,” or one of the reasons that they suddenly went, “Oh, wait a minute, who is she?” is definitely because of “Bend it like Beckham.”
Tavis: You like Russian novels?
Knightley: I do, yeah. I left school at 16. I felt really stupid for leaving school at 16. I went for a period of reading as many big books as possible to try and prove to myself that I wasn’t stupid. So the Russian ones came up, so “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” and yeah, and “Dr. Zhivago,” they were all my desperately trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t stupid for having left school. So there you go. (Laughs)
Tavis: You’re far from that.
Tavis: I asked you earlier about how you think you’re managing the success that’s coming at you so fast and furious. So there’s, in case you haven’t heard, there’s some Oscar buzz in this town around this project. So do you – I’m always fascinated how people process that. Do you shut it out, do you allow yourself to sort or revel in it? What’s your method?
Knightley: Well, I don’t think you allow yourself to revel in it, but I think for all of us who are involved in this project, it was such a massive labor of love. Even if it doesn’t get any nominations, just the fact that there is buzz around it means that you’ve done a good job. It means that people are appreciating the work.
I think given particularly with this project, because there’s this whole kind of theatrical conceit behind it, none of us knew whether we were going to pull it off. It really was frightening along the way.
So the fact that it’s come to this point and people are really kind of quite buzzy about it, and that it’s getting mentioned in the same sentence as Oscar nominations is fabulous. If we got some, that would be even better, but just this bit is great.
Tavis: Thank you for coming on.
Tavis: I appreciate it. I’ve enjoyed this immensely, and you don’t know what the next project is, but when you figure that out, you want to come back, you’re welcome back any time.
Knightley: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Tavis: Stay away from trains.
Knightley: Yeah, I will.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) A little inside joke. Go see the film, you’ll love it. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll pick up on it. Good to have you here, though.
Knightley: Thank you very much.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes app store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.