Anna Karenina: Interview with Matthew Macfadyen, Alicia Vikander, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Wilson, and Emily Watson
Arriving in US theaters on November 16, 2012, “Anna Karenina” is acclaimed director Joe Wright’s new vision of the epic story of love, stirringly adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s great novel by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard. The film marks the third collaboration of the director with Academy Award-nominated actress Keira Knightley and Academy Award-nominated producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Paul Webster, following their award-winning box office successes “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement.” The film also stars Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson.
The parallel story of Levin’s love for Kitty is gentler and more innocent than Anna’s for Vronsky, yet it too falters under the scrutiny of society. Actor Domhnall Gleeson had auditioned for director Joe Wright, but it wasn’t until he performed the part of Levin at a table read – at which his empathetic take on the character impressed one and all – that the part suddenly became his. One facet of the material that the actor sought to convey was “the wry sense of humor shooting through it, which I appreciate; this story gets to the depths of what it means to be alive.”
As Gleeson sees it, “Levin’s idea of love is at the same time very pure and blinkered, in that he sees only this one person to love; he’s shooting for the absolute ideal, which isn’t always compatible with real life. But in the story, he is one of the only people who spends any time in the real world; he is in a very real place with love, one not based on artifice. That is mirrored in the way he chooses to live his life, which is at a distance from St. Petersburg and Moscow society – away from the theatre, literally. He makes his life in the real world out in the countryside, and is in fact very preoccupied with farming. He is outside sophisticated society.
“Even so, he’s caught between the aristocracy and the serfs; he’s trying to find a home in nature while the woman he loves is in a place which is artificial to him. But they do have a true connection, which means that Levin has to journey to try to win Kitty and bring her back to his real world. He realizes that she’s an even better woman than he thought.”
Kitty is played by up-and-coming Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, in her first English-language role. The role promised an emotional journey for Vikander to undertake, with her character beginning as an innocent and radiant ingénue before experiencing heartbreak upon Vronsky’s rejecting her and then coming to terms with life and love.
The actress’ years of real-life training as a ballet dancer proved beneficial. She notes, “Domhnall and I worked with [choreographer] Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to get into contact with the characters through movement. How Kitty walks or runs into a room at the start of the story and how she is in the last scenes, there’s a complete difference. She proves herself to be very un-judgemental, considering her status in society, and this better prepares her for what comes later.
Invited to reunite with the filmmakers and leading lady with whom he made “Pride & Prejudice,” BAFTA Award winner Matthew Macfadyen leapt at the chance to portray Oblonksy, Anna’s brother. The actor enthuses, “Oblonsky is incorrigible; he’s disarmingly direct and brings humor and warmth to the story as he tries to help the people he loves and cares about, particularly in attempting to be a matchmaker for his friend Levin.
“Oblonsky is one of those people who lights up a dinner party when they come in. He has a wandering eye. He likes the pleasures of the flesh, drinking and eating; to me, he was a very attractive character because he doesn’t suffer from terrible introspection. I don’t see him as ‘a bad man,’ and I hugely enjoyed playing this part – except for the moustache I had to grow.”
“Matthew is a hoot in this role,” enthuses Emmy Award-winning actress Kelly Macdonald, who signed on to play Dolly, wife of Oblonsky and sister-in-law to Anna. “He’s played Oblonsky in just the right way: charismatic, frustrating, lovable – and selfishly addicted to passion.”
The actress felt that she understood Dolly’s temperament, remarking that “Dolly is married to a man she adores, she’s passionate about her family, and she’s pregnant all the time. She is completely happy with her lot in life before finding out about her husband’s affair with the woman who is meant to be looking after their children.
“So it’s devastating for her when she realizes that she’s been made a fool of and her relationship with Anna, whom she admires and with whom she shares a sisterly love, helps her. She refines her focus on family. I feel that in the end Dolly resigns herself to his behavior; she loves her husband and she knows he loves her. But she is not brave enough to attempt what Anna does, which is to seek an independent life – one that no woman in that time and place could really have.”
As a two-time Olivier Award winner, Ruth Wilson’s stage experience made her particularly well-qualified for the movie’s theatrical setting; as Princess Betsy Tverskoy, the actress is resplendent in dramatic and exotic costumes amidst high-society artificiality. Wilson admits, “I had free rein from [the director] to be more excessive than I would have been in a more traditional period drama. It was great fun to work with [dialect coach] Jill McCullough on Betsy’s speaking voice.
“Betsy also speaks to this film’s themes of love, class, and moral conduct, in that she represents a superficial level of love, lust, and desire; everything is for show, as she exists in a world which is all about beauty and image over anything substantial. Her soirée is like a goldfish bowl for people trying to appear rich and powerful, and real feeling is lacking.”
Countess Vronsky, the cynical mother of Count Vronsky and his brother Alexander, is portrayed by Olivia Williams. Having worked with Wright on “Hanna,” she was keen to rejoin him on Anna Karenina, having found that “making a movie with Joe and his team is a genuine collaboration.” Williams was intrigued by her character, “an aging beauty – that’s a phrase which Tom Stoppard put in the stage directions – and to play her I decided to channel [Academy Award-winning actress] Peggy Ashcroft.
“There’s subtext to my character’s introductory scene with Anna; her foremost motivation is ambition, with love a long way down the list. She feels she has a façade to maintain, trying to preserve a fabulous society history. There were many details that I worked out for the character with the costume and hair and make-up departments. But at one point Joe [Wright] did have to tell me, ‘Don’t wear your subtext!’”
Two-time Academy Award nominee Emily Watson was tapped to play Countess Lydia Ivanovna, who claims the moral high ground in disapproving of Anna’s behavior. The actress opines, “Her fervor is probably repressed sexual energy, and she mistakes her own passion for Karenin for religious zeal. She sails about like a steam ship, and the costumes gave me that sense of posture.
“This story is so sophisticated, set in a time more valorous and chivalrous than our own, and we’re doing it in a way which I found liberating.”
Michelle Dockery, who had filmed a memorable cameo for Wright in “Hanna” just before coming to world attention in the television series phenomenon “Downton Abbey,” appears in Anna Karenina as Princess Myagkaya, who is “one of the socialites within Betsy’s circle. I love Joe’s detailed way of working, and this was quite a fun character to play; she takes an interest in Anna and although I would like to think that she does it out of the goodness of her heart, I believe it’s more that she likes being associated with a scandal!”
Count Vronsky’s brother Alexander Vronsky is played by French actor Raphael Personnaz, who joined the Anna Karenina cast for his first English-language role. Personnaz saw his character as being “dominated by what his mother thinks and wants, and the codes of society. Joe’s word to me about the character was ‘square.’ I feel that Alexander doesn’t have any love in his life, so he’s a sad character in a way. Yet at that period in Russia, I don’t know that happiness and love were a goal for most people; in this story, Anna and Count Vronsky are exceptions.” Kelly Macdonald remarks, “This is a great ensemble; I’d be looking forward to seeing this movie even if I weren’t in it. There are a number of scenes with lots of actors in them, but with Joe’s enthusiasm you never feel like you are getting lost.”
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