Keira Knightley

It's almost amazing to think at this point – she still feels like an ever-rising star – but it's been over a decade since Keira Knightley first made an impression on screen. She first came to notice in British thriller "The Hole" in 2001, aged only 16, the following year co-starred in crowd-pleasing comedy "Bend It Like Beckham," and the next year headlined Disney mega-blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl." And although she's attracted more unwarranted bile than many of her contemporaries, she's also continued to impress as an actress, starting with an Oscar nomination aged only 20 for "Pride & Prejudice" (the fourth youngest in history in the category).

This year, she's reunited for the third time with her director on that film, Joe Wright (who also helmed "Atonement"), for Focus and Working Title's "Anna Karenina," which sees the duo adapt, from a top-notch script by Tom Stoppard, Leo Tolstoy's literary classic "Anna Karenina." And it might be Knightley's finest performance to date, in a film that boldly provides a new take on the costume drama. The film opened in the U.K. this week, just as it premiered at TIFF on Friday, and we sat down with Knightley in Toronto to discuss the film, its place in her career, and her upcoming projects "Can A Song Save Your Life?" and "Jack Ryan." Take a look at some highlights from the conversation below.

Anna Karenina Keira Knightley
To a degree Knightley found it intimidating taking on such a well known part, but the character's unlikability was also freeing.  
The title role in "Anna Karenina" is hardly Keira Knightley's first brush with a much-adapted literary character, and the actress acknowledges the history behind the part, although says they didn't cast too much of a shadow. "I'd seen the Garbo version," she told us, "and I'd seen a version done in 2001 with Helen McCrory (made for British TV, with Kevin McKidd as Vronsky), but I was in my early-to-mid teens when i watched them, and they weren't things I watched again and again, so I didn't really know them. And I hadn't seen Vivien Leigh's version, or Claire Bloom's version, or Sophie Marceau's." But the character had certain aspects to her that separated her from some of her previous roles. As Knightley said, "In a funny kind of way, it was less threatening than Elizabeth Bennett in 'Pride & Prejudice', because it's not a character that people see themselves as. People see themselves as Elizabeth Bennett, want to be her, people fall in love with her, so that was quite a terrifying thing. Anna isn't someone that people want to be. She's this kind of curious, dark, jewel-like creature that's at quite a distance, and is quite frightening. And in that way, it's totally fascinating. When you read it, I actually think that Tolstoy hated her. And a lot of people will disagree with me there. He's saying that she's a victim, an innocent, but a lot of the time he's saying she's guilty, in a way she's the whore of Babylon, every fallen woman, and disgusting because of that."

That said, she has plenty of empathy with a character that may be her most adult to date.
Knightley's now been a familiar face on screen for nearly a decade, but as she says, "Anna Karenina" might be the most adult role the 27-year-old actress has ever played, a mother and a wife. "She's a women, not a girl. She's probably the same age as i am, and by the standards of the time, and the personality, she's never really a girl." And for all her flaws, Knightley found a way to empathize with her. "You have to go 'Would I do any differently?' I like to think I would never be that deceitful or manipulative. But actually, you don't know, and you probably have been all of those negative things at some point. So how can you judge that? And that's where I think she gets incredibly interesting, where she throws a harsh light up to human beings, that emotional journey we all go in, where we hurt the people we love the most. That's always an interesting dialog I had while reading the book, and hopefully that people will have watching the film."