Maggie Gyllenhaal On Narrating 'Anna Karenina'

Go into the studio with the Golden Globe-winning actress as she discusses the monumental task of reading Tolstoy's masterpiece, which she calls "one of the major accomplishments" of her career.


Note: Text has been edited for clarity and will not match audio exactly.

Audible: Before we get started, I just wanted to say congratulations on Anna Karenina. It's a monumental achievement -- just from the perspective of length alone.

Maggie Gyllenhaal: I feel like it's one of the major accomplishments of my work life. I do. It was massive.

A: Why Anna Karenina?

MG: I tried to read Anna Karenina when I was like 16 or 17, and I couldn't get into it, and I couldn't get through it. Then I read it again when I was about 25, and it completely blew my mind. I loved it. Now I'm 38, and I had a very different experience -- [though] equally mind-blowing and earth-shattering -- re-reading it again now. I felt at 25 like it was describing myself, elements of my experience, and I felt the same way now. Totally. Even though my experiences so changed and shifted, and I've grown so much.

A: How did you approach this production?

MG: At first, I kind of had this idea. I thought, "I'll just re-read the book in a room. I'll just sit here and read it." Then I tried to do that on the first day and it was so incredibly hard, and I thought, "Okay, I can't do this."

Because of the way Tolstoy writes, you'll think you'll be going in this direction and then this direction, and then back over there, and then around here, and then on this wild maze to end up here. You have to know where you're going when you begin the sentence. I just stayed about 100 pages ahead of where we were recording. I got to a place where I would read a section and think, "Okay, I don't entirely understand this. I don't totally get what's amazing about this section," and then I would read it aloud and understand it in a totally different way.

I actually finished the whole book and then went back and re-recorded the first 50 pages, probably. Which was also an amazing experience after having had the experience of reading the whole thing, and grown with reading the book.

That's one of the things I think is amazing about Anna Karenina; I feel like it creates in you some of the things it's describing. I love the book so much more than I did before I read it aloud.

A: Did you know how challenging this process would be before you went in to record?

MG: I didn't have any idea when I took this on how much work it would be. How intense it would be. How much I would enjoy it. How seriously I would take it. Not that I didn't think I would take it seriously, I just didn't realize how seriously it needed to be taken in order to be done at all, let alone done well.

I learned something just even through the process of recording it. There are places where I would think, "Go on, keep moving, work ... keep going forward. You're on page 680 and there are 1400 pages, just keep going." It made sense. It was fine. Keep going. Then there are other places where I thought, "If I don't give Alexei Alexandrovich the respect that he deserves in my reading of this scene, the book will be ruined." (Laughs) If I don't give everybody the utmost respect -- and understanding, and compassion, and empathy -- I'm not doing justice to this book.

At the same time, I wanted it to have a light touch in the way I played the different characters, because the way that somebody reading the book is imagining these people with their own voices is really part of the experience. I just kept trying to be as relaxed as I could be and have myself "in it." I think as I've gotten older, I've gotten better at peeling away the artifice that we cover ourselves with.

A: Given your experience with the novel, how would you describe Anna Karenina?

MG: The book is called "Anna Karenina," but it certainly could be called "Levin and Anna." They are the orbits around which all these other people move.

In some ways I think both Anna and Levin are people who use their own minds. They use their own heart. They think for themselves. They feel for themselves. They don't fall asleep and fall into the way that everyone else around them is looking at the world. I think, in the end, the book is really about how each of these really fully awake, alive, thinking, brave, people responds to their place in the world. Levin sees the chaos, the wildness of the universe, all of it, and he comes to a place of seeing how meaningful life is. Anna, for all sorts of reasons, ends up in a place where she feels that everything is meaningless. She sees the chaos of the world. She sees the lack of order. She sees the wildness of the universe, and she comes to a nihilistic place.

Yeah, it's very complicated with Anna. I think it has a lot to do with her being a woman. Because of the time she lives in, she ends up alone, not able to use her mind. Not able to interact with really anybody else. She gets totally -- understandably, I think -- depressed, and lost, and confused, and heartbroken. I think it really is a tragedy. She's an incredible woman with an incredible mind and an incredible heart.

A: How did you approach the characterization?

MG: One thing I think is amazing about Tolstoy is he does paint some characters in ways where you think, "He's an idiot," or, "Yeah, she's a flighty socialite," and you start to write them off. I think he intends you to write them off a little bit. Then they swoop in at different places and you see the fault in your own judgment. You see the fault in your own critical way of looking at another human being. Usually in most things -- movies, books -- you see a character who you write off and you're like, "Okay, that's the bad guy," or "This is the honorable one. This is the good person." It just doesn't fall into that way of thinking and that way of organizing things, this book.

A: How would you describe your experience overall?

MG: There's this song from a musical where someone says the line, "There's nowhere else on Earth that I would rather be," and I kept having that line come into my head the way a song comes into your head. Joe the sound engineer, and Tim who was producing it -- we were like a team. I really felt that. I remember saying to Tim one day, "You know, there isn't anywhere else that I would rather be right now than doing this. Than just sitting in this room reading this book with you guys."


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