Jack Ryan's Kenneth Branagh on Spy Fiction
And What He's Reading Right Now
Esquire, 17 January 2014
Kenneth Branagh is a man best known for his fascination with Shakespeare. Even the actor and director's interpretation of Marvel hero Thor in the 2011 film he helmed was loosely based on King Lear. But in this weekend's 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit', in which Branagh plays icy Russian villain Viktor Cherevin, the director has set his sights on a different literary inspiration. The film is a reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise with Chris Pine in the title role previously established by Ben Affleck and Harrison Ford, transforming the universe of Tom Clancy's prolific series of novels for a post-9/11 world.
The film is half origin story for the protagonist and half end-of-the-world thriller, the stakes as high as they could possibly be for both Jack Ryan and the United States. For Branagh, the compulsion to direct this film came from a long-standing interest in the spy — and in those who seek to thwart him. We spoke with Branagh briefly before the film's release about his interest in the genre and the character. An apt title for the interview might be: "What you can learn from Kenneth Branagh if you have only ten minutes to interview him."
ESQUIRE.COM: Why did you want to make a spy film?
KENNETH BRANAGH: When I read the script, I couldn't stop turning the pages. In the character of Jack Ryan it felt like we had someone who could potentially really bring our audience into the middle of this experience so they might get to vicariously be scared, be thrilled, experience being on their own on a rooftop in Moscow having just killed someone or having to work out how through a complicated series of clues they might find an answer to the threat at the end of the film.
ESQ: Everyone loves a good spy, but what is it about Jack Ryan that makes him so interesting?
KB: I think people have a sense that he's an honorable man, that he's decent. He has a moral life and a conscious life. If those things sound a little dull or a little predictable, they know that he has this wild, almost reckless desire to follow through on that which he has started. His dogged determination to do what he thinks is right — even though he may have almost unwittingly gotten himself into a situation where he has to do something about that — is very charming and appealing. I think we like him a lot. When I read this I knew Chris Pine was already attached to play Jack Ryan and I thought that was great casting because I thought he combined the possibility of playing all those things.
ESQ: What is Jack Ryan's greatest asset?
KB: What an interesting question. His mind. His analytical brain. Add to that his determination and courage. He's a brilliant man.
ESQ: Does that make him unique as an action hero?
KB: Some would say that it's his only asset, because every other part of his existence is kind of suburban and dull. I think of it as a bit like us. In the books, they're very clear about what kind of lives the Ryans lead before and after they get married. They go down to the supermarket, they talk to their neighbors, they're on the school runs. They're just like plenty of us, but he does have this brilliant, exceptional mind. It makes his distinct that he doesn't have assassin skills, that he doesn't have 50 kung-fu moves, that he can't put something together from a fountain pen. He's just a guy with a bag of books and a brilliant mind.
ESQ: Did you ever get a bit lost when you looked into Chris Pine's eyes during filming?
KB: I wish I could tell you that I did! As a red-blooded, heterosexual man that doesn't happen to me. But I've certainly seen it happen with other people, male and female. I'm aware he's a fine-looking fellow. It was interesting seeing him and Kevin Costner, two amazingly handsome guys, and Keira Knightly, a staggeringly beautiful woman, on the set. There were visual treats to be had just being in the room.
ESQ: You play the baddie. What makes a great spy villain?
KB: Well, for my money they have to be as specific as possible. If they have an arbitrary madness or a kind of loose psychopathy then it feels very predictable. I like them to be unpredictable, volatile, genuinely dangerous, and quiet.
ESQ: What was the most fun thing about playing the villain here?
KB: Keeping my voice down, frankly. Resisting the urge to chew the scenery and simply be a winner. I wanted to make the audience sure until the very last minute that this guy is completely confident that he has covered every single kind of base. Until, of course, this beautiful woman is presented to him. And his male competition, his competition with Jack, who he wants to best by taking his gal away, arises. Even though the age difference makes it totally absurd but also entirely human.
ESQ: Before you agreed to make the film, had you read the Jack Ryan novels?
KB: Many of them. Not all of them, but many of them. And I was familiar with the previous films. I had this sense of there being this remarkable way in which the character connected with a large number of people. That kind of thing doesn't happen by accident. So I was excited by this idea of how you make a bridge between the bulk of those novels, which were written during the old Cold War period, and how you bring that into the 21st century where the world of spies has been significantly shaken by the Wikileaks revelation and by the Edward Snowden affair. Where everything that comes up in a spy novel scenario suddenly appears in a different kind of light. Put Jack Ryan into that mix and that seemed like it would be something very interesting to work on.
ESQ: Would you say you're a fan of spy fiction?
KB: Yes, I am. On a crude level one of the things I loved when I read this script was, "Hey, I get to do a small scene in a movie theater where a man comes in with an envelope and passes it on to another man who leaves quickly. I'm also going to be able to shoot a scene where two men sit on a park bench late at night in a park in Moscow talking about the fate of the world before one walks away with his dog." That kind of thing. The contraction and the incongruity of epic events discussed in mundane places. If only we knew! Whenever you see those things and then go out to walk your own dog in a park and suddenly there's two guys talking, you think, "Well, maybe they're about to ruin the world."
ESQ: What other sorts of books do you read?
KB: I'm always interested in contemporary fiction. I'm reading a book at the moment from India called The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. And alongside that I'm reading a book about the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Which sounds more impressive than it might be. I'm doing that because I know nothing of said man and I'm trying to do a little bit of self-education. So a bit of philosophy, a bit of Indian fiction, and my trusty spy thrillers get me through the day.