Sir Kenneth Branagh: Hollywood's Hit Man
Before meeting Sir Kenneth Branagh, we were politely warned he’d be a little pushed for time. He is, after all, putting the finishing touches to one movie, 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit', while filming another, a live-action version of 'Cinderella'.
Back in the summer, after wrapping on the first (in which he also appears as a menacing Russian terrorist) and before the cameras rolled on the latter, he also appeared on stage in a deconsecrated church in Manchester, England, delivering 18 acclaimed, in-your-face performances as Macbeth. Shakespeare is, of course, a passion that has defined his remarkable career. Not for the first time, his performance in this intimate production—just 281 patrons, the front row regularly splattered with fake blood—earned him glowing comparisons with the late, great Sir Laurence Olivier.
Americans—or at least a lucky few—will be able to see for themselves when the production comes to New York’s Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall next June. As the man himself says, with typical understatement, “Yes, it has been a bit of a busy year.”
When we meet, then, at one of London’s trendiest Soho hotels, you might expect him to be running late, bleary-eyed, perhaps, even a little resentful of giving up a Saturday morning lie-in for an interview. But Ken — as he’s known to friends, family, and colleagues — is bright-eyed, punctual, affable, well turned out in jeans and a smart blue jacket. He orders tea for us while musing on his Trojan workload. “Sometimes it seems not ideal to work so hard, but other times it seems the best possible version of events because it keeps your creative engine running in such a highly tuned state,” he says.
“'Jack Ryan' arrived out of the blue. Paramount knew I loved thrillers, and although I hadn’t intended to do a project then, it just grabbed my attention. It dovetailed with a long-standing, but much rearranged plan for Macbeth and then the same thing happened with 'Cinderella' — a script came along and just like 'Jack Ryan', it was a page-turner. “You look for things that excite you and then it’s easy to maintain your enthusiasm and passion. For me, the energy they create just makes me feel that I am very lucky rather than very busy.”
Branagh’s creative engine has been purring along like a sleek Rolls-Royce’s for the last three decades, traveling down a road that has encompassed stage and screen, film and TV, acting and directing. And while there were those who raised a puzzled eyebrow when, back in 2010, it was announced that he would direct 'Thor', a film based on the Marvel comic book character, for the man himself it makes perfect sense. There’s a connection, he says, between the highbrow — directing and appearing in no less than five of the Bard’s plays for the big screen — and more commercial fare, like 'Thor', 'Jack Ryan', and 'Cinderella', that he’s drawn to. “The second picture I made as a director was the thriller 'Dead Again', so that has a direct link to 'Jack Ryan'. The third picture I directed was 'Much Ado About Nothing', which is a kind of romance, just like 'Cinderella'. 'Thor', of course, heads back to 'Henry V'. I wish I was more original, but I’ve noticed I’m interested in the same things,” he laughs. “It’s just that there are different numbers on the budgets.”
Branagh is, of course, a polymath (who, appropriately, named his theater company Renaissance); an artistic powerhouse who refuses to be confined by any perceived comfort zone. Still, now aged 52 (he turns 53 on December 10), he has to maintain his energy levels in a way that never occurred to him as a younger man. “So specifically, I’m much more careful about food than I’ve ever been before — what, when, and how much I eat. “Being a bit of an Irish ‘meat and potatoes’ boy, I’d have a bit of chocolate in the afternoon, dip into all those bad things they have at craft service — bread and crisps — and sometimes hours would go by and I’d forget to eat, then wonder why I was cranky. “Now I eat a little something every two hours, usually protein, not the refined carbohydrates, which is what my DNA would send me to. I also try to take a few moments for myself, just to gather my thoughts — even if it’s just two or three minutes at a time.”
On a rare day off, Branagh likes to go for long, stress-busting walks with his wife, art director Lindsay Brunnock, and their dog, Molly. “Twenty minutes with the dog on a nice day is perfect. But really, you just have to find a way to enjoy the work, even when things are challenging, which they often are. Life is often about flying through turbulence, and you have to be ready.”
An understanding wife helps too. Branagh was married to actress Emma Thompson for six years until they divorced in 1995. He began dating Lindsay when they worked together on Shackleton , the miniseries about the British explorer, and married a year later in 2003. “She’s like most women in that she’s smarter than most men,” he laughs. “She’s certainly much smarter than me and knows me better than I know myself. She understands that it’s great when people love what they do, but also knows that they need the right kind of balance in their life, which is why we’ll be having a holiday as soon as I’ve finished Cinderella . She also knows how much I love her.”
Branagh, the middle of three children, was born in Belfast into a blue-collar, close-knit Protestant family. His father, William, was a carpenter, his mother, Frances, a homemaker. In 1969 the family moved to England as sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics was escalating in Northern Ireland. Branagh was a 9-year-old with a heavy Irish accent, and settling into his new home in Reading, Berkshire, wasn’t easy. “It was very disconnecting,” he says. “I literally came from a well-connected family in as much as there were many brothers and sisters in my parents’ generation on both sides, so we had lots of cousins, and our family basically took care of our own childcare. It was that kind of community.”
“And we didn’t feel that sense of community when we first arrived in England. We were this small, nuclear family, two kids and one on the way, my dad was working very hard, and we felt disconnected from that large extended family back in Belfast. We spoke differently, and it was a time when everything was kicking off back in Belfast, and so we were worried about the people we had left behind. And it was scary.”
Branagh quickly cultivated a faultless English accent to avoid the school bullies and today, of course, there are no traces of that Irish burr. Eventually, he captained his school’s rugby and soccer teams and appeared in plays. “The Jesuits say ‘give us a boy at 7 and I’ll show you the man’ and many of those formative experiences now connect,” he says. “I can see that the powerful impressions that were stamped on me then — whether it was reading comics, watching a BBC matinee on a Saturday afternoon, going to a football match, or going to the cinema — all made a strong impact.”
He supported the London team Tottenham Hotspur because one of its famous players, Danny Blanchflower, was from Northern Ireland, and still watches his beloved Spurs regularly. He’s charmingly boyish, a fan, when he talks about the game. “It’s the drama of sport, the riveting narrative and human dimension, that I love. Last season I remember I went to a game with a bunch of pals, including [the actor] Brian Blessed and we met Alan Mullery [a former captain] and we were absolutely thrilled. That man was a hero of mine. I feel there might be a sports movie in me somewhere.”
The actor still visits the cinema as a simple audience member, too. “I know it will have taken a lifetime of pain for whoever made the movie, so I’m already cheering them on. I sit down with my popcorn and soft drink like everyone else and I love it when things are good. A couple of weeks ago I went to see Rush and I thoroughly enjoyed that. I thought everybody did a fantastic job with it.”
Branagh trained at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and after graduating in 1981 won rave reviews for his role in 'Another Country', the Julian Mitchell play loosely based on the life of British spy Guy Burgess. During its two-year run, the production featured, at various stages, a young cast embarking on brilliant careers — Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, and Daniel Day Lewis. And Branagh’s CV is as impressive as any of theirs — there are five Oscar nominations (Best Live-Action Short Film, 'Swan Song'; Best Actor and Best Director for 'Henry V'; Best Adapted Screenplay for 'Hamlet' and, more recently, Best Supporting Actor for 'My Week With Marilyn', fittingly enough playing Olivier); and two BAFTAs for his TV work ('Wallander'), and a knighthood, awarded in 2012, for his services to drama in the UK.
That same year, fellow Brit Danny Boyle, the creative director of the spectacular opening ceremony, 'Isles of Wonder', for the London Olympics, called on him to join the party. He wanted Branagh, dressed as 19th-century innovative British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to recite the “Be Not Afeard” speech from Shakespeare’s 'The Tempest'. “And it must have been about three weeks from when I said yes to the ceremony and there wasn’t a waking moment when I did not have those eight lines from 'The Tempest' on a piece of paper in front of me… I would walk the streets of Soho reciting them and I didn’t care who heard me. I would wake up at night saying those lines, I would walk the dog doing it, and I swear Molly could have done that speech because she’s heard it more than any living thing in the Western Hemisphere. There was nothing else in my life apart from remembering those f--king lines.”
Performing live in front of a worldwide TV audience estimated at 900 million, Branagh confesses that he was very anxious. “You get nervous before you go on stage plenty of times and I think you have to have some nerves, which you welcome as excitement. And the most spectacular example of that was being engulfed in the Opening Ceremony in London. “It was an unbelievable night, a wonderful experience. It was so typical of us as a nation that we could do something like that — priceless, brilliant self-deprecation.”
Those adjectives would apply to Branagh himself, of course. He still has that same enthusiasm for his work that was there as a young man starting out, who found another family, a community to be a part of, and a sense of belonging that he had missed so much as a child moving to England.
“With actors, I do feel that sense of camaraderie. From the very start it felt safe and secure in ways that I hadn’t felt since leaving Northern Ireland. I still feel that I’m part of a community and it’s a big part of what I love about the process.” Such is his standing now that the younger actors he works with — Chris Hemsworth in 'Thor', Keira Knightley in 'Jack Ryan', for example — grew up watching his movies and marveling at the diversity of his career. Knightley, who plays Cathy, Jack Ryan’s fiancée, opposite Chris Pine as the newly recruited CIA operative, remembers auditioning for a small role in Branagh’s 'Hamlet' in 1996 when she was just 11. “I knew I hadn’t got the job pretty much from the get-go, but he still took the time to show me models of all the sets and he was absolutely lovely to me,” she recalls. “He sat there and talked about what he was going to do and I remember appreciating that he had taken the time out to sit there with an 11-year-old and talk to her and treat her like a human being.
“And I was obsessed by 'Much Ado About Nothing' when I was growing up. I watched it until my VHS copy of it broke and I knew it all by heart,” Knightley recalls. “I completely fell in love with it, and that film was such a huge part of me wanting to become an actress. How can you not want to work with a man who created a film that you love so much?” she asks.
“Ken is very precise in his directing. 'Jack Ryan' is a Hollywood thriller — there’s no pretending that we were doing Shakespeare,” Knightley adds. “We all knew exactly what we were doing and he was very clear about that. But he was also very clear that we were going to make the best possible thriller that we could. I was hugely impressed by him as a man, as an actor, and as a filmmaker.”
The movie is a reboot of a franchise that has seen heavyweights Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, and Ben Affleck tackle the role of the ultra-smart CIA operative in the past. Created by Tom Clancy, Ryan first appeared in 'The Hunt For Red October', published in 1984, and went on to be featured in seven more of his novels.
Clancy, 66, died in October before Branagh had the chance to meet him. “Sadly, I didn’t get that opportunity, and I was very sorry to hear of his passing. We started the project with the freedom not to be confined to any individual novel, but with the permission of Mr. Clancy to use elements from Jack Ryan’s backstory.
“Nobody said to us ‘it has to be this or that’ but the thing that [screenwriter] David Koepp and I both identified that was essential to who Jack Ryan was is that he has a very brilliant mind — a revolutionary mind and a rather bourgeois background in terms of his life in Washington and Baltimore. So, if you like, he is an Everyman with a brilliant mind.”
Pine, attached to the project before Branagh came on board, urged his director to take the role of Viktor Cherevin, the Russian oligarch who plots to wreak havoc on the world’s stock markets and bring down the American economy.
“Yes, the director had a hand in casting Viktor,” Branagh laughs. “He discovered that that actor was very cheap, very available, and he knew where he was every minute of the day.”
That is, of course, another fine example of Sir Ken’s self-deprecating humor.