Kenneth Branagh Talks About Final Season of Wallander
Parade, 18 May 2016
Tick one off my bucket list. I got the fortunate opportunity to sit down with Sir Kenneth Branagh this past winter as he promoted the fourth and final season of 'Wallander' which airs Sundays at 9/8c on PBS (check local listings).
Tell me how you got involved with the Wallander?
I read the novels, for pleasure. I inquired as to whether the rights were available. A few other people inquired at the same time, and that group who were interested sort of got together and Henning Mankell, the author, gave his blessing. It came absolutely from unavoidable pleasure and enjoyment of the books themselves and the character and not ever read with “Should I/Would we do this?” That was an after-thought, a very happy after-thought. The experience of reading them was just a sort of quest of dreaming. I just did not know anywhere like these places and stuff in Sweden.
Was it intentional for the fourth season to be the last season?
It basically coincided with the certainty of what the last novel was about which came out about half way after the second season. “The Troubled Man” the English title was – it was clear that the facts of the Kurt’s dementia seem to be putting an end to his career as a policeman and taking it into some kind of a twilight world. I mean he is not definitive about it in the book, Mankell, but he does not get sentimental. He does not sort of offer too much movie hope. So, Henning Mankell always said that was the end of the Wallander.
And so, we had this thing from the Swedish language versions, that we have based all of our shows from the novels, ten novels. And one short story and we made the last two episodes of the season really span the events of “The Troubled Man” with one of the short stories. We kept our ambitions to realizing the screenplays of the existing books.
Was it important to film the show in Sweden and why?
For us, yes, because we were obviously coming at it with an English idea of Sweden and look at it differently to how the Swedes did. We saw things that they didn’t. Things that they were quite over familiar than what we felt. It was sort of every bit of the landscape did feel like a painting – composition of color and shapes and size and dominated by big sky and flat landscape. And for us, this was a new landscape to put crime into and our translated version of the Swedish on the pages of the books, and onto the screenplays, it gave us a way of reinterpreting it that Henning Mankell himself welcomed. He liked the fact that it was a few removes from his original. I think he liked the idea. He liked that sense that another part of Europe is going and looking at this thing; I think he was amused by it sometimes, but we felt the subject matter was being given a breath of fresh air.
Did everything look like IKEA?
Sometimes! Sometimes you thought that and sometimes you thought that they have kind of color blindness about their interior design. You definitely felt different there. After you’ve eaten enough pickled herring, you knew it was somewhere different.
You have been compared to Welles, Hitchcock and Olivier. Who were your influences growing up?
Well all of those was certainly… Hitchcock, I remember from early on, my mother was a great fan – she loved crime novels and stories. So way back, she always watched them and so I watched the Hitchcock Presents series on television (mimics the theme song). So, I remember that from very early on and somebody talking about the story and incident and mystery, and all the rest, so I was aware of the structure and then I seem to remember at that time, that range of films like 'Vertigo', 'Rear Window', and 'Notorious Suspicion' made a big impact on me. Once I became interested in being an actor the bravado and events of people like Welles and Olivier sort of really inspired me in a way. Now I act and I direct, and across the various mediums, and all those guys who did that, they were trailblazers. For some people, it is just the way they are to be involved in many elements of the storytelling. It is not exclusively the case but I have loved… Even on this project of being executive producer, I had a big part in developing the scripts and finding the place. Not because I have an interest in imposing my will or design in shaping it, I was just interested. I find the works I engross in that the more engagement you can have with it, the better it is – I’m technically not the guy who just shows up. That is an enjoyable part of it. Otherwise it goes by fast.
Do you prefer directing over acting?
Recently, I have intangibly felt two things: I really, really, really feel comfortable and enjoyed the moment of acting on the stage, and the other thing is directing films. I feel…
Not directing on stage? Or acting in films?
Well, not as much.
That did not mean I did not enjoy those other things, but I find it much harder, but in those other cases, I feel, and I really enjoy acting in front of the camera, but I find it much harder to me than acting on stage. I am not saying one is easy and one is not, but sometimes, I am much more naturally at home on the stage. I have to work much harder to be at home and in front of camera that I find it very natural to be directing in film camera.
I find it quite difficult directing on stage, even though I have all the same things are required. We need a sense of understanding or view on how things are played and what the story is about obviously. But, laying it out, I find it much more difficult than in the movie.
I like the three-dimensional thing. That comes to be clear to me.
Do you prefer acting and directing in big budget films like 'Thor' and 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'; Or do you prefer the smaller roles, smaller budget films? What is the difference to you?
One obvious difference is obviously the scale. With the scale comes logistics that can sometimes get in the way. You can get all wrapped up in the organizing of things. That is not mainly my job, but you can’t help that. The smaller ones just allow for that human scale.
One of the reasons I am working in theater at the moment very happily for the last four or five months and for the next six or seven months is because it is a chance to be on a very human scale.
I really like the fact that we got a company of 25 actors and other 15 stage managers, stage crew and everything. I see everybody every day and I go around and I am having conversation just in passing that will keep everything up to speed. There is not too many people that just made me feel sort in contact with it, more than you are running a military operation on a big movie. Really, it is walkie-talkies and people are literally, physically long, long way away. Much less contact with more people.
That is okay. It is just a choice if you are lucky enough to do one of those things, and you get to do one of those big images that tell big stories. But I do enjoy the people nature of what we do.
Being in front of the big map moving things around is different from talking something like what the characters are like. I like the hands on. You get more of that smaller pictures even though you don’t have the resources.
I understand you were a fan of Thor before you directed it. Did you campaign to direct that film?
I don’t think there is much campaigning that you can do there. But it was brought to my attention and they said, “Would you be interested in talking about it?” And I said “I would be delighted to talk about it because I would love to know what you guys are planning; what you have in mind.”
I remember a comic book when I was 7, 8, or 9 years old in Belfast that left out of my little corner shop was being incredibly colorful and with this incredibly big blonde guy; And I kept saying seeing Stonehenge-like structures; That is what I remembered. I liked it.
Then, it was quite a number of conversations about it, I must say, before getting the gig. Definitely my name was not the only one in the hat, and my, not so much campaigning, sort of letting them be aware of my interests included that kind of movie and from my point of view it wasn’t so strange.
You do Shakespeare plays and most of them have ghosts, gods, spirits, transformations, mythical animals, magic. So, people riding across rainbow bridges and space didn’t throw me so much.
Part of getting that job was then having that understanding that my first film was an action film, 'Henry V'. There’s this huge battle, towards the end of it. I felt more and more ready than people realize.
Any plans for future Shakespeare adaptations for film?
I would love there to be some, but the world has changed so much. It was interesting when 'Henry V' came in 1989, there have [sic] not been a Shakespeare film for really a long time and it was unexpected and it led to a number of them coming out over a relatively short period of time.
We have been relatively quiet, more sporadic and I think that is partly in the nature of things, it is also part of the where consumer entertainment is so different and various that it has to be sort of re-found and re-discovered. So I would like to think there is time for Shakespeare in the park, Shakespeare on TV, but I do believe in Shakespeare in cinema, pure cinema so, I think I would very much like to make another Shakespeare movie and hope to.
Well, I am still noodling that and as soon as I say something someone else will make it tomorrow, so I am keeping quiet on that one.
Do you have a favorite speech you like to perform?
It was always a pleasure to perform the St. Crispin’s Day speech in 'Henry V' where you could feel the audience, regardless of the political persuasion in that moment inspired by how man could seize on a moment in history through words ennoble people and prepare them to risk their lives for immortality through their deeds even though the immediate cost will possibly be very painful and violent. It is an amazing piece of poetry, some might say it is an amazing piece of trickery but it was something in the theater you really feel the emotional pull of and you felt the temperature of the audience changed.
Another one that has just part of the theatrical magic is in playing 'Hamlet'.
Even if people do not know the play at all and have not heard of it, something happens when you come on and just before you say, “To be or not to be,” there is a thickness of silence and anticipation that is unique in my experience of playing Shakespeare. People know that perhaps the most famous line of Shakespeare is about to be spoken by somebody playing Hamlet and you are there live witnessing it. It is like, when you see the Mona Lisa, or on my travels recently Leonardi Da Vinci’s The Last Supper in the land, you realize that it is a special moment in the presence of the master with Shakespeare in that famous line and famous speech. That was an unusual.
Those two speeches in those plays that are memorable to me.
Is there a role that you would like to play but have not gotten to yet?
I did it in radio, but I think I’d like to do 'Cyrano de Bergerac'. I’ve enjoyed Steve Martin’s Roxanne or Gerard Depardieu’s French version, Derek Jacobi on stage. Something beautiful about that play is that it has a universal appeal.
During my research, I came to the realization that you and Alan Rickman were only in 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' together.
Do you have any thoughts about his death, his career?
Well, it is very sad. The thing I most remember about Alan is that he is the first professional actor that I came across as a student.
He visited RADA. We had both been to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts – him slightly before me, and he came back to see a play called “Commitment” which he had been in on the London Fringe. He was the star of it and he came with his director to see us students do it which maybe a year or so later. It was the second time the play had been done. And he was incredibly encouraging. He came around after. We had never witnessed that – a professional actor comes around to see you afterwards. We were beside ourselves. He was so nice, simple and normal.The thing that impressed me about him was his absolute devotion to that institution. The sort of giving something back. He knew how important it is for him, not just the training, but that shift in your life when you give yourself to that which you think you are vocationally suited to and it fulfills your hopes, dreams and desires and expectations, and for us it did.
Alan put that back in rather across all the time subsequently, quietly but really, undoubtedly, and steadfastly, did a lot of work, lot of unsung work, because he believed in it, and he believed in supporting students. Not to garner their adulation or anything. He believed in it. And he is a shining example of giving something back.
When it came to doing the Harry Potter film he was also somebody who have not been through one and a half at the stage was very nice to me when I came on stage. It was the first time I think, my first day was doing a dueling scene with wands. He was very welcoming and accommodating and fun.
We did not work together much. We did about few turns together. And he was always generous. He was one of those people who would always write thank you cards.
It’s a great sadness, but if he had done nothing else what he did for students who followed in his footsteps was really significant.
Lastly, I have some random questions for you.
Go ahead then. Randomize!
Do you prefer coffee or tea?
Tea at the moment. The jitter juice produces the expected results. If I have forgotten and have two or three cups, that’s all it takes.
Favorite all time book?
I used to say David Copperfield. I know it is bit of cliché to say War and Peace but eventually on my third reading, I did get through it. I did love it and I am currently loving the television version. Let me think of something more interesting than that. The Return of the Native. Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.
What book are you currently reading?
I actually just finished an excellent thriller, A Girl Who Fell From The Sky by American Simon Mawer which is a birthday gift from my sister. I read it purely for pleasure and it was brilliant.
What is your favorite meal?
One of the favorite meals I ever had was just at home and it was just some homemade pasta. Afterwards, a just-sensational brie cheese. After that, just some peaches. I remember thinking these are three so such simple things; it was with good company at home and it was just beautiful. I like that rule of 3. One each course.
What is your go-to song which you sing in the shower?
“Rio” by Mike Nesmith.
Who is your favorite musician or song?
George Gershwin and that song/concerto “Rhapsody in Blue” [humming]. I was once on a bill where they played it live, and it was just so thrilling to hear that on an orchestra.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Ahh, it was an actress called Gillian Blake in an English television series called 'Follyfoot', set in a stable, sort of modernist 'Black Beauty'. She was always looking after her lovely horse and I guess the character was 15-16 and I was 13-14. Gillian Blake – oh my God she broke my heart.
Actor/Actress you would like to work with that you haven’t yet?
Movie you can watch over and over again?
And last show you binged watched?
'Wallander' airs Sundays at 9pm on PBS (check local listings). The final episode, “The Troubled Man” premieres May 22 on PBS.