Kenneth Branagh Interview for Wallander
Kenneth Branagh’s television series Wallander, now in its second season, centres on a world-worn detective looking for meaning in his life – a role he inhabits to perfection, says Craig McLean.
The Telegraph, 8 January 2010
In a small conference room in an old army base on the outskirts of Ystad, Kenneth Branagh is meeting the local press. He is a gregarious, genial presence, regaling journalists with stories of his months spent filming in this southern Swedish coastal town.
Branagh, 49, is a big noise round these parts, and not because of his fist of Shakespeare cinematic adaptations (notably 1989’s "Henry V"), nor his most box office-friendly role, playing the vainglorious Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets". The Swedes know that as far as the English-speaking world is concerned, Branagh is Kurt Wallander, Ystad’s crumpled police inspector – a local hero beloved, via Henning Mankell’s novels, by 25 million readers worldwide.
Mankell’s novels – the first in the series, Faceless Killers, was published in Sweden in 1991 (2000 in Britain) – have long been hugely popular in his homeland, and have been adapted into a long-running drama series on Swedish television. In 2007 Mankell’s film production company, Yellow Bird, entered into partnership with Left Bank Pictures, run by the seasoned British producer Andy Harries, to make English-language versions of individual novels. Broadcast on BBC1 in November 2008, the three feature-length dramas were a critical and ratings hit. Wallander won the Bafta for Best Drama Series, and Branagh was last month nominated for a Golden Globe (for best actor in a miniseries/TV film). A second set of three films – again shot in and around Ystad – was quickly in production.
"The Bafta is both absolutely fantastic and sort of meaningless at the same time," says Branagh, who also has four Oscar nominations to his name and an Emmy (for his portrayal of the SS leader Reinhard Heydrich in the television film "Conspiracy"), "but we’re grateful because it allows the possibility of the second series, and it’s been really enjoyable to try and make it better."
'Wallander' is cinematic, atmospheric and, as Branagh says, "exotic" (the dramas make beautiful use of the flat, honeyed landscape of southern Sweden in summertime – Branagh likens it to the "mythic" Wild West of, say, Clint Eastwood’s 'Unforgiven'); gripping (Mankell’s books are dexterously plotted and vividly characterised) and almost poetically graphic (the first British dramatisation, 'Sidetracked', opened with scenes of a teenage girl self-immolating in a field of brilliant yellow rape).
It is also, curiously, introverted: Wallander is a dogged crime-solver given more to deep thought than car chases. He is turned inwards and weighed down with the burden of facing, time after time, the grisly things that people do. Unlike many a telly cop – and like many a real cop, Branagh suggests – Wallander does lose sleep over the horrors of his day job.
Branagh is a revelation as Kurt Wallander – a late fortysomething who has separated from his wife, can’t communicate with his daughter, suffers from diabetes (a product of his woeful diet) and dozes fitfully, glass of wine always to hand, in a chair in his sad, empty flat. Branagh has talked of being "match fit" for the role. But his Wallander is pouchy, slumped, rumpled, crumpled. Branagh inhabits the role, and the role inhabits him.
"Something happens physically that’s to do with the weight of thought," Branagh says. We have moved from the old army base that houses Yellow Bird and television studios to a location in central Ystad: the municipal swimming-pool, the outside of which functions as the police station, where we sit in the back of a 4x4 between takes, Branagh swaddled in a knee-length Puffa coat.
"This is a man who is unafraid – and in fact temperamentally disposed – to think in a concentrated fashion about difficult subjects, to the exclusion of all else," he continues. Shooting started in the summer, but now, on the penultimate day’s filming on the second of three features, the October winds are biting. "So there is little room in his mind for small talk, superficiality. He’s not much interested in sport. He doesn’t have hobbies. He doesn’t have extra room or space for what might be therapeutic reflection. It’s almost always about why people commit acts of violence. And complicated analysis and consideration of what drove him or her to it. Or why the person he has interviewed responded in the way they did. And sometimes in his own life why he is unable to say to his own daughter, “I love you”, or return her call.
"So all of that physically just makes you feel heavier. I remember reading the script for the first of these new ones – I’d not been near it for a year – and by the end of it I was hunched and bent over. And I felt as though my skin was sagging. I felt as though the gravitational weight of Wallander was starting to have an impact."
When filming finished on the first season, Branagh had to recuperate. That is, undertake a burst of exercise, of stretching. "I felt as though I had to uncoil from this preoccupation with dark matter. And two weeks after I’d finished I felt about three inches taller and six inches slimmer."
Coming after Harry Potter and his hugely acclaimed Ivanov at the Donmar Warehouse in 2008, Wallander set the seal on something of a comeback for Branagh. It felt as if he had disappeared for a while, certainly compared with his busy twenties and thirties. But Branagh is back, and, in the guise of the battered, wearied Wallander, he is wearing his experiences and his age.
"The unsparing, unflinching gaze of what happens when you’re 48 years old?" he says with a smile (at the time of our interview he is two months shy of his 49th birthday). "Yeah, I think it’s your fortune really, what life has done to you. Also, I feel there is some magic alchemy that goes on between what you’re trying to access inside with your imaginative connection to Wallander and all his preoccupations. And part of that magic is what that does to your features. That’s why we still cast actors rather than search endlessly for CGI versions of people.
"But it’s nice to be at a point," he continues, "where you worry less about ageing. You get on with it and you realise, “Oh, this is a positive feature.” In my own face now I see my brother and my father."
Kenneth – Ken to his associates – Branagh was born in Belfast, where his father ran a plumbing and joinery business. To escape the Troubles, the family moved to Reading. He has said that "being Irish, I always had this love of words", and while at secondary school he joined the drama society.
A teacher, spotting that he had "something", suggested he try for drama school, and a grant from Berkshire County Council helped him secure a place at Rada. On graduation Branagh shot out of the traps, immediately landing on the London stage. For his first role, in a 1982 production of 'Another Country', he won best newcomer at the Society of West End Theatre Awards (since renamed the Oliviers). He joined the RSC, formed his own company (the Renaissance Theatre Company, whose productions included 'Twelfth Night' in 1987, starring Richard Briers and Frances Barber), and wrote his autobiography, called Beginning. At the Academy Awards in 1990 he received best actor and best director nominations for his adaptation of 'Henry V'. All this before he was 30. Why the hurry? His passion meant he "had to" rather than "wanted to" do as much as possible, which meant straddling stage and screen, being in front of the lights as well as behind the camera.
Reading back through 20 years of press coverage, you have to duck the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – and criticism – that have rained down on Branagh. He was Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles rolled into one. Married to (and later divorced from) Emma Thompson, he was one-half of the first couple of smug luvviedom, a role also fulfilled by his subsequent relationship with Helena Bonham Carter (he is now married to the art director Lindsay Brunnock, whom he met filming the 2002 biopic 'Shackleton'). He was the passionate classicist who was singlehandedly bringing Shakespeare back to the masses. (He has credited his working-class background with motivating his enthusiasm for repeatedly tackling the Bard: "My parents are the reason I wanted to make Shakespeare available to ordinary people.") He was also considered the self-indulgent auteur who made Frankenstein and (much more recently) the misfiring remake of 'Sleuth'.
"Not that I feel I need to justify it or explain it, but I know it wasn’t about, “Hey, look at me”," Branagh says evenly of his early working life. "It was about absolute enjoyment of what I was doing. I did not expect to be allowed to be an actor, to be allowed to eventually direct things.
"So really, frankly, for many, many years after that, there’s still a kind of “pinch me I can’t believe this is happening” thrill to it. There was an ebullience; there was an effusion. A sheer enjoyment of doing it. Maybe the work ethic was to do with justifying that one was worthy of that."
But often, he adds, it was about fairness. If he ran his own theatre company, he could pay everyone the same money. If he made his own films and turned a profit, he could split it equally. "Not rocket science," he notes, "but things I believed in." He talks about 'In the Bleak Midwinter', his 1995 comedy, shot in black and white, about a small theatre company’s attempt to put on Hamlet at Christmas. "One of the greatest pleasures I had was when we had a screening on a Sunday morning in the West End. And most of the crew and cast came, including Joan Collins. I’d paid for the film myself with the money I made from 'Frankenstein', and we sold it at a profit. The books were completely open. And as they left the cinema that morning, we had all the envelopes laid out and we gave everybody a cheque – including Joan Collins, who nearly fell over. She said, “I’ve been in the business… for a quite a long time, and this has never happened.” She opened it and she said, “F***ing hell!” Because it was not inconsiderable."
By now we have moved back to the Yellow Bird HQ and, sitting in the dining area, Branagh is drinking tea.
"I remember telling my dad about that and he thought that was bloody good. Because he used to tell me about Friday nights, Crown Pub, in Belfast, opposite the Europa [Hotel], in one of those booths – they’d finish work at three or four o’clock and he would be doling out the cash. It reminded me of that. So I was proud of that. I thought that was fair and that was sharing it out. And because I’d paid for that, I was able to protect the film. It didn’t get snaffled up by all the ways and many means you can be shafted in our business.
"And there you go," he concludes. "It doesn’t make me Saint Ken. But [the motives] can be as straight as that."
Straightness, fairness and camaraderie: these are things that matter to Branagh. Also in the context of 'In the Bleak Midwinter' he mentions the writer and director Richard Curtis: he was "a big fan of my little comedy. When he need not have been, Richard was somebody who encouraged and was simply kind and enthusiastic. And smart and funny. That’s one of those things in this business that you remember." Thus, when I ask Branagh why exactly he had undertaken a comic cameo last year in Curtis’s slight 'The Boat That Rocked', he replies that he was returning the favour. "If Richard Curtis had asked me to walk off a plank into the ocean I’d have done so."
"Ken genuinely loves the idea of everyone together in a team," Curtis says. "That egalitarian spirit, I think, is why he wanted to get on so much when he was young – just for the crack of it. He rang me up right before we began shooting 'The Boat That Rocked', and he said, “As a director, I know how scary the first day is – you’ve to get to know your costume person and your cameraman. So I want you to ignore me completely.” He was on set for four days and he wasn’t remotely precious or grand, just completely humble. And like a lot of English classical actors, such as Michael Gambon, Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale, he is very good at comedy."
For Branagh, support and encouragement must go both ways. Daniel Radcliffe credits Branagh with pushing him in the direction of 'Equus': Branagh had the original idea for Radcliffe to star in the much-praised 2007 West End revival of Peter Shaffer’s play. "Ken was great because he was always looking out for possibilities of stuff we could be doing together," Radcliffe recalls, adding that he originally suggested they do Rattigan’s 'The Browning Version'. Branagh oversaw early workshops for 'Equus'. Meanwhile, Branagh has cast his Wallander co-star, Tom Hiddleston, in his next directorial project, 'Thor', starring Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins. It’s another intriguing left turn in a consistently adventurous career, but at this early stage of production (filming begins in Los Angeles in the next few weeks) Branagh is contractually prevented from speaking about what, one imagines, will be a CGI-heavy Hollywood blockbuster comic-book adaptation. But he has been using his time in Sweden to research Viking mythology and visit Norway on fact-finding trips. So serious is he about the project that, last year, he handed over to Michael Grandage his planned directing of Jude Law in 'Hamlet' – a huge theatrical undertaking that he had been preparing a year.
"I tried for a long time to see if I could do both ['Hamlet' and 'Thor']," he says, "and I couldn’t. And then I said to Michael and Jude, “What do you think?” You know, it was a difficult moment. You don’t want to let anybody down. But honesty’s the best policy." For Branagh the prospect of making a Marvel superhero movie "is just such an extra-ordinary adventure to go on. It doesn’t happen every two minutes. And Michael and Jude said, “On your way, and enjoy it..."
Back outside Ystad’s swimming-pool, Wallander is slumping down the road. On the director’s instruction Branagh does it three, four, five times. On each occasion, he stops beneath a tree. On one take he exhales heavily. Another, he stares up at the branches, eyes closed. Another, he seems almost catatonically numb.
These are the closing scenes of 'The Man Who Smiled'. "It’s Wallander walking away from his job, basically," Branagh explained. "He’s constantly been in turmoil about whether he wants to continue to be a policeman. And he appears to have decided not to be." Over the three new adaptations "he goes on an interesting journey, which is to really deeply question why he’s a policeman and the price he pays, the personal price, in relation to death..."
For Branagh, too, the work is important, but not if it means losing yourself. "I’d say that’s from my parents. It’s a basic Irish working-class thing. I was working with a huge star not long before my father died, and he said, [in a broad Ulster accent], “You wanna watch him, I think he’s forgot himself...”
"Now," Branagh says with a smile, "that’s a cardinal sin for them. It’s about simply remembering yourself and remembering what you’re doing and to be in the here and now. And know who your friends are, and know the value of money – in as much as it isn’t going to make you happy. Your health is really the greatest blessing you can ever have, and after that friends and family.
"And all of those things contain complexities and sophistications and plenty of stuff to keep your life interesting. But if it’s about the spurious pursuit of the glittering prizes, you’ll find that they won’t give you a hug late at night."
"Wallander" is on BBC1 at 21:00 on Sunday January 10