Villain director tries to be picture perfect

LOS ANGELES- Some Kenneth Branagh fans are still recovering from the shock of finding out that their beloved Shakespearean actor was responsible for Thor, the 2011 movie based on the hammer-wielding Marvel comics superhero.

But those who recognise the 53-year-old Irishman in the new spy thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, in which he plays the villain, are in for another surprise when the credits roll: He directed this big action flick, too.

Speaking to reporters at the Montage Hotel in Los Angeles last week, Branagh staunchly defended what has become something of a pet thesis for the actor- director ever since he began doing more mainstream commercial fare, even though he remains best known for his film adaptations of the Bard.

"I haven't really quite accepted that there's any particular divide or barrier between so-called high culture and low culture," he tells Life! "There's only good culture, whatever that is. So whatever the genre is, there are good and bad examples of all kinds."

Thus he does not distinguish between a film such as Henry V, which he adapted, directed and starred in to a great reception in Hollywood in 1989, and his latest effort, inspired by Tom Clancy's novels about the reluctant spy Jack Ryan. This, despite the fact that his forte has been dialogue-driven dramas in television, theatre and film, the latter including such movies as Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996) and As You Like It (2006).

In fact, Branagh can draw a line directly from Henry V to Jack Ryan, which also stars Chris Pine and Keira Knightley and features numerous and complex action sequences.

"Certainly, trying to explore it cinematically and make it as interesting and original as possible, that was all new. But, at the same time, I feel as if I started as an action director. Because although Henry V was full of dialogue, actually, you end up with the Battle of Agincourt.

"And I remember one autumn day in October 1988 with Vic Armstrong - the legendary second- unit director who worked on Jack Ryan and Henry V. He and I were standing there going, 'How do we make all these guys firing arrows look interesting, how do we do the French outnumbering the English?'

"And 25 years later, we're on the FDR Highway in New York saying, 'So, Jack's on a motorcycle, he has to save the world, how do we make that interesting?'

"So in a bizarre way, action's run right through my career, but often mixed up with a lot of words. Which leads me to believe that action and words can co-exist."

For Branagh, more important than a movie's genre or approach is whether it is well-executed.

"If it's a broad comedy, it's either good or it isn't. When the good ones are good, they're fantastic and take your breath away.

"I also admire artistry, skill and technique. And when things appear to be effortless."

He cites the work ethic of legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov as an example. Baryshnikov has a supporting role in Jack Ryan and two small scenes with Branagh's character, yet wanted to rehearse "more than any actor I've ever come across" in order to make everything look effortless and natural.

And that perfectionism "can apply anywhere - it doesn't matter whether you're making Dumb And Dumber 3 or King Lear. To do something well requires concentration and focus, and it can be valuable and rewarding and entertaining".

"The idea that one dismisses something because it's low brow and common, or high brow and too pretentious, need not be the case."

Branagh has always enjoyed mixing it up professionally.

He has remained active in the theatre world, co-directing an acclaimed Manchester production of Macbeth last year that would later play in New York.

This came on the heels of a fruitful stint on the British TV crime series Wallander from 2008 to 2012, his role as the titular police inspector winning him a Bafta and an Emmy nomination in 2009.

"I've always enjoyed variety in what I do… There are parts of me that have been expressed in all of these films I've made."

He was drawn to Jack Ryan because of a childhood fascination with classic political and action thrillers from the 1970s.

"When I started going to the pictures properly, I was watching films such as Three Days Of The Condor, The French Connection, The Parallax View and All The President's Men.

"So the conspiracy, paranoia, thriller element of (Jack Ryan) - the idea of making a film where there's a secret drop in a cinema, where two men meet on a bench at night in Moscow, where there's a threat to the world's security at the end - all that I was excited to do.

"And I think, sometimes if you're lucky, you often end up working on films that made a profound impression on you as a kid. All the things that stamped themselves in your memory from about seven to 17 are the ones that come back to you, I think."

The director - who is married to art director Lindsay Brunnock, his second wife, after divorcing actress Emma Thompson in 1995 - knows a lot is at stake with Jack Ryan.

Although he is no stranger to big budgets - Thor cost US$150 million (S$190 million) to produce and made almost US$450 million worldwide - this film is a franchise that the studio is trying to resurrect after more than a decade away from the screen (the last film was 2002's The Sum Of All Fears), and with a leading man whose bankability has not been fully tested.

And the last time Branagh directed and appeared in a film, it did not end well: His musical-style adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost in 2000 was a resounding flop that led to him retiring from the director's chair for some time.

On the movie's commercial prospects, Branagh adopts a fairly zen attitude.

"The pressures are high. But the only thing you can do - trite as it sounds - is the best job you can when you're creating the work. Not try and do something you think people would like, but do what you like, and give it to them as honestly as you can. And that's a good pressure."


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