Film Critic Tony Earnshaw meets Sir Kenneth Branagh, who stars in and directs the latest Jack Ryan film, and discovers that the Shakespearean giant is a self-confessed fan of brash action flicks.
He was the Shakespearian wunderkind, the natural inheritor of Olivier’s crown, the Belfast boy who came from nowhere to set up his own theatre company in his twenties and who wrote his memoirs before he was 30.
The signs were always good for Branagh, but few could have predicted just how meteoric his rise would be when he graduated from RADA in 1981.
A West End award for best newcomer in Another Country (with Rupert Everett) brought him to people’s attention and a hugely praised Henry V at the age of 23 for the RSC signalled his arrival centre stage.
Now, however, Sir Kenneth Branagh – he was knighted in 2012 – is at the helm of comic strip blockbusters and pulse-pounding action thrillers.
How did that happen?
It’s a question I put to Branagh with a rider: is this the kind of movie he aspired to direct when he was starting out as actor and director on Henry V in 1989.
“Frankly it’s astonishing to think I’d be having a film career of any kind,” he reveals. “When I started out, before Henry V, we had a very doldrums period in the British film industry. Films weren’t being made.
“I remember having conversations with fellow British actors and wondering if we’d ever be in a film. So that was a surprise.”
Perhaps more surprising is Branagh’s next confession: he’s a sucker for fast-paced flicks with white-hatted good guys and hissable villains in black.
“I love to go and see pictures like this. The moment where you read the script is key.
“I try and make that a special moment – put time aside and see what it does to you.
“I’m just trying to do work that I believe in. I’ve just kept trying to follow that – regardless of scale.”
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, based on the character created by novelist Tom Clancy, pits Branagh as an enigmatic (and deadly) Russian villain with a mysterious agenda against flag-waving spook Chris Pine.
Calling the shots from behind the scenes is a veteran CIA operative played by Kevin Costner, now aged 59 and easing himself into supporting roles as father figures and mentors.
Branagh has known Costner since 1990. Back then he was a novice player in movies. Costner was an established star with hits such as The Untouchables, No Way Out and Field of Dreams to his credit. But Branagh had an ace up his sleeve. He was in California, touring with a pair of Shakespeare plays, when he learned that Costner had been in contact to arrange a meeting.
“He wanted to ask me what it was like to act and direct in a movie at the same time as I’d just completed doing it with Henry V and he was going to do it for a film called Dances with Wolves,” recalls Branagh.
The film would go on to win seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Costner. Not bad for a first-timer. Costner would later go on to helm The Postman and Open Range.
“We had a long boozy lunch sharing war stories about the madness and fun of all of that. So it was a beginning of a friendship that has lasted right across that time. In fact he was very, very helpful about the same process 25 years later.
“Having him there was very nice. It felt like the conversation was ongoing. It had been a generous act in the first instance and it was very generous of him to be in the picture.”
Having someone of Costner’s status aboard can only have helped Branagh and his stars, cinema’s current Captain Kirk, Chris Pine, and Oscar nominee Keira Knightley.
Directing oneself in a movie is something Branagh has worked hard to get right. In half a dozen movies over a quarter of a century Branagh has directed himself as kings, princes and mad scientists.
Looking back he realises that “when I did the first one I didn’t have the monitors. Your judgement of performance was based on a conversation with fellow actors and the camera operator.
“Then you had to guess 24 or 48 hours later when you saw the dailies as to whether you were right or not. That does allow you to tap into some kind of instinct.”
And now? “You just prepare as much as you can. You try to be ahead of the game with the accent and everything.”
Mention of the accent leads into talk of Branagh’s character, an oligarch and banker for mysterious masters. One thing is clear in the movie: the Russians don’t come out of it at all well.
Branagh counters such observations with a comment of his own: the Russians knew it was a drama about one fictional oligarch with “a very specific personal biography and history.
“One has to take it in the context of that”.
He adds: “In the Clancy DNA these books set in the Cold War period featured this old rivalry between America and Russia. It’s very clearly there right now.
“In the person of this unusual modern creation, the oligarch, sometimes we don’t know what they own, what the state owns, they’re blurrily linked to government, so they’re formidable individuals.
“The Russians are great storytellers [and] they took it in that spirit. We don’t make the Americans whiter than white, I don’t think.
“We were trying to be complex and I hope they respected that. In fact the movie right now is number one in Russia. Thankfully.”
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12A) is on nationwide release.
A star on stage and screen
Kenneth Branagh was born in 1960 in Belfast, the middle of three children. At the age of nine the family relocated to Reading in Berkshire where Branagh acquired an English accent in order to avoid bullying. At school he took part in drama productions including Oh What a Lovely War! and Toad of Toad Hall. He went on to train at RADA.
Branagh is known for his film adaptations of Shakespeare including Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), and As You Like It (2006). He has been nominated for five Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, and has won an Emmy and three BAFTAs.