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Branagh: Titan of stage, screen, tube

BIFAs 2011/The Variety Award: Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh has had, in his own words, “a hell of a year,” one of the busiest and most productive in a 30-year career packed with remarkable achievements.

The Variety Award winner, who will be honored at the British Independent Film Awards, was the surprise choice to direct Marvel’s “Thor,” his first Hollywood blockbuster, which went on to gross $449 million worldwide — by far his biggest commercial hit.

Then he played Blighty’s theatrical knight Laurence Olivier, a man to whom Branagh was often compared in his youth, opposite Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in the Weinstein Co.’s “My Week With Marilyn.” Next he returned to his hometown of Belfast to appear on stage with comedian Rob Brydon in an acclaimed production of Francis Veber’s French farce “The Painkiller.”

Finally, he flew off to the wilds of northern Sweden, where he’s shooting the third season of “Wallander,” the BAFTA-winning BBC TV series based on Henning Mankell’s detective novels, in which Branagh both stars and serves as exec producer.

“It’s been a lot of work,” says Branagh, who turned 50 last December. “I’m taking a moment to thank my lucky stars that I’m fit and well and enjoying myself so much.”

It’s not exactly a comeback, because he’s never been away. But having devoted much of the past decade to directing a string of passion projects that didn’t spark with audiences, and having stepped away from major screen acting roles to do so, Branagh is clearly relishing being back in the limelight.

That started with 2008’s first series of “Wallander,” which reconnected him with his fans worldwide.

“It’s very pleasing, gratifying and rewarding to realize the impact that a series like ‘Wallander’ has in many countries,” he says. “Frankly, when you leave the game to go behind the scenes as a director and a producer for a long time, that takes you away from the hustle and bustle of the marketplace as an actor.”

Then, in an inspired leap of lateral thinking, Marvel offered him the chance to prove that his skills as a populist storyteller stretched beyond the upscale adaptations of Shakespeare that made his original reputation.

“I have been led by my passion for individual projects,” he says. “But there’s no question that having put my heart, body and soul into ‘As You Like It,’ ‘The Magic Flute’ and ‘Sleuth,’ and finding that the world wasn’t that interested, there was definitely a sense with ‘Thor’ that this time I’d like to put heart, body and soul into a movie people would want to go and see.”

He leapt at the chance to be involved in a big vfx movie, to handle a huge crew and to work in Hollywood. “Across 20 years of making films, I hadn’t spent a significant amount of time in that community, and I wanted to do that,” he says.

“Of all the American comics, ‘Thor’ was the only one I was really familiar with from my childhood, and it intrigued me, maybe because it was a bit more European, with those Viking helmets and its basis in Norse myth. The scale was exciting, and I did love the character and the story. It had depth and gravity in addition to being an entertaining ride.”

His approach, he says, was “to bring to it a sense of fun, but also to take the process of making it as seriously as I would doing Shakespeare.”

He describes the whole experience as ” a joy” and says he only turned down “Thor 2” due to timing. “I certainly wouldn’t rule out a return to Marvel; we had an excellent collaboration,” he says.

He has a couple of other directing gigs in development, but his immediate priority is to feed his renewed appetite for film acting following “My Week With Marilyn.”

“I’m very excited about doing more acting on film,” he says. “Harvey Weinstein is keeping me very busy promoting the ‘Marilyn’ movie, which I’m delighted to do. I’m hoping that it may just nudge a few people in the direction of offering me more film roles.”

Branagh believes he has stretched as an actor over the past decade. Partly through tough stage roles in David Mamet’s “Edmond” and Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” he has moved away from the heightened Shakespearean style toward something more raw and personal.

“Playing Wallander onscreen was something of a watershed,” he says. “I felt more exposed as an actor. It takes a while to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, and to enjoy it. But I feel now I’m a little braver, more ready to leap into the unknown.”

This combination of experience and appetite made him feel ready to take on Olivier. He was drawn by the fact he was surrounded by long-term collaborators, including producer David Parfitt and director Simon Curtis, who offered him the chance to shape the role according to his own deep knowledge of Olivier’s career and character.

Now he’s raring for the next challenge.

“This is a very interesting time for me,” he says. “I don’t just want to work for its own sake, but to focus on quality, to strike while the iron’s hot creatively. I feel very lit up with the joy of what I’m doing.”

British Independent Film Awards 2011
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The Variety Award: Kenneth Branagh
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