Kenneth Branagh’s career spans 30 years of grand cinematic accomplishments. Able to jump from acting to directing with total ease, the five-time Oscar nominee starred earlier this year in Christopher Nolan’s WWII blockbuster and awards hopeful “Dunkirk.” He is getting ready to release his latest dual effort as actor-cum-director, this November’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” After that, he’ll direct “Artemis Fowl” for Disney.
“It’s been a great year and I’m enjoying every moment of it,” says Branagh, who will be honored with an imprint ceremony Oct. 26 in the TCL Chinese Theatre forecourt. “Doing ‘Dunkirk’ was an experience I’ll never forget, and considering that I loved Sidney Lumet’s original and Agatha Christie’s novel, I’m excited to be bringing this new version of ‘Orient Express’ to life. I love train films and confined thrillers, and by doing it in 70mm, we really wanted to put the audience on that train.”
Branagh spent his childhood enamored with acting and classic big screen fare.
“Some of my favorite films include David Lean’s ‘A Passage to India’ and John Ford’s ‘The Searchers,’” he says. “I saw those with my family, and I quickly became obsessed with the wide-screen format and the compositional nature of the frame.”
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After training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, the Belfast-
born Branagh received acclaim for his work on the British stage as an actor and director. He cut his teeth performing and directing plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company, a period he describes as “intrinsically important to my growth as an artist.”
But it was 1989’s Oscar-nominated “Henry V” that catapulted Branagh to international stardom.
“‘Henry V’ opened a lot of doors,” Branagh says. “We had to get past the Shakespeare fear factor, and we did it with a directness that thankfully worked for modern audiences.”
Some of Branagh’s other Shakespeare screen adaptations include 1993’s charming and whimsical “Much Ado About Nothing,” 1995’s gothic and intense “Othello,” and his stunning 70mm treatment of “Hamlet” in 1996, which was “both a challenge and a blessing, and one of the films I’m most proud of.”
In 1991, Branagh’s romantic drama “Dead Again” became a critical and box-office hit.
“Scott Frank is a magnificent screenwriter and the double roles in his reincarnation thriller were the stuff of a young actor’s fantasy,” Branagh says. “It’s a genre I love and it gives me enormous pleasure to have seen a favorite picture develop a cult following.”
Branagh’s ability to confidently switch between playing the hero and the villain is yet another dimension to him as a thespian that continually proves to be surprising.
“Good guys are hard to play because it can be challenging to add in that bit of complexity of character for the audience,” he says. “Playing the villain can be delicious and beautiful because it gives off a feeling of release for the actor when you’re portraying someone who exhibits
When it comes to acting vs. directing, Branagh enjoys tackling both disciplines. “I love getting directly involved in all aspects, and I relish the work,” he says. “It’s all about looking for every way to make it fresh, and when I’m acting and directing, it becomes a symbiotic combination that feels natural.”
One of his most dynamic and memorable performances is in Phillip Noyce’s shattering 2002 Aboriginal drama “Rabbit-Proof Fence.”
“That was a great moment of watching a terrific director working with the perfect material,” Branagh says. “Phillip is a maestro of technique, and he had a provocative script, which was very powerful. And I love Peter Gabriel’s music.”
The adoration is reciprocal. “I’d sent Ken the script and the next day he told me that he was in,” recalls Noyce. “He was a joy to work with, in part because he looked at every scene as an actor and a filmmaker. The speed in which he committed to the project really helped us find our footing during the early stages.”
Branagh also has a taste for blockbuster entertainment. He appeared in 2002’s “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” an experience that he called “delightful.” He directed Marvel’s 2011 cosmic adventure “Thor,” 2014’s espionage thriller “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” plus 2015’s mega-hit re-telling of Disney’s “Cinderella.”
“Your passion remains the same, regardless of the size of the production, but with these big-budget endeavors, you feel the intensity of expectations,” he says. “But the glories are the increased resources and a larger audience.”
Branagh’s critically acclaimed television work has also brought him intense personal satisfaction. “Wallander” required “constant emotional exposure, as my character couldn’t ever take death lightly. He was very raw, but I really liked him.” He calls his Emmy-winning performance in “Conspiracy,” the 2001 HBO film, “a dark encounter with history and one man’s appalling place in it. I was haunted by the experience.” And then there’s his iconic role in the miniseries “Shackleton,” which has attracted a loyal fan base.
“Shackleton was a great Irish charmer, and his journey was very inspirational to me,” says Branagh. “He’s a fascinating, flawed study in leadership, but there’s something genuinely heroic about him. I felt a pressure to the man’s family to get him as right as possible. As an actor you occasionally wish you could carry away some of the character’s more inspiring traits into your own life. That was true when I played him.”
Branagh’s minimalist work in “Dunkirk” was “all about his eyes and that wonderful sense of presence he exudes,” says Nolan. “Ken embodied all of the great British qualities I was looking for. I’ve admired his work for years, and he did so much with so little that was written, because everything was so visual. He’s a great filmmaker who sympathizes with the many struggles of the director, and was able to understand our distinct approach. He’s a tremendous creative ally.”
Branagh was equally impressed with Nolan’s epic yet intimate vision. “I couldn’t believe what Chris and his cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, were doing with those heavy Imax cameras. They all used those cameras in a truly pioneering way.”
Branagh’s “Orient Express” crew are filled with praise for their leader. Director of photography Haris Zambarloukos, who has worked with Branagh on his previous five films, says: “Ken has a real humanity about himself as an artist, and he’s also a tremendous cinematographer in his own right. He’s also very intuitive when it comes to performances, and he allows everyone the chance to seize the moment.”
“Ken’s key roles on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ clearly demonstrate the dimension of his talent,” says editor Mick Audsley. “It’s been a privilege to have been his film editor. ”
Frequent collaborator and Oscar winner Judi Dench says, “ ‘Orient Express’ will be the 10th time I’ve worked with him, and I think that speaks for itself.”