Between a starring turn in Dunkirk and Murder on the Orient Express—a reimagining of the Agatha Christie classic, which saw him behind and in front of the camera—Kenneth Branagh has had a remarkable year. While the British Oscar nominee has been directing for about as long as he’s been acting, he tends to approach projects as an actor first, and Murder was no exception. Branagh looked at his directorial duties through the eyes of his character—the mustachioed, obsessive-compulsive detective Hercule Poirot.
What drew you to Dunkirk?
Certainly as an actor, Christopher Nolan is a director who I admire enormously, so to be approached by him about being in a movie was something I was always going to be very interested in. It seemed to me when I met him that Dunkirk was clearly a very personal project for him—he conveyed a tremendous amount of passion about the subject, and the treatment of the subject. I just thought: Gosh, this really feels as though it combines all his brilliance as a visual stylist, and as someone who plays with time and narrative structure in movies, with a big emotional charge of this very important event in British history that his screenplay made feel universal.
I thought it was unique and passionate and epic—he called it an “intimate epic,” and I think that’s a very good description. It was a great read, the screenplay, and it was just kind of an easy yes.
Playing Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express must have been a very different challenge, especially since you were directing, as well.
In a way, the character of Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express was equally compelling because the way in which he directs the case seems linked to the directing of the film itself, and the project came to me in both capacities. I was drawn to spend time with that character—he’s so unusual, very much the opposite of the character in Dunkirk who is quiet, stoic, desperate not to show emotion. Poirot, by contrast, is someone whose obsessive-compulsive personality is very expressive. He can’t help himself, so there was fun to be had in that, and yet part of what Michael Green did in the screenplay was present a more interior Poirot, as well, somebody more melancholic and lonely and isolated.
In both cases, it was the role as an actor that was particularly attractive because I feel as though at this stage in my acting career, I’ve been drawn more and more to characters who have a complex inner life. In both these cases, you needed to try and find a way to express it. I continue to feel like an eternal student of the process of acting and how you make it effective on screen, and they both provided incredible challenges in that way.
Are there lessons you’ve taken from filmmakers like Nolan that you’ve applied to your behind-the-camera work?
I think so. Somebody like Christopher Nolan or Danny Boyle, for instance, or Robert Altman, they’re just a few examples of people whose handling of the atmosphere on set is key. They create harmony on set. Now, it doesn’t mean there isn’t passion and temper involved, but they create an atmosphere in which it is possible to both seriously approach your work and also have fun. That kind of working rhythm, from serious to lighthearted, is something that I’ve picked up from people like that.
These are not people who try to trick or cajole or hector people. They sort of strip away the chaos, even in the case of something like Dunkirk. Somehow, Chris Nolan helped to create a still center to that storm, and I think I’ve learnt from that perspective, the way in which you can create and apply and benefit from concentration in the midst of chaos.
Sometimes on Dunkirk, the storms were literal. What was it like to experience the sheer scale of a Christopher Nolan film, shooting on location in Dunkirk?
It was moving and captivating and compelling. My wife and I stayed in a house in town at the northern end of the beach, and I would walk to work along that massive, endless stretch of beach, so each day would be to understand how this place could accommodate the 400,000 people who were marooned there in May and June of 1940.
To arrive at the mole—the great jetty on which Commander Bolton is the harbormaster—I would walk through 1,500 real, living soldiers. Then, the great waves of crew, and you’d arrive at a set that was surrounded by two or three enormous World War II boats. You’d see period boats and planes in the distance.
Then, you’d see, in the midst of it, this sort of wizard, Christopher Nolan, who, from that position, seemed to be a model for Commander Bolton himself. He often was at the end of that mole, directing and yelling on a loudhailer or walkie-talkie, or gesticulating what he needed the boats to do, or a plane to do—and doing so with a kind of calm stoicism; dare I say, a certain kind of Britishness that Commander Bolton himself had. So, I did have a bit of a living example, obviously in a friendlier set of circumstances.
On Orient Express, how were you able to balance your responsibilities as the film’s director and star?
Well, I had a lot of help. I had an associate, Rob Ashford, who I’ve co-directed with in the theater; another performance coach called Jimmy Yuill, who I’ve acted with many times. Their sole job was to look at my performance and offer notes. I had long-standing relationships with the cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, and the costumer designer, Alexandra Byrne, and good, long relationships with some of these actors. I had people who were willing to share thoughts about a take or a scene, knowing because of my relationship with them that that was not going to be something that threw me.
Essentially, I was working in the theater in London across the nine months of preparation, and I was able, on a daily basis, to prepare the performance. For months and months, I was practicing the accent and the walk, and getting the costume fittings and the research into all things Belgian. I was able to have a really immersive connection with Poirot, without which it would have been impossible to do [the film]. I began and rehearsed and practiced with people like Rob and Jimmy way ahead of the arrival of most of the actors.
When they arrived, it’s not as if I had the performance set, but I had started to inhabit the fellow, and he was good company. He was a good fit for me, Poirot—he was a good fit for a film director—because his mind was dedicated to the kind of order and the imposition of balance that frankly you’re often trying to achieve as a director. So, I found that the character of Poirot, as he overtook me during the months ahead of the shoot, was actually beneficial. It isn’t always as good a marriage, but in this case, he had that influence on me as a director, in terms of my preparation.
Even if you’re the most pragmatic actor, there’s always a bleed between the character you’re playing and your own life. It’s just impossible, if you’re being it and saying the lines enough, not to have some kind of infusion, and Poirot’s inner life was good company. He was a man of character—Agatha Christie was quoted as saying she should admire his kindness, his compassion, his understanding of other people’s human frailties, and I think some of that bled through.
Looking at the film more broadly, what was your take in reimagining Agatha Christie’s classic tale?
The overall approach was to try and mine the emotional quality in the story. The emphasis was feeling underneath the skin of the movie that there could be this passionate, primitive kind of emotional force that was going to finally emerge in the last act of the story, so I wanted performances that would be open to that. I essentially wanted raw acting.
When that ensemble came on board, one of the things that I asked was that everybody was prepared to do their biggest scene on their first day, so that whatever quality of apprehension or whatever they might feel as performers, they were willing to be caught by the camera.
The film and the performances were trying to avoid any sense of too-polite heritage, cap-doffing to theatricality, or over-theatrical presentation. I knew the film could be epic and sweeping. I wanted to be in the language of filmmakers like John Sturges or John Ford or David Lean with the big, scope-y shots, and a sense of a landscape and travel, but I wanted the forensic gaze of 65 mil to mean that in these massive close-ups where characters are being asked to tell the truth about something—which underneath, really emotionally agitates them—would be something where the performances could be open and vulnerable.
With a group of actors like this, one smart thing for the director to do is to get out of the way, and just try and capture the bare first instincts because their intuitions are going to be so strong and so creative—and so they were. But you have to be ready for them. These people are so ready to go that preparation was all, in terms of getting to a point where you could then reach lift-off and hope for that sort of creative surprise—that spontaneous, improvisational quality underneath formal material.
You also co-wrote a song for the film, which Michelle Pfeiffer sings. Is it your ambition to wind up an auteur?
It’s an interesting question. I love making films, and this movie was almost an homage to my arrival at that understanding, in an intuitive way, when I was a kid going with my parents to see big widescreen stories told in very colorful and very vivid, very immersive ways.
But I’ve made all sorts of films and I come, not from a position when I started in the business of thinking I’d even have a film career, but instead from the theater, where one was always encouraged to serve the writer, something that is not necessarily ubiquitous in film.
But my collaboration here with Michael Green, with Scott Frank on Dead Again, with the dead, but brilliant William Shakespeare, is always to try and realize what that original creative artist has done. I know that it becomes another draft as one does a movie, but it’s to try as honestly as you can to tell a story that you hope will first entertain, but also have the possibility of making people think, making people feel.
Even the word “auteur” doesn’t necessarily mean, for me, that one has to have ownership or authorship. I really value collaboration in film. This movie’s character is made up of so many people’s work.