Actor-director Kenneth Branagh explains the evolution of his career from Shakespeare interpreter to comics director, with the new action/fantasy film Thor, based on the Marvel superhero.
Actor-director Kenneth Branagh
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Kenneth Branagh to this program. The four-time Oscar-nominated director, actor and writer is out this weekend with what promises to be one of the biggest films so far this year, “Thor.” The film based on the Marvel comic stars Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth. Here now, a scene from “Thor.”
Tavis: We know you, regard you and celebrate you as a wonderful Shakespearean actor, and so I start by asking how does that inform this?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, you have Anthony Hopkins, who’s a fantastic and great Shakespearean actor, bring tremendous weight and gravitas to the role of Odin. He is the king of the universe, so when he says to his son, “I cast you out,” biblical phrase, you feel the intensity and the high stakes, and I think that at the center of the story this troubled royal family, with the fates of many other peoples dependent on how well they get on, that little connection between the personal and then the public lives of powerful people is a Shakespearean theme.
I think that he was always fascinated by basically what goes on behind closed doors in the lives of the rich and powerful. For me, it gave a lovely sort of backbone to a story that was also full of humor as well, and a world on contemporary Earth that was very direct and different. So I guess this bit of the story was a useful point of connection for me in something that was also very unfamiliar.
Tavis: Are there other or different parallels between what we appreciate about Shakespeare’s work and the storyline in “Thor?”
Branagh: I think that if you look at a play like the “Henry IV” plays, where Prince Hal is a reckless youth, he’s the heir to the throne but there is much concern about whether he’s a good candidate, he keeps bad company, he drinks too much, he stays out late at night, his judgment is suspect. In this story, all of that applies to Thor.
In “Henry V,” the story of the assumption of true and responsible leadership by Henry I think is hard-won. He has to lose friends; he has to risk his life. That also is paralleled, I think, in “Thor.” In those cases, I think – and again, it’s a Shakespearean theme, really, I suppose – is that there is the investigation of what does it take to be a hero. What are those constituent parts?
On the outside, privilege and entitlement and being a very fine warrior, but on the inside, what is it that allows you to make balanced, if that’s what you think they should be, judgments and decisions?
I hasten to add this is wrapped up in our case in something that is trying to convey pleasure and have fun and entertainment, but of course I feel that’s Shakespearean as well, because I feel there was a man who was a shareholder in his own theater, he was an actor in his own theater, a producer, and he was commercially led.
The records, what little we know about Shakespeare, including the records of the plays in his playhouse, were often the story of how quickly they came off if they didn’t work. They had to move on. They were absolutely led by box office. So there are very many parallels. (Laughs)
Tavis: There are some more things I want to ask you about, but since you made a comment a moment ago that made me think about this I should stop for a second and let you just top-line – you’ve already started to do some of this – what the storyline here is for those who haven’t seen or heard as yet what it’s about.
Branagh: Sure. Well, Thor is the prince of Asgard. His father is Odin, and Asgard is the home of the gods. It’s one of nine realms in the cosmos. Essentially, that family runs the universe. At the beginning of the story, Thor defies his father in his search to prove himself willing and able to be king. His coronation is interrupted by an attack from the frost giants.
Thor, defying his father, decides he will go and see why they did it. In so doing, he creates almost a sort of nuclear war. That provocation means that he’s brought back to Asgard and must be punished. He defies his father once again and he’s banished to Earth. And so –
Tavis: Without his powers.
Branagh: Without his powers, exactly. (Laughter) So in the sort of classic tale of someone like Odysseus, you go away and you lose everything, you lose your friends, you lose your family, you lose your powers, exactly right, you lose your home, and in this case – and quite comically as well, I think – he has to deal with the idea that it’s trickier than he imagined for a god to order coffee in New Mexico (laughter) or indeed to find easy equine transport in New Mexico. These are challenges.
People bring those along to him, normally, so we have some fun with that, the fish out of water stuff. But we also have fun with the idea of him trying to assess, well, what does he feel about all those things? Does he, in fact, earn the right to be, as we use the word in the film, “worthy” enough to return?
That story is both comic and dramatic, and via the illuminations of Natalie Portman, it’s also romantic.
Tavis: This notion of powerlessness, of losing one’s power, losing one’s home – I think you see where I’m going with this. There’s so many Americans right now who understand now what it means to lose power, to lose authority, to lose means of making a living, et cetera, et cetera, and I thought about that.
I don’t know what you think about it, but I thought about that when I wrestled with the film and how so many Americans are in the same position, strangely, that the comic character Thor is in in the movie. Does that make sense?
Branagh: Well, it does make sense, and I think that these things – it’s never an accident that pictures like this end up being made at this kind of level. It isn’t just that there’s some spectacle and action and drama and all those things you might expect to find in a summer movie. It ends up reflecting in some way things that are going on or having some kind of mirror at work.
Particularly with classic tales, with myths, archetypal stories, and I guess one wrapped up in what you hint at is the sometimes enforced and painful and difficult process of perhaps necessarily reevaluating what you feel is important.
What is important about who you are, about what people think of you, about whether their approval or parental approval or your own approval, whether that’s fundamental to once rediscovered in some beautiful and full way, does that help cope with the removal of things, surface elements, things that you felt you could not do without before, but maybe when that inner strength can be accessed, when you have a true sense of who you are, you’ve got two feet on the ground and you may not have all the food you want or indeed the income that you want or indeed the place to live, if you start from that position of with yourself and with other people acquiring respect, self-respect, respect for others, then maybe, although they won’t necessarily put bread on the table, they’re the beginning of maybe a different way of looking at how those things happen.
Tavis: Without giving the storyline away, what does “Thor,” the film, say to us about redemption? We talked about loss just now, what does it say about redemption?
Branagh: I think it says that – it offers the question of, I think, good art, good entertainment, in a way hopefully offers it up – I’d be interested to know what you think it may say, because it may say something different to you.
I don’t want to tell people what to think, but you’re kind enough to ask the question, and my view is that it talks, I suppose, about the freedom, if you like, the happiness, the certainty, in his case, almost the sort of beatitude of being able to understand the clear, clear message that in order to help others, and that that’s a good and dominating theme, he now understands, he must sacrifice whatever needs to be sacrificed.
Certainly his own ego, certainly his own vanity, and perhaps if that what it takes, and without self-glorification, his own life. I think the nature of the redemption means that it’s a very full, it’s a very rich moment. One of the glories of Chris Hemsworth’s performance, I think, is that you absolutely believe and take seriously that the idea that the man has changed from someone entitled and arrogant and sometimes funny and witty and aggressive and a great fighter into someone who really cares more about you or him or her than himself, and actually in so doing he accesses, through that heroism, that truly selfless, unpublicized heroism, maybe some genuine kind of redemptive power.
Tavis: I think after this film, the success of it already, the name Chris Hemsworth is going to be much better known in this country and around the globe. I thought I read something – he beat his brother out for this part? His blood brother? Is that true?
Branagh: (Laughter) He did. I don’t know what their life was like in the Hemsworth household on that particular evening, but they’re both very handsome young men, they’re both at the start of I think tremendous careers. Inevitably, they go up for the same parts and in the end, as our version of the script developed, it just all absolutely sort of played into the slighter maturity that Chris has, he’s a little bit older.
But in both cases, they’ve got fantastic physiques, great access to comedy. Twinkle in his eye, romantic. Chris was able to do the kind of work to produce the kind of body that obviously you and I both have as a matter of course, but he managed to (laughter) – he was able to really work it and in a way that we won’t do right now, take his shirt off and let the world know that he had the body of a god.
Tavis: Yeah, no, we shan’t. (Laughter) Here’s the exit question for me. Again, back to these big issues and themes that resonate with me about a project like “Thor.” What does this say to us about the kinds of leaders that we want?
Branagh: Two billion people watched the royal wedding. Clearly, they’re interested in that – the outside of what appears to be lives that have a certain amount of privilege. They have gifts, they have history, they have a sort of unusual and separate position, which maybe involves paying a price.
Certain loneliness, certain isolation, certain out-of-touchness, certain inability, perhaps because of circumstances, to connect with as many people as we might freely connect with.
But nevertheless, it continues to fascinate. I think that fascinated because at the center of it was a certain purity and goodness and goodwill, youthfulness. An uncynical kind of warmhearted support for what we all understand. A partnership at the beginning of its life, heading out into the great adventure of life.
There was something very goodhearted about that. I think that’s quite separate from what we often feel about our political leaders, where we bring to that cynicism and disappointment, a belief or a skeptical attitude that suspects that perhaps corruption, compromise is at the center of it all.
I think we want the sort of rugged and robust engagement with politics and with leadership that we know to be these days ever more complicated, but we would love it to contain. Some of the idealism, the youthfulness, the bright, shiny, Camelotian kind of glory that that kind of ceremony and ritual symbolizes.
We’d like them to be roughty-toughty, we’d like them to be like us, we’d like them to be able to stand up and be counted, but we want compassion and we want sensitivity, and we want a hell of a lot. The burden on modern leaders and modern heroes is tremendous.
But you see the – for instance, in maybe one of the great and sort of in a way unchallenged modern leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela, that the celebration, the admiration, the sort of belief in his absolute integrity, even though he, as sullied by the tower of politics as anybody could be, because it’s in the nature of the game, I think people wish to be inspired in that way.
I think “Thor” has some of that questioning going through it about essentially what it takes to be a hero and a leader, and it’s tough. It is unquestionably tough, and maybe the toughest thing is starting with that series of inner questions that ask yourself how fit you think you are to do all that.
Tavis: You can tell there are a lot of big issues to wrestle with courtesy of the film “Thor,” but a lot of entertainment, a lot of fun to be had as well. As if you didn’t know, the film is called “Thor,” showing in just moments all over the country. I’m sure it’s going to be a huge blockbuster. I’m honored to have you on this program.
Branagh: Oh, thanks so much, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to have you, Kenneth.
Branagh: Thank you.
Tavis: Up next, actor and groundbreaking hip-hop artist Ice-T – stay with us.
[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.