Actor-director Sir Kenneth Branagh

The lauded English actor-director talks about his new project, the latest movie iteration of Tom Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

Kenneth Branagh is best known for his Shakespearean roles and his touch for making the Bard's work accessible to mainstream audiences. Born in Belfast, he spent most of his youth in England and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and later formed his own theater company. He's appeared in a number of films and on television and is one of the most celebrated actors in film history, having been nominated for five Oscars in five different categories, including writing and directing. Branagh's recent projects include directing Thor, based on the Marvel superhero, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, in which he also stars.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: As one of this generation’s leading interpreters of Shakespeare with movie versions of “Hamlet,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Henry the V” to his credit, Kenneth Branagh has been nominated for five Academy Awards, five Golden Globe Awards and was knighted in 2012.

His latest venture tackles another crowd-pleasing author, Tom Clancy. Kenneth directs and costars in the latest version of the Jack Ryan saga called “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” The movie which has just opened looks at how the CIA recruited Ryan way back in the day and stars Chris Pine and Kevin Costner. Let’s take a look at a clip.

[Clip]

Tavis: So why star and direct?

Kenneth Branagh: Well, originally I was gonna be directing. I got sent this great script by David Koepp and I knew the Clancy novels that I’d really enjoyed the previous Jack Ryan films. I knew that Chris Pine was gonna play Jack Ryan and I thought that was a fantastic combination.

But after a few months of working with Chris and then with Kevin Costner and then with Keira Knightley, we got to the point where they were due to cast the Russian villain and Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Paramount and Chris Pine all were nudging me a little. By that stage, the part had got to be really, really good.

So I thought I would be very, very lucky to play it. You know, I’m in a position to say so, I thought. I’ll give this actor a ring. Let me see if he’s available [?"] and if he could be interested. And do you know what, Tavis? He was available and he was interested.

Tavis: Speaking of that actor, how does one direct Kenneth Branagh? Is he easy to work with? Does he take directions well?

Branagh: Oh, he’s no trouble. Shows up on time. I know where he is all the time [?"s]. I think it’s really helpful, that’s true. It’s helpful with actors. I get a lot of help, you know, when you work with people like this.

I had a master director onset with Kevin Costner, you know, so this is a man who’s very generous with his instruction. We met 25 years ago when he was acting and directing in “Dances With Wolves” and I made my first picture doing that same thing with “Henry V” and we spoke about that process then. So he was a help back then. 25 years later, he was a help on “Jack Ryan.”

Tavis: Is there no challenge directing a director?

Branagh: Well, you know what I found is that they are very, very sensitive to what you’re going through. I think that they’re aware that the major time preoccupation you have is the logistics, you know. People need answers from you all the time. So they know that people are coming at you and that sometimes messes with your brain.

His chief instruction on this was give yourself time. Most directors who act in things spend the least amount of time on their character and their performance because they’re aware of the logistics and the timetable. They need to move on and they can shortchange themselves.

So Kevin was very keen about saying just take that extra take for you because, when you get to the editing room, you’re really gonna want it.

Tavis: Let me go back first into the life of Jack Ryan. Then I want to go back to the life of Kenneth Branagh ’cause there’s some things about how you got into the directing thing I want to talk about a little bit later.

Let’s start with Jack Ryan first ’cause I’m a Tom Clancy fan. So one knows that this film takes you back into the early days and really gives you some sense of how Jack Ryan became Jack Ryan. Without giving the story away, you’ve already said that you, of course, are the villain here.

But give me some sense of those who haven’t seen it what the storyline here is in this Jack Ryan.

Branagh: Well, it’s an origin story that tries to, with Chris Pine who plays Jack Ryan, let us see who this man is. In many ways – and if you feel this about a character because it’s hard to work out exactly in a good way why he’s so compelling.

But in many ways, he’s ordinary. He’s an everyman. He’s someone more regular than what you might expect the hero of an action thriller to be. But he does have this incredible and exceptional mind, this brain, a tremendous analytical brain.

But in all sorts of other ways that’s good for the story, he’s like us. He’s the kind of guy you might go to the movies with, might be your friend, might meet on the school run, might meet down at the supermarket. So I think, from a personal point of view, this story tries to exploit that and put the audience right there with a good man, a moral man, a principled man.

He’s all of these things, a conscienced man, without being priggish and without being self-righteous. He just somehow is an intuitive, sort of feet in the ground, oak tree kind of sense of what is right and what is wrong. And he’s the kind of guy you want to go on a journey with, I think.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that because that’s the Jack Ryan that I know, I mean, as a movie lover and moviegoer and, yet, I wonder whether or not moviegoers in this era are interested in people who are moral and good and conscientious and all the things you’ve just said.

Because it seems to me that, whenever they really want to throw a loop at us, they take the guy who we thought was good and turn him into something that we don’t really know. Or there’s so many TV shows now that star cops who are “rogue.”

Branagh: Yes, yeah.

Tavis: I’m just trying to get a sense of why we think that this guy who is good and upstanding works in 2014.

Branagh: Well, it’s a very interesting analysis of it because it was one of the things that made me want to do it. I think goodness can be sexy. I think honesty can be sexy. I think a smart kind of intuitive and kind of generous spirit can be sexy and charismatic and compelling.

I felt we had the actor to play it in Chris Pine and I think it’s just – in a way, it’s a harder thing to do or at least it’s a difficult thing to do because quirks and darknesses and all the rest of it – you know, often you ask filmmakers what they’ve done with this version of the film, they’d say, “I’ve made it darker.”

Well, this one, we try and find – we worked out what we thought the movie was about and, in the grand terms, what is it like to be a patriot? How can you be a patriot in the 21st century? How can you serve your country without being a nationalist or without being gung-ho? What about just simple love of country, where you live, your fellow citizens, etc.?

And Jack Ryan, in a trouble and in a flawed way, tries to do this in this movie. It involves taking a decision about whether you might decide to work for a secret government organization who say that you cannot tell anyone that’s what you’re doing. So that means you’re going to lie to your partner or your wife, lie to your workmates. Already for a principled man, that’s a tremendous compromise and a burden.

But dramatically, it’s very, very interesting ’cause he’s sort of semi-haunted by that responsibility, but he’s trying to find the right way through it. And against that, he has this burgeoning knowledge in this story of a very, very serious threat to America at large and to the world in general.

And it puts him, with us sort of empathizing with him, right in the middle of something that then becomes very visceral. So you really feel this Jack Ryan’s journey through the story.

Tavis: You’ve hit on something here that I’ve talked about many times on this program that really troubles me, and it is the ease with which so many of us Americans – I can’t speak to other people around the globe – but the ease, the troubling ease with which so many of us as Americans have slipped from patriotism into nationalism.

And there are moments when that is heightened when the country is under threat. Certainly, 9/11 was one of those examples. But there are moments, there’s this ebb and flow, where we’d seem sometimes not to know where the line is between patriotism and nationalism. As a character, I can see Jack Ryan wrestling with that.

Branagh: Yes.

Tavis: So, again, you can answer it in that context or what your own view of this is as a citizen of the world. But talk about that slippery slope, if you will.

Branagh: Well, I think it’s well put inasmuch as that felt to me part of the territory that we were working in is that, for instance, in this story, we find early on Jack Ryan is almost unwittingly party to an act of violence, a profound act of violence, which we allow him to feel very, very disturbed by.

So the moment death is brought into this picture, it is not glibly, it is not triumphantly, it is not casually. It is in an encounter that is face to face and hand to hand coming up absolutely and staring in the face what it is to take another human being’s life. And I think when that comes the center of your relationship to what it means to protect, defend or go out and be triumphalist about your country, I think things change.

So the value of human life, regard for the value of human life, becomes central to it. I think that’s a huge part of who Jack Ryan is. I think it’s a huge part of what I feel my American friends have, you know, a sense of what is important and valuable in that way.

So it became, for me, that sort of engagement with the degree to which you will go to serve your country and what serving your country means, what honoring your country means, is an ongoing question. I think what it says to me is that that’s something that has to be questioned and re-questioned all the time because the world changes, circumstances change.

This Jack Ryan’s for the 21st century, so his problem is that he’s dealing with an interconnected global financial system which means that one tiny movement on the other side of the globe could have catastrophic effects for people in Dearborn, Michigan or wherever it might be.

And that in itself is very scary and new and yet it feels very credible and is both an enormous thing to consider and a very personal one ’cause it might hit our bank account or our families or our education, etc.

So the new problem for anyone, whatever they feel about patriotism, is that the world is changing so fast, I think sometimes you need Jack Ryan in the middle there as a kind of moral compass.

Tavis: That’s what a good Hollywood movie does for me, at least. It makes me wrestle with the character, but also when you have a guy who works for the CIA, it makes you cross that line into real world. And you’re trying to get a sense of how this would play out in real time in the real world.

So I think, for example, as you talk now about how the world has changed, you’re right. I think of Eric Snowden. I was, quite frankly, – you know, we’re just back for our, you know, 11th season. It just started away a few days now. And over the holiday season, I was actually – I’m gonna find the right word.

I think I really was surprised when The New York Times and other publications one by one slowly started to come out and say we should rethink this punishment, this pejorative and punitive treatment of Eric Snowden. Maybe he has done the country a service.

Now that was heresy a few months ago. But little by little, there are people now starting to say we should rethink what he has done and maybe we owe him a debt of gratitude. Maybe we ought to allow him back in and maybe there ought to be some punishment that he has to deal with.

But those files being released have really opened the books on a bunch of shenanigans that the American people, say these news organizations, had a right to have access to.

The other thing that comes to mind as I think about Jack Ryan in this movie is it’s not just that Jack is a moral, decent, upstanding man himself, but Jack works for an upstanding CIA, and that is not the CIA that so many Americans see when they – you take my point.

Branagh: Yes, yes.

Tavis: I mean, these lines are getting really blurred for me. That was not a shout out to Robin Thicke, by the way. But these lines are getting blurred for me.

Branagh: Yeah. I think that they are blurred and that’s what makes it an interesting, almost a sort of tipping point, certainly a moment of intense scrutiny where, you know, various sort of archetypal features of what it might be to be an American or to be a Brit actually maybe is that we don’t like snitches.

We don’t like people telling tales, but that’s way too simplistic a way of regarding the Snowden affair. So a much more complex sort of pair of sort of moral binoculars and pragmatic socio-political binoculars need to kind of look at that. The challenge, of course, you know, is where the information’s coming from, how accurate it is, how much of it there is.

One of our issues is information overload in the world that we live in. So for me what was interesting in Jack Ryan was negotiating this point that Jack is trying to where he, first of all, enters the CIA by questioning and saying to Kevin Costner’s character, “You know, people don’t like you guys too much anymore.” What about water boarding? What about rendition? Not in my unit. Really? Really? There are, as it were, straight, thorough, cleanup parts.

Well, you’ll have to take a view on that. At some point, you’ll have to take a view on whether you can trust me or not. At some point, it will come down to some individual act like that. And then, of course, it activates the idea of, well, how many secrets are legitimate to withhold in whichever organization usually the governments decide is in our best interest?

Or does the democratization of the internet mean essentially that the open season that has, you know kind of unleashed the floodgates let everything out there, let us see where everything is, let us take our own view, let’s not have it filtered, let’s not have it compartmentalized. But if we do that, of course, it’s a phenomenal amount of information for all of us to take in.

Again, one of the reasons why I think Kevin Costner’s character wants Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan is we want the guy with the unusual combination of an extraordinarily complex brain able to manage that information in ways that perhaps we aren’t, who also has some sense of a kind of moral position.

Of course, we’re asking, as we have done for many years, always have done and nowadays we do so whilst they’re under intense scrutiny, we want our public servants, we want our people in positions of authority, we want those running huge government organizations to be just this side of sainthood in a world that is much dirtier than perhaps it ever was.

So all of these knotty problems about how do you live a moral life in a complex, you know, digital age with secrets that some will argue give us more secrets, we save more lives. And some will argue, keep the secrets, you’ll save more lives that way. And it comes down to, when it comes to questions of national interest, that kind of thing.

How do we protect, in this case, America? What’s the right way to do it? And because of the nature of secrecy in the covert world as it’s got to this point in history, that’s a very sort of, as Shakespeare put it, it’s a very nice point. You know, very particular, the point at which we say, as we now are doing, okay, well, let’s talk about spying. What kind of spying is legitimate?

It’s funny now to think that you imagine the government conference, the world G8 conference where they go, “Look, let’s agree how we’re gonna spy on each other.” [?"] You can bug me, but you can bug me only that level. That level of the commission, you can’t bug me.

For instance, do you remember? Way back at Yalta or Potsdam, Stalin had all the rooms bugged. I mean, just as a matter of course. Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, all bugged as a matter of course. You know, start at the top.

Tavis: Speaking of starting at the top, I’d be fascinated to know what Angela Merkel would say to Barack Obama in that meeting about the rules of engagement for spying on each other with her phone being tapped.

Branagh: Tricky conversation, tricky conversation, yeah. I’d want to have that room swept before I went in and said, “Now, Angela, wait, wait. It’s not what you think.” [?"]

Tavis: Every director wants to have a superb cast in whatever film project he or she is directing. But it does, in fact, occur to me now that, because this is a storyline that those of us who are Jack Ryan fans are familiar with, you’re introducing new people here.

This isn’t a softball question, but it seems to me that you guys did a pretty good job this time in casting this thing. But talk about the casting specifically on this film.

Branagh: Well, Chris Pine becomes central to it as an actor capable, as they all are, of doing what I felt was central to this. We needed to be interested in actors who we could watch thinking. Thinking was gonna be part of the entertainment of it, watching the intellectual processes work out. It sounds antithetical to film. It sounds antithetical to an action thriller.

But in fact, most great action thrillers, especially espionage thrillers, have to have what I was really looking forward to doing which was putting two guys on a bench late at night in Moscow talking about the fate of the world while one of them pretends to be walking a dog. Or two men, you know, in a darkened movie theater passing secrets across in an envelope and leaving quickly. There are a number of times when it’s just two people talking to each other.

So from that point of view, you need to have in Chris Pine as Jack Ryan complexity, depth, humor, warmth, approachability, affability and a sense of intelligence that challenges authority and can also listen wisely and that needs to be matched both in that context.

But also it’s interesting in a movie star context by someone who is as kind of now legendary and revered as Kevin Costner, still a rowdy, sexy, vigorous guy, but also occupies that space as the mentor in this spy film with young Chris Pine or young Jack Ryan, as a screen legend who’s been in movies that have been part of our movie-going life, significant films across a range of years.

When he’s in that kind of role and this kind of film, you feel those layers of experience. You feel the capacity, therefore, for Jack to trust, as we do, this man’s talent, this man’s taste. And in both cases, but from Kevin especially, you know, you have just this lifetime of experience coming to a genre where it’s so effective.

There’s a level of believability and naturalism that has some roots in the ground. It isn’t just “Get over there. Get outta here. We’ve got five hour! Get out of there now!” [?"] You know, it needs somebody who’s just got the standard look in his case.

I mean, Kevin comes into the movie; we take quite a bit of time again just to talk about what it’s like to kill someone so that we both realize that we’re in this situation. This is not by choice. This is not to, you know, get some kind of adrenalin rush.

So he brings gravity. It’s matched by Chris and then you get that same intelligence and that kind of curiosity from someone like Keira Knightley as well.

Tavis: So we talked about the Jack Ryan backstory and I want to get back to the other issues I promised to raise, that is, the Kenneth Branagh backstory and how it is and when it is – I mean, I know you’re a Shakespeare lover. We had a rich conversation the last time you were here about your love for Shakespeare, as your fans all know.

But when did you decide that you were gonna, you know, do double duty as a career choice?

Branagh: As a career choice just generally, it was, for instance, with my first picture, “Henry V,” it was partly – you know, the whole package was sort of wrapped up in the playing of the role. When I’ve accepted this job as director, I mean, a major reason for me accepting it was that Chris Pine was playing Jack Ryan.

There was no point to doing it unless the central thing upon which the success of the film and the artistic experience relied was there in the form of the actor. So when it came to try and persuade people to give me some money to play Henry V all those years ago and do the movie, it was to do with an understanding of how to play the role or how I would play the role.

And if there’s some kind of distinguishing, you know, connection between the films I’ve done as a director, it’s been in an approach to the acting, to the performances being central to the way the tone shifts. So with the Shakespeare, it was to do with the naturalism of delivery, not operas and big voices and all fruity, but just trying to be real and direct and have all the reality and directives that Shakespeare indeed lives with when well done, especially on film.

So I guess it’s been to do with a global approach to the way the material is presented. It applies still to Jack Ryan. The actors were as crucial to this as the story.

Tavis: I had no idea until researching for tonight’s conversation – as many times as you’ve honored us coming on this program, I did not realize that, for all the stage work you have done, you have never been on the stage in New York City, which would mean that you’ve never been onstage on Broadway.

Branagh: That’s correct.

Tavis: Why is that the case, or how is that the case? Are my facts correct?

Branagh: Your facts are correct. I once had the great joy of directing a Broadway show back in 2003, a comedy called “Play What I Wrote,” which had been a big success in London and we had a great time in New York.

I do not know why. There were numerous times across the years when it might have been a possibility, although for me, rather like the mystery of movies themselves, I’ve directed 14 feature films now and it’s always been an amazement to me that they get up and running ’cause so many times they don’t.

And for me, the idea of acting in New York remains a sort of – it seems a fabulous and fantastical possibility that I do not take for granted. However, I have the great privilege this summer for the first three weeks of June to play at the Armory up on the Upper East Side of Park Avenue in New York. Not strictly Broadway, but right there in the heart of New York City, and I’m wildly excited at the prospect of it. I still can’t quite believe it, except I know they’re selling tickets. So I must be doing it [?"].

Tavis: “Macbeth?”

Branagh: “Macbeth,” Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” yeah.

Tavis: Well, they say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

Branagh: Exactly, exactly [?"].

Tavis: If you pull this off, there might be a career in front of you.

Branagh: Well, I’m looking forward to having a go [?"].

Tavis: Why “Macbeth” as the vehicle to make this New York premier, this New York entree?

Branagh: Well, it came in a sort of roundabout way. We made this production. Rob Ashford and I co-directed. He’s a wonderful American director. It was designed by Christopher Orr whom I’ve worked with many times. So it’s a creative team that we’re very happy working together.

I’d read and seen the play so many times over the years. It’s one I’ve sort of circled around ’cause it’s so difficult. It’s difficult to get right. It’s a very dense play. It’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. It’s a wonderful thriller, but it’s easy to somehow miss by a thousand miles with that play for all sorts of reasons.

We felt as though we had an elemental approach that we launched last year at the Manchester International Festival in a tiny, deconsecrated church on the outskirts of Manchester which was already a kind of event in itself, a scary event, because there is something about the witchcraft woven into the heart of that play that makes you very cautious around it.

As soon as we rehearsed in a church as well, the very first morning we went in, it was scary. It felt as though you were being blasphemous in the very act of rehearsal and it just made you aware of this powerful atmosphere, an atmosphere which in the play is what leads a good man – Macbeth, I believe him to be a good man at the beginning of the play – to go to the bad, to sell his soul to the devil and his wife along with him.

You know, we have a very significant battle. We have all the elements there, rain, hail, snow and blow, you name it. It’s quite an event. We put the audience right in there with the Macbeths both physically and sort of emotionally. So it’s quite – that play is always an event, but we tried to meet that in a theatrical way and I hope we can make it work in New York.

Tavis: I’m sure you will. It’s not a church, I think, thankfully, but it – the Armory [chuckles]. So if you haven’t heard in New York City, Kenneth Branagh’s coming to town in June.

Branagh: In June. First, the preview’s May 31. We play until June 22.

Tavis: There you go. So get your tickets now if you’re in New York City. I’m gonna try to get there myself and check this out.

Branagh: Oh, please do, please do.

Tavis: Now that I got the hookup [?"]. In the meantime, all of us can see him in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” which is in movie theaters as we speak, starring and directing by Kenneth Branagh. Good to see you, man.

Branagh: Oh, great to see you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to have you anytime, man.

Branagh: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: January 20, 2014 at 12:24 pm