Kenneth Branagh's first role as a director was the story of a valiant king. For the 1989 film version of Shakespeare's "Henry V," Branagh took charge both in front of and behind the camera. Then he went on to make five more Shakespeare film adaptations.
Turning plays into movies was his specialty until his agent suggested that he direct the 2011 blockbuster "Thor." That move from Shakespeare to mythology's hammer-wielding god marked Branagh's first foray into the Hollywood big-budget-movie realm.
The success of "Thor," which earned nearly $450 million worldwide, led to Branagh's opportunity to direct "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," the latest film from author Tom Clancy's celebrated CIA series.
" 'Thor' was a risk for Marvel," says Branagh, sitting beside the pool at a Beverly Hills hotel. "Who knew that I could make a good job of it? I was out of my comfort zone. I was scared. Those movies have this whole other dimension to them, like merchandizing and the cult following. But I needed to continue to feel like I had an audience."
Between 2005 and 2007, Branagh directed film adaptations of "As You Like It," "The Magic Flute" and "Sleuth." "Really nobody saw them," says the 53-year-old actor/filmmaker. "It was frustrating. I'd put as much passion and commitment into those movies as any other, but I felt it would be nice to make films that people actually watched."
"Thor" fulfilled that desire.
Chris Pine, who plays Jack Ryan in the director's latest film, says, "The reason (Branagh) does so well with these big-budget, explosive action pictures is that he comes from theater and Shakespeare and high, rich drama. He brings all of that plot-centric thinking to bear."
But Branagh's new love for big-budget films doesn't mean he's given up epic drama. He says, "Shakespeare and great myths never end, and in a strange way, there is also a classical element to Jack Ryan, since he's this paradox of this everyman who is brilliant.
"Making a film is usually a two-year cycle, so you need material that gives and gives. My transition isn't so much about seeking the Hollywood franchise as ... going to those stories and finding Hollywood was, as well."
With its plot shift away from Clancy's usual focus on the Cold War to a present-day Russian-American rift, "Shadow Recruit" is not based on a specific Clancy book, but rather on the character he created. Still, says Branagh, "Coming from theater, my background has always been to honor the writer. It's all about, 'What does the writer intend?' There is a built-in respect for Mr. Clancy. But as far as I understood it, his blessing for this project was at arm's length. My impression is that he felt a bit burned by Hollywood."
Before his death in October, Clancy, had complained about the lack of creative control over the movie versions of his books. He is known for saying: "Giving your book to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp." He was displeased that Harrison Ford played Jack Ryan in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" because he felt the actor was too old.
On the other hand, Branagh says Clancy thought the selectiopn of 33-year-old Pine was "great casting" for the latest film. "He's a pretty boy/sexy man," says Branagh, "and his acting is always interesting."
The actor/filmmaker, who has received Academy Award nominations for both jobs as well as for his writing, is influential in the industry. Kevin Costner agreed to star as Jack Ryan's CIA mentor in "Shadow Recruit" simply because Branagh asked him to.
Costner's experience was a "great help" while making the film, says Branagh. Costner encouraged the director to limit rehearsals, "so people remained on their toes," adds Branagh.
But the knighted Briton, who has appeared in more than 30 films, and who stars as the villain in "Shadow Recruit," would never brag about his career.
"I was shrieking in the car on the way here when I saw all of the ("Shadow Recruit") movie posters," he says. "It's all still so astonishing to me."