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From the stage to blockbusters


This article was published January 24, 2014 at 3:17 a.m.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Kenneth Branagh’s role as a director began with the story of a valiant king.

Leading the 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V in front of and behind the camera, Branagh went on to make five more Shakespeare adaptations. Turning plays into movies became his thing.

That was until his agent suggested he direct the 2011 blockbuster Thor.

Moving from royalty to mythology, the hammer-wielding god was Branagh’s first foray into Hollywood’s big-budget domain. The success of Thor, which earned nearly $450 million worldwide, led to Branagh directing Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the latest film version of author Tom Clancy’s celebrated CIA series.

“Thor was a risk for Marvel,” recalls Branagh, sitting poolside on the roof of 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. “And really nobody saw them,” laments the 53-year-old. “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.

“The reason he does so well with these big-budget, explosive action-pictures is that he comes from theater and Shakespeare and high, rich drama,” says Chris Pine, who takes on the role of Jack Ryan in the new film. “He brings all of that plot-centric thinking to bear.”

But Branagh’s love affair with big-budget films doesn’t mean he has given up working on epic dramas.

“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,” says Branagh. “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 it was going to those stories and finding Hollywood was as well.”

With the plot shifting to a modern-day Russian-American rift from Clancy’s usual focus on the Cold War, Shadow Recruit is not based on any specific book by the renowned author. 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.”

Clancy, who died in October, complained about the lack of creative control of the movie versions of his books.He’s known for saying: “Giving your book to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp.” He was displeased with Harrison Ford playing Jack Ryan in the film adaptations of Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger because he felt he was too old.

Conversely, Branagh said Clancy thought the 33-year old Pine was “great casting” for the latest film. “He’s a pretty boy, sexy man,” says Branagh of Pine. “And his acting is always interesting.”

A rare talent who has received five Academy Award nominations (acting, directing and writing), Branagh certainly has industry pull. Kevin Costner agreed to star as Jack Ryan’s CIA mentor in Shadow Recruit simply because Branagh asked him.

But the knighted Briton, who stars as the villain in Shadow Recruit, would never brag about his career. In fact, he still gets giddy when he sees his name in lights.

“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.”

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 01/24/2014

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