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When Kenneth Branagh is working on a project – whether it’s playing Macbeth in front of a small, lucky few in a deconsecrated church or directing, and starring in, a big Hollywood thriller, namely Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – he wants the experience to be as authentic as possible.
“You approach the work in the same way,” he says. “And you give it total commitment and you do your best and you hope to collaborate with some brilliant people. In the case of Jack Ryan it was a huge collaboration and I enjoyed it very much and most of all I want the audience to enjoy it, too. I want them to feel immersed in this world.”
The chance to direct a bang up-to-date, contemporary thriller and to introduce Jack Ryan, a character who has featured in eight novels by Tom Clancy and several films based on his books, to a modern audience was one he seized upon immediately. He says, the script was a “page turner” – a great compliment from an actor and director who has seen plenty.
“Chris Pine, who plays Jack Ryan, had already been involved in the project when I came on and he’s very smart. David Koepp, who is one of the writers, is fantastic and Lorenzo di Bonaventura is one of the producers and very experienced with this kind of film.
“And then you add Kevin Costner into the mix, and he can tell you about his experiences in No Way Out and other movies that he’s made that border on this territory, and you have a lot of history right there with you.
“So it was my job to make all of those separate experiences coherent. And, it’s exciting to work with people who are very brilliant at what they do. And our goal was to make a character-driven picture inside a big, action movie.”
Branagh is a huge fan of the genre.“A lot of the films I’ve done have links to other movies that I’ve directed in the past. Dead Again, for example, was a thriller. I love thrillers and I always have.”
Shadow Recruit is an origins story and reveals how Ryan is recruited for the CIA by a veteran operative, William Harper (played by Kevin Costner) and then uncovers a terrorist plot to cause havoc on the world’s stock markets and wreck the US economy.
Keira Knightley plays Cathy, Ryan’s fiancée, and Branagh himself plays a Russian oligarch, Viktor Cherevin.
“Yes, the director had a hand in casting that particular actor,” he jokes. “He discovered he was very, very cheap and very available and we knew where he was every minute of the day.”
Cherevin, like all the characters in the story, is not a one-dimensional villain, says Branagh.
“Paramount kept asking me to do it, and so did Chris, and I realised that with that part we had actually managed to stop people from talking about it as the ‘villain’ or ‘the baddie’ and they started talking about Victor or Cherevin and everything became a bit more specific.”
Branagh and his screenwriters mined Clancy’s books to help build up the characters and stay true to his roots, but, he stresses, the screenplay is an original story and not based on any one specific novel.
“Nobody said ‘it has to be this or that’ but the thing that David Koepp and I both identified was that Jack Ryan is a man with a very brilliant mind – he is the best of the best and in that regard, we took him right back to his academic time at the London School of Economics – and numerous Nobel Prize-winning economists have come from there – but that he was, in many other senses, an everyman.
“So he has a revolutionary mind and a rather bourgeois background in terms of his life in Washington and Baltimore. So, if you like, in the crudest sense, he is an everyman with a brilliant mind.
“We started with the freedom not to be confined to any individual novel, but with the permission of Mr Clancy to use elements from the back story. The novels are documented and filled with a lot of information about where he taught, where he was trained, his experience in the military, the nature of his analytical skills, Cathy’s back- ground as an eye doctor, the way they schooled their kids and his relationship with government.
“Keira Knightley, Chris Pine, Kevin Costner and I all came up with dossiers that were essentially the off-screen life of all the characters and that’s where we started to meet the laws of the world of Clancy and Ryan and the specifics we hoped to bring to it.”
To help prepare Pine for the role, Branagh sprang a few surprises on the actor when he first arrived in London, where the film was based, immediately before the cameras started rolling.
“We made him do some spy stuff,” he laughs. “We set up a ‘drop’ in a London park that was under surveillance by a dozen people and we told him with two minutes to go, what he had to deliver and what he had to pick up and that he had a time limit on it and if he didn’t do it, he would be potentially arrested by people who possibly didn’t know that he was Chris Pine the actor, or that he was involved in a piece of research.
“And when I told him that, I did see the blood drain from his face. And when he finished it and we showed him the results in real time on CCTV footage, he said his pulse was racing and he thought his heart was going to come out of his body because he was so nervous.”
Branagh also did plenty of research to prepare for his role as Cherevin. “To get the Russian accent, I started by listening to Russian radio and TV broadcasts so I could hear the language.
“I listened to Russian music and then we had a Russian advisor who came in and I started to speak some of it and I found that extremely difficult – it was like doing piano practice every day for a few months.
“I went to Moscow and met some slightly powerful and scary people. We definitely had some experiences of powerful people and became aware of the large sums of money that can swill around when it comes to these large interrelationships between financial institutions and sometimes government institutions.
“So we tried to get inside it in a human dimension. This is a human picture and not super human – and that’s where we started from.”
Working with Pine and Knightley was a joy, he says.
“I’ve always thought that Keira was a terrific actress. Most people wouldn’t see it as a problem, but the challenge for her is that she is extremely beautiful. I think some people can’t see beyond that, but I’ve always felt that she has a very intelligent, witty quality in her work. She really was a joy to work with.
“Chris is a very smart, sexy lad and he’s also very complex and has wit. I so loved his performance as Kirk in the first JJ Abrams Star Trek movie. Chris can make you believe that his Jack Ryan is as smart as we needed him to be, and also in terms of the image that we could present.”
Jack Ryan is caught up in extraordinary, terrifying events that unfold in London, New York and Moscow.
“What is interesting, I think, is that in this story Jack Ryan could be any of us – it’s not James Bond or Jason Bourne.
“We would be very grateful if there were Bourne or Bond out there because they know what they are doing, but Jack isn’t that type of super spy. He’s a man with a brilliant mind who can predict whether there is going to be a financial crisis in Tokyo tomorrow and whether it will affect the Australian economy. But what he has limited experience in is that kind of subterfuge and what to do if you get caught.
“Jack Ryan is not a paid assassin; he is not being de-programmed and doesn’t have a ton of fancy gadgets. He’s a guy with a really sharp mind who wants to know why he is doing what he has been asked to do – so it means he asks a lot of questions up front before he decides he’s going to arrive abandoned, friendless, deceived and deceiving in Moscow.”
That human, rather than super-human, approach to the story is also reflected in the action sequences.
“Our attitude to some of the action stuff is to try and keep it quite human. It’s more about how difficult it is for someone who is not used to being in a car chase finds it when he is in one – compared with somebody who can flip a car on to two wheels,” he says. – United International Pictures
• Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is out in cinemas now.