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Branagh does double duty as director, villain in 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'

Kenneth Branagh plays Viktor Cherevin, a Russian financier bent on bringing down America's financial system in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit."
Kenneth Branagh plays Viktor Cherevin, a Russian financier bent on bringing down America's financial system in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit."
Paramount Pictures

Kenneth Branagh, best known for bringing some of the Bard’s greatest classics to the big screen, makes his foray into the espionage thriller genre with “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.”

The 52-year-old filmmaker first came onboard as the director of the action-packed spy movie, which centers on a young financial genius and military hero who is recruited by the CIA to protect America’s interests. The character is based on Tom Clancy’s long-running fictional spy hero, which has been the basis for three other movies over the past three decades.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” isn’t based on a specific Clancy novel, but draws from many of his yarns to tell an origins story.

Chris Pine, of “Star Trek” fame, already was on board with the project to play the cerebral spy when Branagh was tapped to direct. A few months after coming on board as director, the filmmaker also agreed to play the film’s villain, Viktor Cherevin, a powerful Russian banker on a mission to bring down the American financial system. It’s up to Jack Ryan and his handler William Harper (Kevin Costner) to stop him.

Branagh recently spoke at a press conference about directing his first spy thriller spectacle, complete with car chases and explosions, playing an evil Russian and taking over a prestigious film franchise.

Q: What were the pleasures and challenges of bringing Jack Ryan into 2014? What intrinsic parts of a character make doing that a pleasure and worth doing at the same time?

Branagh: I loved the previous pictures and the books. I like the Cold War era and the big sort of elemental standoff between, in this case, Russia and America, east and west, old empires and new empires. One of the exciting things about trying to reimagine (Jack Ryan) was finding a world (in which to tell the story). So the interconnectivity of the financial markets was one that was both interesting and a bit of a brainteaser for me. Chris (Pine) was very good at understanding it, thank God. To be able to put Jack Ryan there at a time when it was a different kind of elemental face off between Russia and America, and where one tiny event in one part of the world can so dramatically and catastrophically influence a larger event elsewhere with that same sort of good principled moral conscious man in a very much dirtier world was pretty interesting. It was a huge pleasure to work with these (Pine and Kevin Costner). Watching them think and deal with it in a layered way the human dimension of the story as portrayed by (them) was a huge pleasure for me in trying to make the movie.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about speaking with a Russian accent in this?

Branagh: A long time in advance I started to listen to Russian television, Russian radio. I had a dialect coach who just introduced me to the just the sound of the language. I wasn’t really familiar with all its varieties, its tone is a bit different, with a little less range, and then I learned it phonetically while walking the dog. The dog in the next Jack Ryan film, if there is one, will be my dog, which can now speak Russian. So I’m looking forward to seeing her in that.

Q: You’re an English actor playing a Russian banker matching wits against an American spy. What did you pay attention to most to make this film?

Branagh: I remember seeing “The Hunt for Red October,” when I did my second movie (1991’s “Dead Again”), which was a thriller for Paramount, and which (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’s”) Mace (Neufeld) was behind, as he was all of them. When this came along, it was a combination of things. I knew that Chris (Pine) was involved and I very much wanted to work with him. I very much admired him as well as (producers) Mace and Lorenzo (di Bonaventura), their track record, and the chance to make a film like this—where a man passes information to another man in a cinema, and where two men meet on a bench at night in Moscow and talk about the fate of the world, while a dog is distracting people from thinking that they’re doing anything nefarious, and making an action-thriller while with working with great actors.

Q: Kevin’s character serves as a mentor to Chris’ Jack Ryan. Is it important to have mentors in movies like this?

Branagh: If there’s openness of communication, then the timing doesn’t really matter, and sometimes the mentoring doesn’t really happen directly, it just happens intuitively. I certainly found that out working with Kevin on this. I was so grateful to have a master director on the set. There was just lots of moments where we just shared communication about things. We had a conversation about how a moment in a scene might go or how things might be approached that came out of an honest collaboration. If that honesty of communication exists, whether it’s 1984 or 2014, I think it’s quite marvelous, and watching these (Pine and Costner) was great as well. When people trust each other and when they’re very good at what they do, and when their egos are at the service of the better idea, and what is right for the scene, and when you see that kind of generosity at work, it really is a thrilling thing to be part of. That cuts across age. It doesn’t need to be older/younger, because I learn a lot from people much younger than me as well as people much older than me. I think it’s about honesty and generosity. We were lucky to be in an atmosphere on this project where that was at work.

Q: Who was your mentor?

Branagh: Hugh Cruttwell, who was the principal of (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts). For the first six or seven pictures I made, he was on the set as the acting coach, and I’ll give you a quick example of what he did for me. He was a very eccentric English guy. When we were making “Hamlet,” I was doing the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and I was very nervous. I said to him, “Look, this is the acting Olympics, Hugh. I’m doing the most famous speech in Western dramatic literature. If you have any notes for me, I’d like them very early on, please.” I did take one, and asked him, “How was that?” He said, “I don’t have anything to say.” I did take two and then take three. He still didn’t have anything to say. I said, “Look, I think I’m getting there. Now I’m going to call this a print very shortly.” He said, “I think you should do another one.” So we get to take six and I said, “Hugh, I think we might have it. Do you have anything to say?” And he said, “Well, the rhythm of it absolutely, absolutely extraordinary. The understanding of the language—fantastic. The pacing of it—marvelous. The timing of it—really extraordinary.” So I said, “What’s the problem?” He said, “I simply don’t believe a word you say. You have absolutely no sense of the man. It’s phony. It’s fake. It’s acting. It’s showing off. You really have to do another one.” That honesty was helpful, so Hugh Cruttwell was my greatest mentor.

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