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Sir Kenneth Branagh Talks JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, Reboots, and Directing Himself

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by on January 16, 2014

In case you haven’t seen a commercial or a billboard on your morning commute recently, you should know that this Friday marks the return Tom Clancy’s analyst-turned-reluctant action hero Jack Ryan to theaters across the nation in Paramount’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. The film serves as an origin story for Ryan (Chris Pine), following the young analyst down the CIA rabbit hole at the behest of his handler (Kevin Costner), and takes him all the way to Russia, where he must outsmart the ruthless Victor Cherevin (Kenneth Brangh) in order to prevent a global financial meltdown. Throw his physical therapist-turned-girlfriend (Keira Knightley) and a healthy dose of international skullduggery into the mix, and you get a bit of modern day-meets-Cold War espionage action.

Taking on the dual role of the film’s icy Russian villain Victor Cherevin and the film’s director is none other than Sir Kenneth Branagh, who has more than proven his ability both in front of and behind the camera. Recently, I spoke with Branagh over the phone to talk about the challenge of rebooting an iconic character, dealing with pressure from fans, how he balances his acting and directorial duties, and much more.

Nerdist: With Jack Ryan having such a rich history both on and off the screen, how did you approach trying to reboot this character for a new generation of viewers?

Kenneth Branagh: Well, probably identifying that there was a bridge to make between the original DNA of many of the stories set in, as it were, the heart of the old Cold War between Russian and America, and wondering whether that sort of classical standoff could work again, since it’s what characterizes many of the early Jack Ryan stories. The question is how do we modernize this for the twenty-first century and into a new and credible threat that an audience would get an understand both in terms of its credibility and the particular pressure it would put an operative under. So, the idea of the global financial market and its interconnectedness and its fragility as a place where Jack’s brilliant analytical brain could work, that put us in a place where the audience could believe appalling things could happen that would have a dynamic global effect.

We could still – if we were specific enough – exploit the dynamic tensions between Russia and America, the kind of conflicts that are decidedly a part of Clancy lore. Old and new empires, the man, east-west, the great contrast between nationalistic characters and personalities — we could find that in a new, credible threat situation, which was the modern element, while bringing the classic element, America vs. Russia, to bear in this new landscape.

N: I think you were very effective in that because, as you mentioned, when Clancy was writing many of these stories, it was the height of Cold War paranoia. Jack Ryan still feels very modern, and even the tensions between the U.S. and Russia feel grounded in real life and of the moment. With a film like Thor, you obviously had a lot of fan expectation from the geek crowd. Do you feel a similar sense of pressure from audiences around Jack Ryan?

KB: For me, the pressure only comes from one direction, and that’s internal. The pressure comes from how to do the story as well as possible. You cannot second guess. Of course, you listen to people who are passionate about the story in the sense that you’re always keen to know what people like, but beyond some key things there can be so much subjectivity, if you’re not careful and you listen too much, you could be making a thousand different films for a thousand different people. Anyway, that all takes second place to the internal pressure of “how do I do this the best that I can?”. I never feel that wide a pressure because that way madness lies. I feel probably even a greater pressure to just do the best job that you can being as I was in this scenario amongst artistic puritans. Chris Pine is certainly an incredible sort of self-critic, as are Kevin and Keira. Everyone wants to do the best job possible, so we didn’t even need the pressure from outside because it’s already inside.

N: I can imagine. If you get bogged down reading the comment sections of the land, it can drive you insane. 

KB: Well, sometimes it’s fascinating. It can take you down, it’ll spin your mind to so many mind-boggling possibilities. We were trying to focus on making it as good as possible from the inside out.

N: You mentioned Chris Pine’s work ethic. I’ve also read that Chris Pine was very hands-on in making suggestions and helping to guide the production. How did the production evolve over time, and do you prefer a collaborative atmosphere like that?

KB: The project had been in development for five years, and I think Chris was with it for four years, so he was inevitably very involved. I expect it and I welcome it. I come from the theater, where you would very much hope that your actors are very much invested, not that they would try to change the words, but asking why certain things happen and looking for credibility and finding what the thing itself wants to be – not what they want it to be, but trying to pluck out the heart of its mystery and see if they can perform it to the very best of their ability. For me it was natural that Chris would get involved, because the whole thing absolutely relies on Jack Ryan. Part of the entertainment of this is seeing Chris’ character under pressure through this story. It’s how he reacts to a man attacking him alone in a bathroom in Russia. It’s how he reacts to being out there alone in the street pursued and observed by taxi cab surveillance. It’s how he reacts to being inside the fortress that is Victor Cherevin’s office. So, it was always going to be a very, very personal journey, and I wanted him completely invested in it.

My job then with him, David Koepp, our brilliant screenwriter, Kevin, Keira is to direct and wrangle and select and shape and edit, so the job gets to be quite pure in that sense. It’s not so much trying to direct my vision as it is me trying to direct the joint vision of us all as we work through it.

N: That’s a very eloquent way of putting it. You seem to switch seamlessly between acting and directing. Do you find one to be more challenging than the other? Which, if any, hat do you prefer wearing?

KB: Well, the directing gig is so much longer, usually two year cycles. From the moment you sign on, you might raise money or have battles during development over cast or location right up until the moment you shoot, post-production can take a long time, release dates move — there’s all sorts of variables there. Sometimes it’s kind of nice to have that absorption and immersion in a project; it means you can add the detail that a time cycle like that allows you to have, but it can also be kind of stressful and a tense length of time to be involved in something. Acting, by contrast, is much, much quicker. You don’t have remotely, from an artistic point of view, the same influence. You do it and you say, “Cheerio,” you might see it a year later and it might be everything you’d hoped, wished, and imagined, but maybe not. In terms of working pressure, in a sense, it just expands to fill the vacuum. You can be just as concerned and worried acting in a role as directing it — it’s just much shorter.

My own sense of how I work these days is, acting is a very enjoyable and liberating thing. By contrast, directing is a much more grown up thing in its way. I have to be much more grown up as a director and there can be the necessary and still enjoyable element of play, for me, in acting. Everyone takes you very seriously of course, but there’s more sheer fun to be had in the acting. But, there’s more profound satisfaction to be had, perhaps, in the directing.

N: When you are approaching a scene in which you need to direct yourself, how do you approach it? Is it like a duel where you have your second waiting in the wings? 

KB: [laughs] I usually have somebody who has learned my lines that I can line up with, and I have discussed and planned my shots with someone else so we know exactly what we’re going to be doing. Usually weeks and weeks beforehand, I’ve already rehearsed it. I’ve done lots of work on the accent for this film, often on a daily basis. I would often automatically make sure that my shots were at the end of the day so that we could take as long as we liked without keeping anybody else waiting and not feel guilty about taking time for me. One of the things that Kevin Costner pointed out is that when you’re directing yourself, you tend to always have an eye on everything else, so you wind up shortchanging yourself. You do fewer takes, you can be a little quicker than is necessarily good for the work.

To counter that, I had an acting coach, in this case a fellow named Jimmy Yuill, an old time colleague of mine and an excellent actor in his own right, and he would watch only me and offer comments and suggestions. Frankly, when I was doing scenes with Chris and with Keira, you don’t wind up talking about the scenes afterwards anyway. You’re kind of all directing it, so the key thing was once we said, “Action!”, was to just enjoy playing the part. It was a nice release from all the questions you’re going to be asked as a director. It would be insane to not try and enjoy it because you both shortchange the film and you’re denying yourself an amazing opportunity. Behind all of that, the key element is you have to get as much rest as possible. If you get enough sleep, then you have a good time doing it. You get pragmatic, you try and protect yourself, and you try not to let anybody down, particularly your fellow actors. So, prepare, prepare, prepare.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit opens on Friday, January 17th in theaters nationwide.