A Shakespearean Tackles Tom Clancy
Director Kenneth Branagh discusses "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit"

Wall Street Journal, 9 January 2014
By Don Steinberg

Shakespeare lovers will have him back soon enough, but Kenneth Branagh has been busy making action movies. He directed the superhero epic "Thor" (2011) and now is back in a familiar dual role as director and actor in " Jack Ryan : Shadow Recruit," coming on Jan. 17.

"Shadow Recruit" is the fifth film adventure for novelist Tom Clancy's popular Jack Ryan character, the CIA analyst who keeps leaving his desk on dangerous missions in books and movies. Chris Pine steps into the title role previously inhabited by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck.

As he prepares for the release of 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,' a look back over Kenneth Branagh's career.

It's an origin story for Ryan, set before "The Hunt for Red October" (1990) in the character's timeline but pulled forward into a post-9/11 world. Here, Ryan is an egghead student who joins the Marines after the 2001 terror attacks, then is injured in an accident. The CIA sends him undercover as an investment-bank compliance officer, assigned to sniff out international transactions that could be funding terrorism.

Mr. Branagh portrays thuggish Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin, whose maniacal plan to send America into economic collapse involves simultaneously devaluing the dollar and bombing Wall Street. Keira Knightley plays Ryan's fiancée, Cathy, and Kevin Costner is his CIA handler. Filming was finished before Mr. Clancy died in October, but the novelist wasn't involved in any writing or production.

It is the first Jack Ryan film since "The Sum of All Fears" in 2002. Mr. Branagh, 53, hasn't both directed and acted in a feature film since his musical "Love's Labour's Lost" in 2000. Since then, among other things, he played Sir Laurence Olivier in "My Week with Marilyn" (2011) and was knighted himself, in 2012. This spring Mr. Branagh will finish postproduction of a non-animated version of "Cinderella" he has directed for Disney, slated for 2015 release. In June, he will perform on the New York stage for his first time, as "Macbeth."

Edited from an interview.

Tom Clancy had a prickly relationship with filmmakers. He's known for saying: "Giving your book to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp."

The sense I had was that we were given his blessing to work in the spirit of these books, and that he approved of our personnel. He was protective, of course, of his works. I'll keep my fingers crossed that the Clancy die-hards like it.

This is the first Jack Ryan movie that isn't from a particular Tom Clancy novel. How does it fit into the Ryan-osphere?

It was an invitation to the writers, Adam Cozad and David Koepp, to reimagine him for the 21st century. Mr. Clancy gave his permission to use all of the impressive lore covering 13 or 14 novels that he wrote about Jack Ryan. We get across information we hadn't seen in previous films, like his sojourn in the Marines, his personality as a soldier. One thing that's alluded to in various novels is the problem he has with his back because of the helicopter crash. It plays quite a lot in the books as something about which he cares not to speak, but the residual back pain is something with which he lives.

It's interesting that it's updated to a post-9/11 world but brings back the Russians as America's foe. That's classic Clancy.

This is a classic genre. We wanted to keep that kind of classic-car quality, something you're familiar with that works really well. The engine purrs. It knows what it is. Part of its DNA is having emerged from the most intense period of the Cold War. There was something about putting East versus West. Not a contest about mutually assured destruction and brinkmanship. Now there is a division between what in a way is the new empire, Russia, with new money, against the old empire, America. Especially if the mirror of Jack is a Russian who has his own form of patriotism, borne out of personal grudge.

Have you ever played such a villain before?

Not really, though I have played some exotic individuals. I wanted to feel the deadly nature of him. He's menacing but contained. We built up a back story for him about the way he lost his own sons. At my age he would have lived through Soviet Moscow and the Berlin Wall coming down. He would have seen the wild breakup of that society and seen the West come in and try to take up the spoils. And he would have been part of the people who sent everybody back and said, "We're gonna run our own mafias, thank you very much."

Are you getting better at directing yourself?

It's a good question. You do get better at trying to prepare for ways you can protect your own performance. I had an acting coach whose job was to watch me. We did a lot of rehearsals on our own. I worked on the accent and speaking Russian way ahead of time. So that, on the day, really my job was to make sure everybody else was OK. When everybody else was OK, then I would get ready to do what I needed to do.

You really immersed in the Russian to get the accent?

We had a Russian coach come in, and the first thing I asked was for her to provide me with a Russian radio station I could listen to, Russian TV shows, so I could start hearing the sound of it and the variation. Then I would learn it phonetically, then try to scuff it up a bit, so it was more naturally coming from me. That took quite a while. It was a learning-an-instrument kind of technique.

It must be a different kind of fun for you to play a wholly original character—as opposed to one that has been inhabited by great stage actors for 400 years.

It is. It's nice. A familiar question [for Shakespearean actors] is 'what was it like playing part X when somebody else has played it so brilliantly?" This past summer I played Macbeth in the theater—I'm going to play it again this coming summer in New York—and the comparisons are always with whoever's doing it right now, who did it last year, whoever did it in the movie. So this was nice. I enjoyed playing [Cherevin's] daft vanity. He thinks from between his legs ultimately. It's a weakness of many great men. His vanity and ego is such that he's the architect of his own downfall. And I liked being in contemporary clothes. Even though his clothes are a little flashy, a little shiny.

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