Inside the New Star-Studded 'Murder on the Orient Express'

Parade, 27 October 2017
By Mara Reinstein
Thanks Jude

Fifteen people board a train. Come morning, one will be dead and nearly all the others are suspects. What happened? It’s a murder mystery so classic that only one person could have crafted it.

More than 80 years after its publication as a detective novel, and more than four decades after its first adaption as a movie, a new, star-studded version of Agatha Christie’s 'Murder on the Orient Express' steams onto the big screen Nov. 10. Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and others come aboard to play suspicious characters from all corners of the world.

Of course, everyone—from the wealthy widow to the diplomat, the doctor and the aristocrat—claims innocence. Leave it to master detective Hercule Poirot, the hero of 33 Christie novels, to sniff out the duplicity and the deception.

Though the classic whodunit has been around since 1934, “the story still feels superfresh,” says the new film’s director, Kenneth Branagh ('Thor', 'Cinderella'), who also plays the legendary Belgian sleuth. “When I reread it, there were questions that stuck with me: Why would any civilized person kill someone? Is it usually a crime of passion? Do people act out of revenge? And if revenge works, do people feel cleansed?”

The adaptation bar for Christie’s tale had already been set high, thanks to director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film (see “Murder, Then & Now”) starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery and Ingrid Bergman in an Oscar-winning performance. The new cast says there’s a reward in being part of a new ensemble taking on familiar roles

“Anyone who knows Agatha Christie knows there’s a rich history of attracting the best of the best,” says Josh Gad, 36, who played LeFou in 'Beauty and the Beast' and was the voice of Olaf in 'Frozen'. “For the audience, the greatest special effect is seeing this incredible cast in one frame.”

“I don’t mind taking on something that’s already been created,” says 'Hamilton' Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr., 36, who plays Dr. Arbuthnot, a physician and war veteran. Odom compares the remake to new productions of the groundbreaking Hamilton musical all over the country. “We take what others brought to the table and add our own spin to it.”

Even with some spin, Branagh, 56, stuck to Christie’s original 1930s setting in hopes that audiences will appreciate a time when traveling was considered an exotic experience and not just another place to play Candy Crush or listen to music on earbuds. “We live in a world that is so manic,” he says. “I wanted to take people to a place where you could see the world go by. There’s something magical about it.”

Christie’s novels, such as And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution, have been adapted into films dozens of times since 1937. Murder on the Orient Express spawned the 1974 drama, as well as the 2001 TV movie starring Alfred Molina, Meredith Baxter and Leslie Caron and a 2010 TV episode of the British series 'Agatha Christie’s Poirot'. TV’s '30 Rock' once parodied it, and every movie or television show with a suspenseful moment on a train pays it some kind of homage, intentional or not.

Many of the cast members of the new movie were very familiar with Christie and her work. But Gad admits he wasn’t one of them. “I was not somebody who grew up reading it, as sacrilegious as that may seem. I’m absolutely obsessed now. I understand the reason why, outside of Shakespeare and the Bible, Christie’s the most consumed author out there. Her books are indelible. They’re as romantic and captivating now as they were when they were first released—the very essence of a page-turner.”

Dream Cast

In all incarnations of 'Murder on the Orient Express', the mustached Poirot is characterized as gruff, highly skeptical and thorough. “Poirot is always looking for truth, and so is a director,” says Branagh, a veteran British actor who also recently appeared as naval officer Commander Bolton in Dunkirk. “One day Willem [Dafoe] said to me, ‘Poirot drives the investigation, and you’re driving the movie.’”

To help assemble his dream cast, Branagh approached an old friend who directed him in two plays in the late ’80s. Her friends call her Judi. Others call her Dame Judi or Dame Dench. “Judi was doing a play on London’s West End,” he says. “I went backstage and presented her with a silk handkerchief embroidered with her initials, and put it in a box with her character’s name on it. If you know the story, you’ll understand it. There was a note inside that read, ‘Would you like to play Princess Dragomiroff?’ She said, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’”

Dench never once regretted the snap decision. Making the movie, in character as the aristocratic Russian matriarch, “I sat around in nice clothes and had wonderful jewelry!” says the actress, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in the movie 'Shakespeare in Love'.

With the 82-year-old Oscar winner signed on, many others soon followed, excited at the prospect of collaborating in an acclaimed ensemble — and, in some cases, reuniting with old friends and former co-stars. Gad and Odom attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh together. Dench and Depp had a particularly memorable experience on the set of 2011’s 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides'.

“He jumped into a carriage in which I was sitting, bit my ear and took my earring off,” Dench recalls. “And then maybe a year and a half later, suddenly the earring was returned to me.” It’s framed in her kitchen.

For Cruz, 43, the role of Spanish missionary Pilar Estravados — the character’s name was taken from Christie’s book Hercule Poirot’s Christmas — was particularly attractive. “Pilar was different from any character I’ve ever played, and different from myself,” says the actress, who’ll portray Donatella Versace in the upcoming season of 'American Crime Story'. “I had time to explore her. When I was younger and doing four movies a year, I didn’t have any time to prepare. I missed out on something that gave me real happiness. Now I get to have these adventures.”

First Day of School

On day one in January, the cast was dropped off to the set outside London, where the vibe was akin to the first day of school. As they stood in front of massive replica of a four-carriage train (in addition to the locomotive engine), “they were shy and the body language was odd,” says Branagh. “Some were very, very quiet.”

Ridley, 25, known as Jedi fighter Rey in the new 'Star Wars' films, agrees. “I thought to myself, I shouldn’t be here,” says the actress, who had to audition for her role as governess Mary Debenham, the secret girlfriend of Odom’s Dr. Arbuthnot. “I was surrounded by people who have worked for years and years and have proven themselves again and again. I’ve done neither. I’d done one film which people were very nice about. I was so nervous!”

Branagh stepped aboard the train first. An emotional Pfeiffer, 59, playing loudmouth tourist widow Caroline Hubbard, followed. “I said, ‘Are you all right?’” he recalled. “She said, ‘I just saw Judi Dench and I wanted to cry.’ Then they all came on.”

Dench still doesn’t quite comprehend the fuss. “I’m not the least bit intimidating!” she insists. “People get the wrong idea. I’ve played three queens in 60 years, so people think I’m grand. I prefer to think of myself as a traveling actor.”

Before the day was over, the ensemble had shot the film’s most intricate scene, in which Poirot interrogates all the passengers. “I thought it was a mistake on the schedule,” Cruz says. “He did it on purpose to capture the fear and insecurity on the first day!”

The close quarters inside the perfectly proportioned train (which ran on a mile of real track inside the soundstage) quickly led to close bonding. Between takes, Dafoe, 62, who was on board as scholarly German professor Gerhard Hardman, talked about his love of yoga. British actor Derek Jacobi, 79, who plays Masterman, the valet to Johnny Depp’s character, shared crossword puzzle clues.

Gad plays Hector MacQueen, the assistant to Depp’s wealthy, secretive American businessman, Edward Ratchett. And he still can’t get over how the enigmatic 54-year-old A-lister star of the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise and dozens of other movies invited him to hang out in his trailer between takes, where they watched funny YouTube videos.

“There was no ‘I’m a superstar, please stay at arm’s length,’” Gad says. “We’d sit there and guffaw like 13-year-old boys. It was such a thrill because he’s so instantly relatable and charming.”

“As soon as I said, ‘Cut!’ there was great hilarity,” Branagh says. “But when the camera rolled, there was intense concentration. It felt like working with the Harlem Globetrotters. Nobody wanted to drop the ball. Everybody was at the top of their game.”

Fun & Games

In the off-time, they actually did cut loose and play games. Branagh liked to give pop quizzes such as asking the co-stars to name the German word for “no” that unites Cruz and Dench. “Suddenly, Leslie [Odom Jr.] was like a greyhound rushing up to the front of the train” with the answer, Branagh recalls. “He’s yelling, ‘Nine! Nine!’” (Both actresses appeared in the 2009 film adaptation of the musical with that title, which sounds like the German nein.) Ridley says she was stumped trying to name which two Shakespeare plays start with a woman speaking. (Dench knew the answer was 'Macbeth' and 'All’s Well That Ends Well'.)

“I studied Shakespeare in college, but I was in the presence of actors with sirs and dames in front of their names,” Gad says. “I didn’t have a chance!”

During the fun and games, Branagh says the actors’ onscreen personas manifested themselves. “Leslie was gracious, Judi was impervious, Derek was stealth, Josh was ebullient and Johnny was delighted to stir it all up. It was like they were all at Agatha Christie camp!”

The group got rowdier on Friday nights, when they met in the garden of their hotel, had a few after-hours drinks and played the who’s-deceiving-whom party card game 'Werewolf'. “I brought it with me because I thought it would be a good acting exercise,” Cruz explains. “It’s about keeping secrets, trust and telling lies.” The exercise became a full-on cast addiction, says Odom. “We’d play for hours and hours, well into Saturday morning. We were the biggest nerds.”

Branagh says the playfulness translates onscreen. After all, a strong ensemble is key to a tightly woven and insulated murder mystery. “The rapport has to be there,” he notes, “And here it is as strong as I’ve ever seen. All I had to do was capture that energy.”

The director is eager to introduce the old-fashioned thriller to a new audience. He filmed it with old-school wide-screen cameras because “I wanted to make a movie that people see on a big screen. You’ll get to see and hear the train. There’s an excitement to that.”

Ridley sees 'Murder on the Orient Express' as a fresh alternative to usual special-effects extravaganzas — including her next movie, 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi', which opens on Dec. 15. “In this day and age, there are all these huge films and everything is pace, pace, pace,” she says. “It’s a nice escape to have a slower story that unfolds in a place that people can’t escape from and to just watch people sit on a train who have potentially done something bad and watch someone try to figure it out.”

Indeed, there’s a reason why an 83-year-old mystery endures.

“When you think you know the answer, it completely turns in an unexpected direction,” Cruz says. “And it happens so many times! There are so many layers that an 18-year-old and an 80-year-old can connect with it. This is a story that will never get old.”

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