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Kenneth Branagh Directs and Stars as Villain in Thriller ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’

Read this Q&A for his insights on the upcoming movie about Jack Ryan, a character who has featured in eight novels by Tom Clancy.

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.

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 that he seized upon immediately. Quite simply, he says, the script was a ‘page turner’ – a great compliment from an actor and director who has seen plenty down the years.

Did you read the Jack Ryan novels before taking on this project?

I had read some, but not all of them. One that I read that was very helpful for this was one of the Russian set novels, The Cardinal of the Kremlin. It’s very effective and it’s about someone in the Russian military who decides to betray the military, and Jack Ryan goes to Russia. It was very interesting and it was helpful to look at some of those novels.

There have been movies featuring Jack Ryan in the past so was there anything you had to follow or acknowledge from what had gone before?


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.

Does the villain who you play hark back to the Cold War?

I didn’t see it that way and I guess I would say that because I’m playing him (laughs). We never referred to him as the ‘villain’ or the ‘heavy guy.’ And I’ve just played Macbeth here in the summer and there were four other versions of Macbeth going on so everything has been done before, everything in the world of classical drama and in the world of richly trodden genre stuff, so there is no question that we have the elements of things with which we might be familiar. But for us, the starting point was, ‘who is Jack Ryan?’ Jack Ryan lives in a world that we live in and know about from newspapers today where you have people questioning what should remain secret and what should not be secret. Do secrets revealed endanger the lives of us all or endanger the lives of those who allegedly are operating on our behalf? And so apropos are its Cold War antecedents; it’s interesting and not as easy nowadays for someone like Jack Ryan to make a decision about how he enters the CIA. So the first third of our film is interesting territory where Kevin Costner’s character has to some extent persuade or explain to a Jack Ryan in the 21st century why potentially working for a covert operation, if you believe such things are possible anymore, is a sensible way to serve and help your country. And we explore the difference between America and Russia.

And there are the other divisions that we have in this movie, which are between East and West, old and young, older and younger in terms of protagonist and antagonist, and old empire and new empire – in this case old empire is America and new empire is Russia potentially. And it’s about financial empires and the way politics blurs into that and they are the kinds of things that Jack Ryan wants to know about and wants to take a view about. Jack Ryan is not a paid assassin; he’s 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.

Chris Pine was already attached when you came to the project. Why is he the right actor for Jack Ryan?

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 J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie. That’s a terrific movie with substance and it’s partly because the actors are all so good in it. Chris has intelligence and he has wit and he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he has a bit of a twinkle in his eye. Chris can make you believe that his Jack Ryan is as smart as we needed him to be but kind of also in terms of the image that we could present, very WASPY. And that’s what Jack Ryan is on the surface and we weren’t denying that kind of DNA. And Chris is a very, very committed actor and performer. And when he arrived we had supper together on a Sunday night and I hadn’t told him what I was planning to do.

So the preparation with Chris was all about linking up to various aspects of Jack Ryan’s life?

Yes. For example, we took him to a rehab hospital in the southeast of England where they work with war veterans and that helped in terms of understanding the types of injuries that he might have sustained in a helicopter accident that we witness in the movie and so we already were into a whole different territory in terms of what we wanted to do with that character. And so by the end of that week of preparation, the first week that Chris had arrived in England and into proper rehearsals, and as soon as you put him into a room with Costner or Keira Knightley, it started to feel like we were doing a sort of character piece that happened to have an action movie built around it. And yes, we’ve seen Russian villains before, we’ve seen East versus West before, we’ve seen spy movies before, but our chance to make it different or original was to try and bring that specificity of character from the inside out and Chris was the one we started with and then we tried to apply it to everybody else.

What about casting the actor who plays the Russian villain?

(laughs). Yes, the director had a hand in casting that particular actor. He discovered he was very, very cheap and very available and we knew where he was every minute of the day. Paramount kept asking me to do it and so did Chris and I realized 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.

incompetence at high levels within famous financial institutions or misappropriation of funds. And what we also know is that even if you put that financial bond in the perfect place and that is perfectly understood by a brilliant mind then, if all the variables we’ve talked about go together, it can be catastrophic and this does happen. There was an enormous impact, as we know, on the economy after 9/11 because of the reaction of the markets to that degree of instability, so it’s something that is part of what is considered by those who wish to destabilize the financial order from the point of view of terrorism.

Tell us about casting Keira Knightley as Cathy. A contemporary thriller seems like a bit of a departure from the kinds of roles she has done in the past…

Well first of all, we were trying to take the characters seriously and make sure that they have believable backgrounds. And essentially, one of the things David Koepp wanted to write about was deception inside a relationship. Jack and Cathy are not married at the beginning of the picture and Jack is hiding something. When you are in the CIA, you can’t tell people you are a covert operative unless you are married and so there is a pressure that ultimately becomes something that she is suspicious of.  And he wants to marry her so that he can tell her he is in the CIA, which is obviously not very romantic if you choose to absorb it only in that way. She is a smart professional woman in her own right, she is an eye surgeon and we get a sense of her own world as a professional in this and that she is a strong and passionate character rather than just the frightened woman that can be part of the cliché traps of this world. And I’ve always thought that Keira is a terrific actress.

What was it like filming in Moscow?

It’s a hectic pace (laughs). I wasn’t quite geared up for how fast everybody drives in Moscow. I thought I had been in cities where people drive fast but they drive really fast in Moscow so crossing the road is tricky and if you are filming in the road, it’s very tricky. I found it no more or less challenging (than filming in other places) but it’s very noisy, very packed, and very dense and you have a sense of the landscape of that city changing very quickly. I felt that even in the time we were there I saw buildings go up and come down. There’s a lot of construction and it gives a kind of physical energy to the place – it’s fast and noisy and there’s a tremendous intensity. It was quite a contrast to our time in New York, a city of equal but different intensity. And for me as a filmmaker I’d not been to Moscow before so that was interesting to try and evoke what it was like and then evoke it elsewhere. I hadn’t shot as a director in New York before so that was interesting, too and in both cases we employed the policy that Jack Ryan has in the movie – we had to be very fast moving and light on our feet.

The intelligence agencies in the US and Britain have been in the news a lot lately, not least because of Wiki-Leaks. Do you think there should be subject to tighter controls about how intelligence is gathered?

I think it’s inevitable and necessary that there is a debate and the issue is addressed. The world has changed and without simply saying ‘our film is so contemporary’ it is true that one of the things David Koepp was interested in writing about was whether there is a line you draw beyond which we say to a government, an elected body in a so-called democratic society, ‘it’s all right, you make a decision for us, you decide what we need to know and if you think that a lot of people knowing this information makes us more at risk, then we empower you to make that choice.’ The spirit of the new digital age is that information should be available to everyone and it should democratize our lives. And that’s one point of view but on the other hand, we have so-called professionals telling us that it endangers us so it’s a pretty vital area of debate. And the first third of our film is Jack Ryan asking those things of Kevin Costner’s character and saying, ‘why would I join up?’ And also, ‘why would I join up and trust you? I might be one of those 50,000 secrets and the first thing that happens is my wife gets killed…’

Let’s talk about the character you play. Did you have any reference points in creating the character?

I think you look for anything where you feel you have been surprised by that kind of antagonist. You look at it from every which way. One was to look at the world of the Russian oligarch, ex Russian military – people from my generation who would have lived during the communist regime through to the explosion of the economic redevelopment with the invasion of other people who were telling the new Russia how to make money and then kicking out those people and saying, ‘no, we’ll have the money thank you very much..’ And then there were the political/ commercial turf wars and everything. Cherevin is of an age that he would have lived across all of that. And it was interesting to find models that had been there before the wall came down in another part of the empire and who had lived through a period of economic and social wild, Wild West as some people I spoke to described it. And to have survived all of that, you have to be pretty tough. And sometimes you don’t survive it even if you don’t stay in Russia – as we know there are instances of people who have met bitter ends here in the UK in unusual ways. So that generation lived across a revolutionary period and so that in itself was a way of understanding that this is a different kind of person who isn’t out to just rule the world.

‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ is released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar Entertainment Corp. It be shown in theaters nationwide starting January 15. 


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