Kenneth Branagh is better known for Hamlet than for hammers. But this week he’s being celebrated far and wide as the director of Thor, the blockbuster movie about a Norse god banished to earth to learn some humility. It’s a strange project for the man who even from his early days was called the Laurence Olivier of his era, but he’s made it work. He talks to CAHIR O’DOHERTY about his career, his new movie and Belfast, the city he will always call home.
Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh, 50, started his acting life in the early 1980s very near the top and he just kept climbing. But somewhere around the mid 1990s the wheels seemed to come off his until then insanely enviable career.
In a shocking turnabout, the golden boy divorced his actress wife Emma Thompson, began dating Helena Bonham Carter, and from finding himself the critics darling he was suddenly being nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for worst supporting actor for his turn in the now forgotten Wild Wild West.
So you could say with certainty that Branagh has seen both sides of fame’s coin, and his latest incarnation may be his most high stakes gamble ever -- director of a multimillion dollar blockbuster that seems certain to hammer the competition this weekend when it opens in the U.S.
Thor, the Norse god of thunder and his mighty hammer, are certain to smash up the box office on Friday when the film debuts nationwide in 3-D.
Despite what many were predicting, it turns out that Branagh was the ideal man to direct it.
Already the film is an international smash hit at the box office, and there’s talk of a sequel. After all, with its theme about a haughty Norse god who is banished to earth to learn some humility, you can imagine that Branagh must have related at some level.
Early buzz about Thor has been unusually enthusiastic, so commentators are suggesting there’s a domestic mega-hit on the horizon this weekend. In particular the buzz about Chris Hemsworth, the film’s young Australian breakout star, is becoming deafening. A hunky blue eyed he-man, Hemsworth has pectorals bigger than most people’s heads, he’s an otherworldly bombshell with flowing golden locks that really puts the phwoar into Thor.
“That’s the real danger about Thor is that it could be a little dour, or it could take itself a little too seriously,” Branagh tells the Irish Voice by phone on Monday from Los Angeles, where Thor had its U.S. premiere.
“I mean, we wanted to take the job itself seriously, and when I became involved it was because I knew the comic it was based on and I knew the character. I used to read it growing up. Thor was a man barely in control of his own strength. He was dangerous really. I liked his volatility.”
A metaphor for a million unruly boys trying to find their own place in the world, Branagh wanted to introduce his Thor to an audience that maybe didn’t know him. From the beginning he saw it as the story of a flawed hero who has to lose everything to find out what it was worth.
That’s a surprising amount of seriousness for what is a comic book character, after all.
“I knew we would be able to get to comedy along the way, but the challenge for me was to get beyond things that could have been weaknesses in the film -- like scenarios that were a bit to kitsch or campy or too broad or too solemn. We were after a balance in this hero’s story,” says Branagh.
Onscreen Hemsworth faces off against his nemesis Loki, played by the gifted Tom Hiddleston, and the chemistry between the two foes carries most of the film.
“With Thor you’ve got to have a twinkle in your eye and you’ve got to have some people who frankly have some fun at his expense until he begins to see how he can have some fun at his own expense,” says Branagh.
“We see what a challenge it is for Thor, Lord of Asgard and God of Thunder to order a coffee. He used to having them just appear.”
Now that he has Norway under his belt, why not Ireland? Couldn’t Branagh do for Ireland what he’s just done for Scandinavia? Why not make a film about Cu Chulainn, the Irish Thor?
“My God that would be quite something,” Branagh says with enthusiasm. “I’m noticing there’s been some major activity at home between the north and south in terms of film production.
“HBO just filmed the Game of Thrones saga there and myths like Cu Chulainn’s are extremely powerful. Frankly I’m amazed that he’s not a Marvel Comic like Thor.”
Meanwhile on Monday evening, in Branagh’s hometown of Belfast – he and his family moved to England when he was nine years old -- the brand new £18 million 389-seat Lyric Theatre opened with a gala performance. It’s a subject close to Branagh’s heart as both he and Liam Neeson canvassed and fundraised for years to make it happen.
“Liam’s been a fantastic ambassador for the Lyric and with his help it’s reopened this week. The building is absolutely breathtaking and I can’t wait to get there. I’ll be starring in a play there in September with a great old mate of mine called Sean Foley,” he said.
Branagh adds, “I’ll tell you what’s amazing about that theater. It feels as if the whole of the island was involved in raising funds for it. It’s a thrilling new chapter for that part of the world, and I’m dying to get back.”
Putting on his acting hat next week, Branagh will star alongside Star Trek’s William Shatner and Christina Applegate in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, in a charity fundraiser to be directed by Tom Hanks.
“I can’t wait. When I filmed Wallander (the detective series) for the BBC one of the things I used to do in Sweden during my lunch breaks -- as an antidote to playing this very dark character -- was I would all these showbiz autobiographies, including William Shatner’s, which I enjoyed hugely,” he says.
“He has a Shakespeare background going all the way back and I get to play in a lovely scene with him next week. It’ll be a crazy evening I think. Tom Hanks is a terrific director and he brings so much energy to the event. It feels like it’ll be a pretty terrific evening.”
In New York in the 1990s, Branagh’s turn as a playwright brought him to the Irish Arts Center, where he cast Paul Ronan (father of Oscar nominated teen star Saoirse Ronan) in the lead of his drama Public Enemy. Nowadays the Arts Center itself is undergoing a transformation comparable to the Lyric’s in Belfast.
There are a lot of people who would dearly love to see him return to it in any capacity -- but especially in a show. Would he ever be willing to do so?
“Absolutely,” he says unhesitatingly. “Frankly it would be a very exciting thing to do. One of the things I’m really looking forward to returning home to Belfast to do is to sit down and have a think about the various things I would really like to do that would be unusual, and the kind of things you’d think about when you’re 50 and going back there.
“Working at the Irish Arts Center would be a great thing to do. As I sit down to a large beer and then walk the dog I shall sit down to mull that very possibility. It would be a great honor.”