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.”