Kenneth Branagh Interview WALLANDER II: FACELESS KILLERS; Reveals He’s Screening THOR Tonight for the Studio

     August 4, 2010

In Series 2 of Wallander, Kenneth Branagh returns to PBS’s Masterpiece: Mystery, premiering on October 3rd, as detective Kurt Wallander, a man who battles crimes and his own demons, in the rural yet brutal seaside town of Ystad, Sweden.

Based on the novels by best-selling author Henning Mankell, the producer/star won a BAFTA for Best Actor for his portrayal of the moody, brilliant, intuitive and troubled man. Wallander continues his relationship with Masterpiece, which goes back eight years to Fortunes of War, and has been so successful that Series 3 is already in the works, scripts are currently being written and the hope is to shoot it a year from now.

Prior to the panel for Wallander at Wednesday’s PBS portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, it was announced by the network that, although Kenneth Branagh was taking time out to answer some press questions in support of the show, he would not be able to stay after the presentation for any follow-ups, as he is currently very busy prepping for a studio screening tonight of his latest directorial effort, the epic Marvel Comics feature film Thor, which hits theaters on May 20, 2011. Check out what he had to say after the jump:

Question: What does Kurt Wallander have in common with Thor?

Ken: Both are Scandinavian and both have family problems. Frankly, Kurt Wallander could occasionally do with a hammer and a cape. I don’t think that the Viking has the same issues with introspection as Kurt Wallander. There’s something about coming from those northern lands. It’s a big country with small population. The seasons and the weather are extreme, and the possibility for looking inward into the interior life is great.

When you looked at the story of Thor, did it seem a little bit Shakespearean to you because of the way that family is?

Ken: Yes.

Wallander is generally based on a series of novels. Are the upcoming shows to be based on specific novels, or are you talking the character as a jumping-off point and doing original stories?

Ken: They are based on novels, but it’s true to say the writer, Rick Cottan, and the other writers involved in this series have, in relation to the arc of the character that we have developed across the first three films, changed some things around, with Henning Mankell’s blessing, doing what they think is the right way to present some of the episodes. So, you might find in the context of one particular novel, should you read it, that some sequences happen out of time, if you like, or that a particular incident is borrowed from another novel. But, it is done with an overview of all 10 novels now.

Without speaking for him, I believe Henning Mankell has the preoccupation with the thematic materials. So, for instance, although the plot is gripping and very fascinating, essentially it’s the moral dynamic and the moral debate inside Wallander and that police station, about whether there is any institutional racism. It’s that kernel of the moral debate inside the book, with the investigation and the political engagement with some social issues in Sweden and around the world that are the center of it. With that being the case, we felt as though there was some license to move things around, and try to be Mankellian in spirit.

You could arguably be called the Tom Hanks of the U.K., since you do all these different things and you’re as big as they have over there, and yet here you are doing a TV show. Can you talk a little bit about that, and your reasons in doing it?

Ken: Certainly, I’ve been working here for a while now, and I’ve been watching tremendous American television. Mainly because of the way the viewing patterns of watching movies have gone, it seems like a lot of risk-taking and a lot of imagination is regenerating in television, in a way that I think makes for a pretty exciting period. Back home, there’s a reference to the Golden Age of television. For me, that seems to apply to what’s happening with American television.

I’ve been extremely impressed by the range and the quality of programming, so I think it’s a fantastic medium to be in. My second appearance on Masterpiece was with the first film I directed, Henry V, and I remember the moment at which, for me, there was no distinction between cinema and television. We put a film out that played at Curzon Cinema in Mayfair for many months, but might have played to 200,000 people. On the BBC, its first screening was 4 or 5 million. So, in terms of where you have an audience, that was a big eye-opener into feeling very, very lucky to be on the television.

What are some of the American shows that you’re particularly impressed with?

Ken: For what it’s worth, I enjoy Dexter, Modern Family, True Blood and Breaking Bad. I’ve enjoyed the wonderful The Pacific. I enjoy what Masterpiece puts on. I like television. My very first job an actor was in a television play for the BBC, nearly 30 years ago. So, thank god, for a long time, television has been a part of my life.

Is the attraction of doing more Wallander the fact that you get to take that character a step further and delve into it a little bit more?

Ken: Yes, it’s exciting. I have not been in a series where the character can develop, in this way. In Henning Mankell’s novels, he has developed in such a way as not to have too many character tics. One of the things I enjoy about going back each time, to each series, is the idea that he is open, every time. He is vulnerable, every time. He is the open question mark. He is a man brooding on the bad that his job often throws out, but is searching for the good. And, he is compelled by this painful necessity to ask why people perform acts of cruelty, murder and violence. He hasn’t arrived at a conclusion about that. He constantly tries to understand how things might be better, how he might learn from it and how he might understand human behavior in a different way, so that he can make a contribution and make a difference. It keeps him alive and open, and I enjoy that.

Wallander seems very heroic at times, but he also really hesitated about whether or not he liked his daughter’s Syrian boyfriend. How do you see him on that?

Ken: I think you’re right. You point out something that I think Henning Mankell was definitely delving into, and something we try and bring out in the series. He’s not a fully formed individual. He regards the idea of him being any form of racist as morally repugnant and morally reprehensible, and yet he’s forced to understand certain knee-jerk reactions that is he is disappointed by. What’s interesting about him is that he would take such a revelation profoundly seriously. It would preoccupy him. He would brood upon it.

In that sense, we may vicariously understand certain unappealing characteristics that he may express and exhibit. But, via the medium of these compelling and page-turning stories, he investigates and examines. He regards the unexamined life as a tragedy, and part of a price that he pays is that, in his work and as a reflection of his work, he looks very deep into himself, although not necessarily with ego. He does want results in his own life.

Unfortunately for him, those results, if they’re achieved, usually are in relation to the work itself. He does, in the end, usually solve, often rather brilliantly, at some cost to the crime, but that emotional intelligence that he applies to it, and that he applies to the understanding of the psychology and behavior of other people, is entirely absent in his own personal life. So, in terms of his own personal, loving relationships, he is often unfit for purpose. That makes him a pretty interesting character, to mirror some of the of things that we might have to face ourselves.

Do you enjoy watching yourself on-screen? Do you learn things from watching your own performance that you can take to other performances?

Ken: There are a couple of elements to that, that I’ve experienced. Having directed myself in things, I was inevitably forced to look at what I did. In any given project, there are a few moments where there is the usual disappointment, as it were, when you look in the mirror and you realize you’re not 23 and looking like Brad Pitt. That’s never been an issue I’ve had to face, unfortunately. What I found useful about directing myself, earlier on in my career, was to be very robust and objective about things. That was helpful to me. In doing that, I also found that I employed other people who were ruthlessly honest about my performance, so I was protected in that way, in terms of not seeing the various flaws and mistakes I’d been making.

Nowadays, when we make Wallander, I never look at the playback that’s on and I never ask to see it again. I know, from having been on the other side that, as a director, it’s very rewarding and pleasing if the actors trust you and you work with them. They can do as many takes as they like, as far as I’m concerned, but the instant analysis of it is not an accurate guide for an actor. By the same token, when I’m acting, I’m in the director’s hands. I’m very happy to be. I like to be focused on what I’m doing.

Even when a film is finished, when I direct a film, sometimes it’s a dark profession, but it requires a peculiar form of courage that I admire. It comes with all sorts of blessings and rewards, if one is lucky, and all sorts of humiliations along the way. I admire the courage with which many people deal with it, but when I do direct something and actors are in it, I ask them to watch the film twice. I’ll say, “Watch it in the morning, please. This will be the car-crash screening. You will see this and you will be appalled. You’ll ring your agent. You’ll want to get out of it. You’ll hate me. You’ll think that I used all your worst bits. Then, I need you to have lunch and probably a drink. And then, I’ll need you to see it again. By tea time, you will think you’re Laurence Olivier. It’s as simple as that.” You’ve got to get past the, “Oh, my god, my chin! My head! That’s my worst side! The light is terrible! Christ!” That’s just human nature. Those things are part of the on-going process of dealing with that.

Because you are as well-known as a director, as you are as an actor, when other people are directing you, are they ever intimidated? Do they ever ask for your take on other stuff going on?

Ken: It varies, in terms of anybody asking me anything. I’ve had the experience of working with some fantastic people who were nerve-racking. In the film I just did (Thor), I was directing Sir Anthony Hopkins, for the first time. I didn’t really sleep the night before. We’d rehearsed and everything, but I was intimidated because I have absolutely unreserved admiration for him, as an artist. Way back, the actor who left me unable to construct a sentence was John Gielgud. I worked with him on two or three occasions. He was the kindest man, and a brilliant, funny and great actor, who was even greater than some people truly understand because they associated with him with that mellifluous voice. But, he was such a direct link back to a tradition in acting which was so extraordinary that it was very hard not to be intimidated.

I don’t feel one could even remotely touch the idea of intimidating others, but because I’ve understood the other side of the experience, I will occasionally, if I smell that could even be in the air for a few minutes, say to the director, “Please, you must tell me anything you want. Please say all the things you think might be terribly hurtful like, ‘That was boring.’” And, unfortunately, they’ve occasionally said that, and I’ve regretted that. As soon as you start working together, it all falls away and you are colleagues and it is very exciting. The intimidation happens just before, and then afterwards you go into a post-traumatic shock of thinking, “Crikey, I did it. I did a scene with John Gielgud. I can’t believe it. Oh, my god, it’s on film. How wonderful.” And then, they go back to being these incredible icons.

Now that you’re well-immersed in the Scandinavian culture, is there any chance we might see you in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series remakes that are being cast?

Ken: I don’t think so. I have no particular plans for that. I’ve seen a couple of the Swedish ones, which were wonderful, but I’m very, very much looking forward to Mr. David Fincher’s take on them. I think he’s a wonderful choice and a great filmmaker.

With Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and the Wallander series, people have become very interested now, and publishers are suddenly looking for Swedish mystery writers that they can translate. Is there something that the Swedes bring to it that we haven’t seen before?

Ken: That’s a good question. I don’t know. People are sort of analyzing that, I suppose. The landscape is different. There’s the feeling that the violence is isolated. To be poetic about it, somewhere in the north there are clearer skies, fewer people and an atmosphere which the Swedes, themselves, are happy to accept as poetic and mysterious, in which these things can be considered. It is less urban.

Somehow the genre, if that’s what it is, is still finding itself. It has not currently started to repeat any cliches of telling stories, so there are fewer of them. There is also a puritanical element to it. But, I think what they are unafraid to be is introspective,  atmospheric and poetic. And, I think they invite the audience, the reader and the viewer to consider more and infer more.

My experience of reading the Wallander novels simply for pleasure, in the first instance, was that I was allowed quite a lot of work to do, but it didn’t seem like work. My part of the experience was significant. It wasn’t jumping plot point to plot point, and I felt as though I was being taken down many diversions of reflection by Mankell that, in themselves, were pleasurable and enjoyable. So, maybe it’s just that there’s some sort of cultural slant that is speaking to us now in the 2000s.