Kenneth Branagh’s first venture into filmmaking was his critically acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s Henry V, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor and Best Director. He went on to direct such successful movies as Dead Again, Frankenstein, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Sleuth.
His new movie, Thor, based on the Marvel comic book, seems like a departure for the director whose repertoire contains so many classics. Set in the mystical realm of Asgard, the story spotlights Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his two warrior sons Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). When the latter reignites an ancient war, he is banished to earth by Odin to live as a mortal.
Could you talk about discovering Thor in the comics as a young person, and what was it that made you think he was a cool character?
For me it was his primitive quality. I liked the Viking at the center of it, that’s what I saw when I saw those images on a comic book. That he was volatile. I thought that would be dangerous in telling a movie, that he’s not too smooth.
He’s not too slick and one of the things that we were trying to achieve in the telling of the story was that it could feel in the moment, that there could be some kind of genuine danger.
When it was announced that you were directing the film, you seemed like an unlikely choice. How challenging was it to direct this?
The scale of the undertaking couldn’t help but make you feel occasionally [overwhelmed]. It was very challenging, but that was part of what was attractive. People sometimes ask me, ‘How did you do that?’ And I’d say, ‘Have you seen the credits at the end, there’s seven minutes of them. Did you see all of those names? That’s how I did it.’
When you walk on [the set] on Day One and there are frost giants and there’s green screen and there’s real mist and rain and there are six principals in their new costumes for the first time, and four camera crews and hundreds of people, Kevin [Feige, of Marvel Entertainment, is the person] you go and squeeze and say, ‘What do I do next?’
[Early on] I asked Kevin, ‘So what should I do on the first day [of shooting]? Should I go to visual effects? Should I go to 3D, all the places I don’t know?’ And he said ‘The one thing you need to do right now and until it’s finished is cast Thor.’
What was it about Chris that you felt he was right for Thor?
We waited and watched and searched for a long time, until we felt in our bones that we had exactly the right person. Chris is very impressive, with a physique that looked as if it could take the kind of intense physical build-up we had to put him through.
He has an acting intelligence that is very special, and an ability to tap into his primal side. At his screen test, he told a story about one of Thor’s exploits with such relish, fun, power and sense of danger that we knew he was our Thor.
Can you talk about casting Tom as Loki?
From a performance point-of-view we needed somebody who was complex and could remain intelligent.
There was a constant conversation between us all about is it a good thing to keep the question mark over Loki’s character throughout? Is he bad, does he have a plan, does he love his brother, does he hate his brother, does he hate his father, how does he truly react to the secrets and lies that emerge in the course of the story?
And so you needed someone who could be adept at putting on all those masks and make it seem seamless. That sort of shocking skill in an actor was what we were after, and I’d worked with Tom in England on television and theater and knew that he was energized, bright, adroit and quick-thinking. That’s what we wanted from the performance.
Do you think that your experience as an actor in other effects movies, like Harry Potter for example, made you a little more comfortable making this movie as a director?
Yes, but the quality of the technology changes. I did Harry Potter [and the Chamber of Secrets] quite some time ago and as brilliant as they are I think Marvel is on the cutting edge of things, so I’m pleased to say so.
The whole of the process from Day One through to the end was an expanding possibility with visual effects. So it was a bit of preparation, but frankly it was new opportunities every day.
This is very Shakespearian in a way, especially the dynamics of the family. Did all of your work with Shakespearian productions help you with that?
We’ve just seen about two billion people watch a royal family at work. And so I would say that it is Shakespearian, but it’s global. We are interested in what goes on in the corridors of power, whether it’s the White House or whether it’s Buckingham Palace.
Shakespeare was interested in the lives of the medieval royal families, but he also raided the Roman myths and the Greek myths for the same purpose. And I think Stan Lee [of Marvel] went to the myths that Shakespeare hadn’t used. I think the connection, if there is one, is that the stakes are high.
If Thor throws a fit and is yelling at his father and is banished, suddenly the worlds are unstable. And if the actors take those stakes seriously, it is passionate and it is very intense. Frailties in people in positions of power are an obsession of great story tellers including Shakespeare and the Marvel universe.