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Resurrecting Jack Ryan

Kenneth Branagh on the international intrigue of his new spy movie

Kenneth Branagh might have gotten his start as a player in the Royal Shakespeare Company, but these days the Academy Award-nominated actor, director and Knight of the British Empire is working on something a little less classical. His latest film, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, opens January 17, making Branagh—who stars in and directs the film—the latest filmmaker to give the tried-and-true spy movie an exhilarating update.

Jack Ryan, of course, is based on the character created by thriller writer extraordinaire Tom Clancy; he’s been the main character in films like The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games and has been played by actors from Alec Baldwin to Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. This time around Branagh drafted Chris Pine to play the part, and the director crafted an intriguing, exciting story about the American CIA agent facing off with a nefarious Russian enemy.

Kenneth Branagh on set

Kenneth Branagh on set

DuJour caught up with Branagh to talk about spy craft, villains and why Jack Ryan is no James Bond.

The character of Jack Ryan has been in our conscious for years now. How does he stay compelling? 

That’s exactly the question I asked myself when the idea came for me to maybe direct this film.  It’s an evolving answer, but I think in a cynical age, it’s Jack’s attempt to be steady and considered analytical and kind of civilized when forces around all of us are trying to make us be different from that.  I think he feels like an honorable guy without being prig.  He’s pretty exciting company to be in because he has such a smart brain, and he also has guts. It’s one of the paradoxes that Tom Clancy’s created.  This relatively normal, ordinary man turns out to be very charismatic, certainly someone who allows us to vicariously go on these very extreme adventures.

Were you a fan of the Clancy books or the previous films?

I’d seen all the films and had read some of the books and was very compelled by him. I think maybe there’s no greater evidence for the longevity and classic credential of an enduring character than the fact that a slew of different actors can play it.  I come from a background where it’s a matter of course that the next time you see Hamlet it will be with somebody else.

What is about Chris that you think makes him a good fit for this role? 

In the broadest terms [my Jack would] be the slightly tweedy guy Harrison Ford presented but also the sharper version played by Alec Baldwin, and then the different, exceptional characters of Ben.  I think Chris has the kind of swagger; he has thinking qualities. This guy’s intelligent and sharp.  I think he has great warmth and humor.  Likeability is very strong, and I think that adds a human quality, approachability, which is a very important factor with Jack Ryan’s appeal.

Chris Pine and Kenneth Branagh

Chris Pine and Branagh

In your own turn in front of the camera, what is it that appealed to you about the character that you were playing?

I liked that he was quiet, dangerous man. I like playing someone of that degree of ruthlessness. For me it was a dangerously quiet man that drew me to the role.

I’ve read that you were looking to films like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to gather inspiration when you took on this project.  What did you find in these movies?

One of the things you find is that we really enjoy people thinking.  Seeing people at a crossroads, walking and thinking to react. I knew Chris Pine would be an actor who was happy to do that. That was part of the entertainment value.  Also, belief in character was what those films gave me inspiration for.

There was something that felt, to me, very classic even the idea of having the CIA operation take place in Moscow. Do you think that there is the spirit of a traditional spy film that you were trying to channel?

Yes. The classical Clancy DNA really involved the element of the face-off between old enemies, America and Russia.  People said, “Oh, isn’t that too familiar,” but in fact the national characteristics are so different. The kind of tensions between them allow for a classical struggle between these two different ideologies, old and new.  Now Russia could have the upper hand in terms of natural resources, etc. I realized I could be making a movie where two guys sit on a park bench in Moscow late at night talking about the fate of the world.  I thought, I had better make that movie!



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