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Kenneth Branagh is certainly no stranger to starring in the movies that he directs. In fact, of the fifteen features he's made, there are only five where he doesn't have at least a small role. All the same, the actor-cum-filmmaker faced a daunting task in adapting Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express and playing the legendary detective Hercule Poirot. You may think that the challenge of the dual mission might have caused him to consider one job over the other -- but as he recently told me, the two roles actually dovetailed quite elegantly. Said Branagh,
The role of Poirot and the tone of the movie were so interwoven that I felt as... Willem Dafoe pointed out to me, he said, 'Poirot directs the investigation, you direct the movie. The two are so closely linked.' And Poirot's character, of obsessive, compulsive attention to detail, order, he wants to deconstruct chaos and make things calm. As a film director, that's often what you're doing, you're trying to find a way through the chaos of any given shooting day. So Poirot's determination, he can't handle imbalance or disharmony, in a way is what a film director is doing. So there was an inner tension that seemed completely in tune.
I had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Kenneth Branagh this past weekend while in London for the world premiere and press day for Murder On The Orient Express. My first question during the interview was about whether or not he ever considered one job instead of two on the project -- either only directing or only starring -- but he explained why it was so perfect for him to do both.
Following up, I was curious about how the experience as Hercule Poirot changed his approach as a filmmaker. After all, an actor alters their perception of the world to fit a character's for an authentic performance, and I wondered if attempting Poirot-level attention and specificity altered the way he works as a filmmaker. Kenneth Branagh noted that there was a change in his preparation for Murder On The Orient Express, with a great deal of it going into the specific notes of the role:
What I changed was the degree and intensity of preparation for the intensity of the acting performance. I had months and months... I was in a theater play prepping the movie, and the ritual of the theater was so helpful, it meant every day I could do my French lessons, I could practice my Belgian accent, I could work on the mustache, I could plan for the clothes... we were working on the clothes months and months ahead, endless fittings for these very beautifully-fitted, handmade shoes, and all the period fabrics for the clothes. And all of that was to do with... being ready, for sure, I had to be ready for all these other people! I needed to be able to direct Johnny Depp or Michelle Pfeiffer, so I needed to feel very confident about what I was doing. So it was, performance-wise, an entirely immersive preparatory period before jumping into the directing more intuitively.
You can watch Kenneth Branagh discuss the challenge of portraying Hercule Poirot and simultaneously directing Murder On The Orient Express by clicking play on the video below!
Based on Agatha Christie's legendary mystery novel, Murder On The Orient Express stars Kenneth Branagh as the great Poirot, who finds himself trapped on a train with a mysterious group of strangers following the killing of a fellow passenger. The all-star cast include Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman and more, and arrives in theaters this Friday, November 10th.