BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Kenneth Branagh's role as a director began with the story of a valiant king.
Leading the 1989 film version of Shakespeare's "Henry V" both in front of and behind the camera, Branagh went on to make five more Shakespeare adaptations. Turning plays into movies became his thing.
That was until his agent suggested he direct the 2011 blockbuster "Thor."
Moving from royalty to mythology, the hammer-wielding god was Branagh's first foray into Hollywood's big-budget domain. The success of "Thor," which earned nearly $450 million worldwide, led to Branagh directing "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," the latest film version of author Tom Clancy's celebrated CIA series.
"`Thor' was a risk for Marvel," recalls Branagh, sitting poolside on the roof of a Beverly Hills hotel. "Who knew that I could make a good job of it? I was out of my comfort zone. I was scared. Those movies have this whole other dimension to them like merchandizing and the cult following. But I needed to continue to feel like I had an audience."
Between 2005 and 2007, Branagh directed film adaptations of "As You Like It," "The Magic Flute" and "Sleuth." "And really nobody saw them," laments the 53-year-old. "It was frustrating. I'd put as much passion and commitment into those movies as any other. But I felt it would be nice to make films that people actually watched."
"Thor" fulfilled that desire.
"The reason he does so well with these big-budget, explosive action-pictures is that he comes from theater and Shakespeare and high, rich drama," says Chris Pine, who takes on the role of Jack Ryan in the new film. "He brings all of that plot-centric thinking to bare."
But Branagh's love affair with big-budget films doesn't mean he's given up working on epic dramas.
"Shakespeare and great myths never end and in a strange way there is also a classical element to Jack Ryan, since he's this paradox of this everyman who is brilliant," says Branagh. "Making a film is usually a two-year cycle, so you need material that gives and gives. My transition isn't so much about seeking the Hollywood franchise as it was going to those stories and finding Hollywood was as well."
With the plot shifting to a modern-day Russian-American rift from Clancy's usual focus on the Cold War, "Shadow Recruit" is not based on any specific book by the renowned author. Still, says Branagh, "Coming from theater, my background has always been to honor the writer. It's all about `what does the writer intend?' There is a built-in respect for Mr. Clancy. But as far as I understood it, his blessing for this project was at arm's length. My impression is that he felt a bit burned by Hollywood."
Clancy, who died last October, complained about the lack of creative control of the movie versions of his books. He's known for saying: "Giving your book to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp." He was displeased with Harrison Ford playing Jack Ryan in the film adaptations of "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" because he felt he was too old.
Conversely, Branagh said Clancy thought the 33-year-old Pine was "great casting" for the latest film. "He's a pretty boy, sexy man," says Branagh of Pine. "And his acting is always interesting."
A rare talent who's received Academy Award nominations for acting, directing and writing, Branagh certainly has industry pull. Kevin Costner agreed to star as Jack Ryan's CIA mentor in "Shadow Recruit" simply because Branagh asked him.
Himself a director, Costner's experience was a "great help" when making the film, says Branagh. To keep the thriller nervy, Costner encouraged Branagh to limit rehearsals, "so people remained on their toes," adds Branagh.
Directed by Branagh for the first time, Costner says he "admired how he worked the floor. I don't know that either of us are really afraid of anything. I respect how he has constructed his career. You don't just go from doing Shakespeare to doing blockbusters."
But the knighted Briton, who's appeared in over 30 films and stars as the villain in "Shadow Recruit," would never brag about his career. In fact, he still gets giddy when he sees his name in lights.
"I was shrieking in the car on the way here when I saw all of the ("Shadow Recruit") movie posters," he says. "It's all still so astonishing to me."