Kenneth Branagh On His Meticulous Master Detective Role In 'Murder On The Orient Express'

Nov 10, 2017
Originally published on November 10, 2017 9:18 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In his latest film, Kenneth Branagh becomes a character who is known to a lot of people - at least a lot of people who read Agatha Christie crime novels. His name is Hercule Poirot. He's a mastermind detective who has appeared in more than 30 of Agatha Christie's books. And on those pages, he solved crimes around the world for decades, starting in the 1920s. One of the most famous moments for Hercule Poirot is after there has been a murder on the Orient Express.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS")

KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Hercule Poirot) I will speak to all of you in time. For the moment, I must recommend that you remain in your compartments with the doors locked.

MICHELLE PFEIFFER: (As Caroline Hubbard) I feel like a prisoner here.

BRANAGH: (As Hercule Poirot) It is for your own safety. If there was a murder, then there was a murderer.

MCEVERS: Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in this new remake of "Murder On The Orient Express" as Hercule Poirot. You also heard Michelle Pfeiffer in that clip. The film also stars Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp and others. And Kenneth Branagh is with us now. Welcome.

BRANAGH: Thank you very much.

MCEVERS: So when we first see your character, Hercule Poirot, he is in the middle of solving a crime in Jerusalem. He's in his office. He's very particular about his eggs. But we only see him from the back. And then the camera gives us his face and we are confronted with his most notable feature. Can you describe it for us?

BRANAGH: It is a set of facial furniture that Agatha Christie described as being the most magnificent mustaches in England, that they had a tortured splendor, creations which are lovingly oiled, waxed, curled and prinked by him at all points.

MCEVERS: I like that you're referring to it in the plural, like mustaches.

BRANAGH: Well, he - in this particular creation Carol Hemming, a very fine makeup artist and hair artist, really designed this sort of double sort of - a quadraphonic mustache, if you like. There's a sort of mustache behind the mustache.

MCEVERS: Right.

BRANAGH: And it's also something that Agatha Christie points out that he relishes and she certainly relishes for its impact on the other people that he encounters. In fact, usually, as his friend Hastings says in one book, because of the way he looked, the reception of my friend - my dear friend, he says - was often as a complete joke.

MCEVERS: Right.

BRANAGH: People dismissed him, ridiculed him, and in so doing they lay themselves open to dropping their guard. And particularly in the matters of criminal investigation that gives him a significant advantage.

MCEVERS: I want to talk about how you became Poirot. The first novel he appears in, I believe, is "The Mysterious Affair At Styles."

BRANAGH: That's correct. Yeah.

MCEVERS: It was written in 1920. Christie talks about how he is an extraordinary-looking little man, 5-foot-4 with an egg-shaped head. He's impeccably dressed. Did you read all of the novels that he appears in?

BRANAGH: I did. She varied in her descriptions. And she would make him a little taller, a bit - have a bit more hair. I enjoyed finding the sort of obsessive-compulsive in him rather than the dandy and the prissy individual. Somehow, I mean, as soon as we started putting together - for instance, the mustache we've spoken about a little. This moustache became, like, the - sort of the prow of a boat or a car or something. You know, you felt like you were driving through the evidential swell, as it were, with your entire body, sort of truffle-hounding your way to the truth.

I basically went through the books with a Sharpie and highlighted anything I thought was part of what might make mine sort of different. And I'd have a little checklist of the things I'd go back to and have your sort of identikit version of who he is, ultimately trying to leap off into something that you thought moment to moment could be spontaneous and real. But she gives lots of detail.

MCEVERS: You know, it's interesting to think about this, that there could be so much material out there about a character that you're going to play and that you can kind of select the things that speak to you. You know, this is a character in a story that's been done many times. Of course, Albert Finney played him on film in 1974. And he was a very different Poirot. I mean, he was kind of stiff-necked and comical. Your Poirot is brooding, I think, more brooding than he is comical.

BRANAGH: Yeah, the brood of Poirot was to do with feeling as though in the here and now, the underbelly of what the novel talks about - which is a crime eventually, without giving too much away, revealed to be intimately connected with revenge and what you might call as a result of that a crime of passion - unfolds many things about the human condition which challenges a Poirot who in our film begins early on to declare that his experience is there is right. There is wrong. There is nothing in between.

And the events of the story over which, as you say, he in this version broods are to consider that there is potentially some moral gray zone where there may be quite a lot in between good and bad. And that was what I suppose made the coloration, if you like, go in the way it did. But still, you know, I personally feel with the character that those moments - and whenever he can find them, he does embrace them - his reading of Charles Dickens or, indeed, just plain old straight up and down pudding. He does like a dessert. And even if it's offered by a gangster he has to think twice about whether he's going to have a spoonful, particularly if it's Johnny Depp.

MCEVERS: But that is interesting. The Poirot in this "Murder On The Orient Express" does sort of go through this arc, right? He starts out thinking that everything is black and white and of course is completely challenged. Again, it's a story that is familiar to so many people. But I don't know that that is - I guess were you thinking about how to try to make a story that was familiar to people new?

BRANAGH: Yes. I mean, inevitably, if you believe that the classics are worth doing each time - and I've I spent a career doing this.

MCEVERS: That's right.

BRANAGH: You go back to whatever - I just directed a production of "Hamlet" this last autumn. And I went back to it just feeling not dissimilar, frankly, to the thematic material of "Murder On The Orient Express," that there was a sort of cry in the play that spoke to me in the here and now for an acknowledgement of the passing of people. You know, there's a great line at the Arthur Miller's play "Death Of A Salesman" - attention must be paid. There's a sense in "Murder On The Orient Express" that the desire for accountability for those who have suffered silently screams loudly out of the story. And I think it does in its different way from "Hamlet."

MCEVERS: As you were doing all of this, reading all of Christie's books and immersing yourself in Poirot, looking back, is there anything that surprised you?

BRANAGH: What was surprising and very satisfying about the whole experience of playing Poirot and working on this material was I found myself falling under the spell of Poirot, I suppose. And I felt privileged to see this new version of his life and to be a tiny part of it and see the surprise of quite how vividly alive he seems happening all over again.

MCEVERS: And this is a character who, when he was eventually killed off by Agatha Christie, got an obituary in The New York Times in 1975.

BRANAGH: Absolutely. Isn't that amazing?

MCEVERS: So Kenneth Branagh, thank you for bringing him back to life for us.

BRANAGH: I appreciate it. Thanks so much.

MCEVERS: Kenneth Branagh's new movie is "Murder On The Orient Express." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.