Working with Sir Kenneth Branagh’s a childhood dream come true for Keira Knightley. And the appreciation’s mutual, the duo tell Albertina Lloyd, as they promote their latest film.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit wasn’t the first time Keira Knightley auditioned to work with Sir Kenneth Branagh.
“I went for a role in Hamlet [Branagh directed and starred in the 1996 big screen adaptation] when I was 11 and I didn’t get it, but he was very lovely,” she says, smiling coyly. “But this was the first time we’ve crossed paths since then.”
The knock-back didn’t stop Knightley from pursuing her acting career, she’s gone on to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, among numerous other plaudits.
“The main reason I did this film was Ken Branagh,” says the actress. “I’ve been a huge fan of his since I was a kid and the opportunity to work with him, not only as an actor but a director, was something I couldn’t say no to.”
In turn, Branagh, who was oblivious to Knightley’s early audition until now, reveals he’s been closely following her work for years.
“She’s very adventurous and I love her in films like A Dangerous Method,” says the 53-year-old. “I’ve been watching her since she made her debut on television [Knightley was six when she got an agent and soon began landing small jobs in adverts and TV] and always wanted to work with her.
“She’s the most varied actress and I feel we have so much work to come from her yet.”
Based on the novels by Tom Clancy, the Jack Ryan reboot sees Star Trek actor Chris Pine take on the role of the CIA agent previously portrayed on screen by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck.
Jack is an all-American boy who accidentally stumbles into a life of espionage when recruited as an analyst by a CIA boss (Kevin Costner).
When he spots a Russian company acting suspiciously, Jack’s sent to Moscow to investigate – and suddenly finds himself thrown in at the deep end as an active CIA agent.
His doctor wife Cathy (Knightley) follows him, and consequently ends up acting as a honey trap for Viktor (Branagh), the Russian oligarch Jack’s investigating.
Having Branagh as both her on-screen sparring partner and at the movie’s helm was strange, Knightley admits.
“It was hysterical, totally mad, because he’s playing the nastiest villain you can imagine, who does some horrific things to me. So he’d be completely horrendous, screaming in my ear and all the rest of it, and then suddenly go, ‘OK ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much. That’s a cut and that was lovely’, and be this sweet man. So it was quite schizophrenic,” she says.
Branagh hadn’t always intended to take on the role of Viktor, but as he began working on the project, he found it impossible to resist.
“It was several months into the process and having spent a lot of time with Chris Pine developing the story, the script had developed to the point where the role of Viktor was richer,” he explains.
Smiling mischievously, he adds: “Then I gave myself a ring and said, ‘You’re playing it, what do you think?’ ‘Oh OK, I will then!’”
One very tense scene sees Knightley’s character trying to distract Viktor from Jack’s absence from the dinner table, by drawing him into a conversation about Russian literature.
Knightley jokingly complains that Branagh made her read the whole of Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero Of Our Time in preparation.
In fact, after her starring role in 2012’s Anna Karenina, the 28-year-old had been looking to escape the deep, dark world of Russian literature.
“When I finished doing Anna Karenina, I realised that I’d been playing characters that died, or had something horrendous happen to them, for about the last five years, and I fancied doing something fun!” she exclaims.
“I’ve never done a thriller before, and it’s been a genre that I’ve really liked. I was excited by the challenge.”