Kenneth Branagh, one of the great living Shakespeareans, is mixing things up this spring: He's the director of the forthcoming blockbuster superhero flick Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth as the Norse god. We caught up with Branagh at an advanced screening of the film, hosted by the Cinema Society and Acura, and spoke with him about the racist controversy surrounding Idris Elba's casting, the Shakespeare character most similar to Thor, and how Hemsworth temporarily got too muscular for the part.
I read that everyone you cast, Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, and so on, joined immediately because of you, without reading a script. That's a lot of flattering pressure.
It's very flattering and it was mutual. I wanted to work with all these people. I made sure on a movie like this that they really had time to do some acting. We weren't rushed, we had all day to take any number of takes to make it just perfect and really explore the characters to make sure it is just right.
Were you into comics as a kid?
I was actually a Thor fan growing up. I liked the big strong man with fateful flaws. He had everything. He was a prince. He has privileges. He had money and power and he was built like a tree trunk, but he didn't know what to do with all that power. It's a superhero in reverse story, which I absolutely loved. You've got this extraordinary person or mythical status suddenly becoming an ordinary person having to adjust to being ordinary. I liked that twist around. I thought it was a very interesting take on a superhero.
Is there a Shakespearean character that you thought of when directing this movie?
I think Henry V was an interesting example because, as a young man he was reckless and he kept bad company. People thought he'd make a terrible leader. His father was angry at him but he turned out to be a terrific leader. But he had to earn that privilege, earn that place by losing a lot of friends, losing power, losing family and making sacrifices. They're both stories of how you find yourself. A rite of passage. Both are a good identity story and very relatable.
What did you think about all that hullabaloo about people thinking it was absurd to hire a black man, Idris Elba, to play what was written as a Nordic character?
It surprised me. I mean the world we're working with is imaginative to begin with. It's a fantastical world where people fly, people travel into different solar systems, down to earth, the idea that there needs to be some kind of rule about how these characters are supposed to look was a real surprise to me. I mean to cast someone like Idris in that role is very powerful. He was perfect. Besides the fact that he is a great guy, a handsome guy, a sexy guy, he's a wonderful actor and why would I not cast him? We were lucky to get him.
I heard you were a bit appalled at how much Chris bulked up?
His costume required a very sculpted shape and at one point he just started getting wider. He was like as wide as Los Angeles at one point and had absolutely no neck left. He had to eat like every three minutes. It seemed like every time I turned around someone was bringing him pasta or a basket of chicken. We ended up getting him back to being a lean, mean fighting machine, and so he was ultimately not too big. He was Thor the God and not Thor the bodybuilder.