The NS Interview: Kenneth Branagh

“There is a sort of deadly element in the Swedish landscape”

The recently-knighted Kenneth Branagh
The recently-knighted Kenneth Branagh. Photograph: Getty Images

Were you warned about your knighthood?
No. A letter arrives from the Cabinet Office and they, in a rather pleasing, old-fashioned expression, indicate that this is something that may occur, and ask you to respond. So if, like me, you’ve posted your reply in a small postbox in Sunny Hill you think: “I’m sure the Royal Mail are going to be terrific with this, but clearly if it goes awry I shouldn’t be counting my chickens on the morning of the announcement.” Clearly the Royal Mail are still doing sterling service.

You seem proud, but artists’ responses to receiving an honour can vary.
Yes, yes. They can. I see it as an acknowledgement that makes you think about every person you’ve worked with. My experience is so collaborative. A moment like this just seems – at this end of my life – to be a very nice thing to happen if you’ve been lucky enough.

Does it make you feel more British, somehow?
I always have. In fact, I feel as though I’ve taken a kind of central identity from that, partly because I’ve been one of those people fortunate enough to roam around the world. I think about “back home”, I think about home here [in London] and then I think about home in Belfast.

Where do you feel most rooted?
Well, it’s the whole thing. I’ve lived a lot of my life in London so I often feel that I am a Londoner. I’ve lived a lot of my life in Berkshire:
I live there now and I went to school there in adolescence. And I’ve lived in Belfast. Those are the three little points around which I cir­culated – I still do.

Wallander has a strong sense of place. How did you respond to the Swedish landscape?
My first experience of it was to drive from Cop­enhagen across the Øresund Bridge – the title for yet another Scandinavian drama. As soon
as you get over that bridge and into Sweden you start getting this flat, vast land, so there’s an impact immediately. The vegetation is different and the sea behaves in a different kind of way. When I drove into Skåne for the first time I felt as though some of my work was done because
I had a visceral reaction. I felt thrilled, chilled to see the land stretching away.

In a place like this, if you had troubles, or were of a philosophical bent, prone to be pre­occupied, the land would just keep getting out of your way so that they could overtake. They would expand to fill the vacuum.

Did you feel lonely there?
You could stop a car anywhere along the road there and you’d see a very painterly account, in horizontals – a landscape composition of the house, the small farms and acres of farmland, or the single car or tiny dwelling in the middle of nowhere. And you look around and there are no street lights and you think, “God, what is this like in the winter?” That may be the product of a weirdly overanxious, overthinking mind, but there is a sort of deadly or dangerous element in the land as well. It’s unforgiving.

Was Wallander a haunting character to play? Could you leave him behind?
Sometimes [a character] gets under your skin without you realising it. There are moments where I’ve felt particularly affected by roles, at least this one . . . because he’s serious. And it’s a bit of a tragedy for him, his seriousness. It’s hard not to be affected.

You play him very quietly.
It is pared down. You’ve got nothing to lean on. It’s about revelation of soul, which sounds very grand. When you execute it as a performer it’s just being as honest as you can. It’s hard not to be connecting intuitively to your own capacity for feeling and to the simple imaginative exercise of putting yourself in his shoes. And his shoes are often very, very sad.

You direct as much as you act. Do you prefer one over the other?
I don’t know if the grass seems greener, but I think you are aware that you might prefer the other while you’re doing one.

You grew up in Northern Ireland. Has that made you political?
It’s impossible not to be, coming from there.

Is there a plan?
Life is about making plans from which you deviate, almost always. If you are lucky you do come up with a plan. I love that line at the end
of Hamlet, “the readiness is all”. I don’t know if there is a plan, but one might hope that there is some readiness for whatever comes along.

Are we all doomed?
No, not while the human spirit is capable of smiling and capturing the positive power of the mind. Even if the world is doomed in all sorts
of practical ways, and time is running out on planetary elements, the reason that we’re not all doomed is that there is still enormous untapped potential in each of us to enjoy every single minute of our lives, to be more fully present, and as a result not suddenly turn into kaftan-wearing, chanting hippies, but to actually fundamentally change on every single level the entire fate of our world.

Defining Moments

1960 Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland
1970 His family moves to England
1981 Graduates from Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London
1987 Founds Renaissance Theatre Company
1989 Directs and stars in Henry V
2003 Marries Lindsay Brunnock (following divorce from Emma Thompson in 1995)
2008 Stars in first season of Wallander
2011 Release of Marvel Comics film, Thor
2012 Knighted in Queen’s birthday honour