Kenneth Branagh talks to AwardsDaily TV about the complexity of Masterpiece’s Wallander and about finding the truth in portraying Alzheimer’s.
There aren’t enough hours in the day to talk to someone like Kenneth Branagh.
For those uninitiated in the world of talent interviews, you’re normally allotted around twenty minutes of their time. Sometimes you luck out, and you can talk that into 30 minutes. Sometimes more. Such was not the case with the extraordinarily talented – and extraordinarily busy – Kenneth Branagh. Talking with Kenneth Branagh is akin to taking a master class in acting theory. The man is so rich, so full of tremendous insight into the craft of acting, that asking questions feels a bit like being in said class when you didn’t read the text the night before.
Still, Kenneth Branagh (or “Ken” as he graciously asked me to call him) is an incredibly kind and professional person, extremely approachable despite his award-filled pedigree. His latest project, the final series of PBS’s Masterpiece presentation of Wallander which was based on the celebrated Swedish crime novels by Henning Mankell, is an engaging and intense journey into neo noir. Ranging in locales from sunny South Africa to the hazy grey of Sweden, Wallander is, at its heart, a brilliant character study of a man growing and changing as life continues to hand him difficult circumstances. Based on the final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, which aired late May on PBS’s Masterpiece, sees Kenneth Branagh as title character Kurt Wallander struggle with the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Needless to say, it’s a powerful and honest portrayal of someone suffering from the disease. It never falters or becomes melodramatic. Branagh’s turn feels real and true. I should know. My grandmother died from the disease.
Kenneth “Ken” Branagh talked to me about the challenge of finding the truth in Wallander’s circumstance and the overall acting choices he made to bring this celebrated character to the small screen one final time. He received an Emmy nomination for the role once before in 2009. Here’s hoping Emmy voters look beyond the noise of the awards season to embrace this quietly devastating series and Kenneth Branagh’s stellar work in it.
AwardsDaily TV: Kenneth Branagh, it’s an honor to speak with you today. I can’t tell you how surreal this is. I grew up watching your films. Dead Again was probably the first time I truly realized what cinema could really do.
Kenneth Branagh: Oh that’s so nice to hear. It’s a favorite film of mine actually because it was such a great experience to work with Scott Frank and on an unusual script… We got tucked away in little corner of Paramount as it were, and it was somehow like an underground studio. We somehow got away with it. I have very fond memories of the making of it and of the film itself.
ADTV: Excellent. Let’s jump into Wallander. You’ve previously said that playing Kurt Wallander put you in a “permanent state of anxiety.” Is that still true with the fourth series?
KB: I think that I try to – you have to as best you can – to leave things at the office. It was particularly true of exploring this notion of dementia and Alzheimer’s which [Henning] Mankell describes in the book. The nature of acting requires finding this sort of state of openness to what the character requires in turn, and yet not being so married to it or carrying so much away from it that you are sort of undermined as a human being because that’s ultimately not helpful to you. It’s certainly not helpful to the art that you’re trying to produce, but it’s not always easy, especially with intense subject matter that is about what being a human is like. That’s what you are, so you are the raw material. It’s a very interesting thing to contend with because you’re aiming for truth, but you have to function as a human being and yet you cannot be too dryly technical otherwise the audience somehow intuits this. They understand it. They know when your’e being a phony. So, you’ve got to find a way to get on with the doing of it. Wallander has always been like that for me. In the fourth season, I got better at walking away from the scene or the take or the day and into just being who I was and not carrying Kurt’s burdens.
ADTV: I can imagine you’d have to. Looking at season four, there’s a certain melancholy or depression that seems to hang over Wallander through the season. What keeps Kurt Wallander pushing forward?
KB: Well, in a way, it’s his newly discovered passion for his family, for his granddaughter. Across the previous nine films, the challenges of those relationships functioning were always difficult whether it was the impact of his divorce on the relationship with his daughter or the permanent effect of the work on his relationships generally. What I find poignant about that last season is that Mankell has him with the awareness of his diabetes attempting to be – in Wallander terms – fitter and better, more nutritionally aware. Actually exercising. Actually shaving. Actually taking more notice of things and seeing their impact as well.
Generally, what keeps him going in this instance is family and particularly the enjoyment of that cross-generational thing with his granddaughter. A lot of grandparents note this special bond that they have when they don’t have the direct responsibility but they’re at a stage in their life when they really appreciate the playfulness of that young person. I suppose he sees this tremendous potential, and he sees in a way a symbol of why he does what he does which is to try and protect and preserve the world for the life and livelihood of his granddaughter.
Suddenly, the kinds of questions the asks in the first film of the last season – Do we make a difference? – are in part answered by, well, yes because we make a difference to the lives of five, six, seven year old kids who have their whole lives in front of them. That is a driving factor. Also, I think he welcomes Clara’s [his granddaughter’s] curiosity, and her sense of fun. His relationship with her is so much simpler. In a way, he sees in that connection with a younger generation, I suppose, a way to have a simpler life away from his work and away from, as you say, his melancholy that comes with the preoccupation with violent crime.
ADTV: Watching Wallander season four, I’m struck by how quiet and contemplative your performance is. Of course, Wallander, due to the nature of his job, is constantly observing. What are you playing internally as you navigate a scene?
KB: I think that my observation of policemen and women, particularly in Sweden, is that they are highly observant, highly attuned, and sensitive individuals – people who listen well – and who are reading not only for signs of practical evidence of the forensic kind… but who are looking for and attempting to interpret these behavioral signs in individuals that can often be the key to understanding the guilty that the perpetrator of a crime might have. The psychological read on people is key, and in order to do that the capacity to be entirely in the moment and sort of neutral, allowing someone who you may be suspicious of as a criminal to reveal themselves.
As an actor, it seemed to me a great way to try and be as utterly present in the scene with the other actor as possible and in the situation. Of course, we try and do this all the time, but the seemingly naked requirement of it in this is a particular quality that Wallander has. He’s often vulnerable and apparently opaque, and I think this allows people to either ignore him or say things to him they might not to other people because he isn’t pushing a particular behavioral tic. He’s not trying to over impress them with his personality. He’s often leaving silences in which that person may either implicate themselves or they simply may reveal an emotional depth that wouldn’t be possible without that particular gaze and his listening.
The requirement as an actor was this very difficult thing to do which is to be try and be simple and be right there in the moment of connection with that other character. I found this completely fascinating because you keep having to try and stop acting and doing and try to provide as much being as possible. Ultimately, you want all of that. The result that you’re after is unaffected, simple truth, but technically and imaginatively it’s an elusive place to find. Kurt Wallander as a character makes you pursue it and attempt to find it as an actor.
ADTV: The final chapter of series four – The Troubled Man – shows Wallander confirming a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Knowing that the series would reach this point, did that diagnosis inform your overall series four performance?
KB: Yeah, it did. I found that Wallander audiences are so attuned to the sort of micro-subtleties of what the show does. They’re very patient with the fact that the show takes its time. It’s definitely one of its characteristics. In the episode in South Africa, the beginnings of a certain kind of dizziness, a slight minor key, low-impact disorientation, start to apply themselves. Yes, Ben Caron, who directed all three of the episodes, was very helpful in trying to find ways that eagle-eyed viewers would start to, like Wallander himself, catch and question in terms of what was normal in the context of Kurt Wallander. Trying to chart that was most interesting.
With Wallander, even though his spirit some might describe as sort of heavy, the ways in which he reveals himself are very, very lightly done, so it was again trying to be as subtle and effortless as possible but still leave the viewer clues as to the beginnings of this descent into a darker place which wasn’t his normal melancholy or preoccupation or obsession. It was beginning to be the first signs of being actually lost. It was great to be able to do it and chart it across the first couple of episodes until it becomes overwhelming to him and us in the final chapter.
ADTV: Those scenes in the final chapter are very personal to me because my grandmother suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s. How did you prepare for the dementia scenes, particularly the one in which he loses himself in the field behind his house?
KB: Well, I remember being struck many years ago by a friend of mine who told me the story of his own father who was a very together individual going missing on a local golf course and club to which he had belonged and where it had been a place that very much represented the person he was – very together, very ordered, very an in-charge alpha male kind of guy. It was at this very same golf course wandering semi-naked… his father had been found using language that he wouldn’t have normally used in any circumstances before and being violently disorientated. As this friend told me, that image stuck with me. I knew his father, and I knew what he’d been. It was very hard to imagine what he had become. I certainly saw the impact of it on my friend.
As I started to think about how that would manifest itself, I found myself talking to more than a few people who had these very direct and strong personal experiences… where people they knew and loved and who were very sort of distinct in their personalities become something very, very different. So, it seemed to me that, for Kurt – a quietly passionate man, to literally lose his way… to be so close to home and lose his way… was also going to be an echo of what David Warner [who played Wallander’s father earlier in the series] had brought to the show. Poval, [Wallander’s] father, also goes missing and is found wandering on a road and who also has difficulty connecting with Kurt. I went back to those episodes to sort of remind myself of exactly what David had done and how his loss of self manifested itself. I started to put together all these pictures and images of people who had sort of described how a parent [suffers from the disease]. The confusion puts them in an almost Tourrets-like, driven, manic phase that can be part of that same struggle.
What I did find was that there were so many different versions of how these forms of dementia might manifest themselves. To some extent, I prepared for what was on the page and to some extent played it with Jeany Spark, who played my daughter and has across these 12 films… to try and sort of have in my mind the immense frustration of being, in his case, in a very familiar place – a field behind his house – and not knowing where it was and sort of critically who he was and perhaps most profoundly and pointedly and potentially damaging for him who she was.
ADTV: At the end of The Troubled Man, Wallander has a conversation with his dead father about his failing memory. The image of his father tells him “Someone else will remember for you.” Who do you think that “someone else” is in Kurt’s life? Is that his granddaughter, Clara?
KB: Well, his daughter and his granddaughter. Like all of Wallander and all of the complex and charged world around dementia, some of the voices in his head will remember for him… The people who will remember for him are both inside and outside of his own mind, but I think that you’re right to say that Clara is potentially the key… the simplicity and directness of their relationship… and also because of that the possibility to remove, what is clearly such a factor in certain forms of dementia, to remove more of the anxiety that people have about this thing that may be engulfing them. As troubled as this troubled man is, there is a sort of compassionate possibility in his story there may be support and stimulus and a way to experience it that does not contain only darkness.
I somehow felt Kurt maybe had something more to say than that. It may be just an Irish sentimentalist speaking, but I know that it’s been an absolute privilege to play the part, to have known Henning Mankell, and to have visited and spent time in that part of Sweden and with that particular kind of man. As they say, never say never.
ADTV: Is there another Kurt Wallander performance in you?
KB: I know that way back when Henning wrote the book, he said that’s the end. I don’t know. I left wondering is there another story that are the last moments before he goes into that good night or retires into a place that is sort of further away spiritually. As I watched that last film, I felt as a viewer, which is in no way objective, I didn’t want to leave him on that beach even with his family. I somehow felt Kurt maybe had something more to say than that. It may be just an Irish sentimentalist speaking, but I know that it’s been an absolute privilege to play the part, to have known Henning Mankell, and to have visited and spent time in that part of Sweden and with that particular kind of man. As they say, never say never.
PBS’s Masterpiece presentation of Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh, completed in late May. You can find Wallander series four on iTunes and Amazon.