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branagh's bad guy brings out best in me, says kiera

JACK Ryan: Shadow Recruit wasn't the first time Keira Knightley auditioned to work with Kenneth Branagh.

"I went for a role in Hamlet when I was 11 and 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 knockback didn't stop Knightley from pursuing her acting career – she has 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.

ADVENTUROUS

"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 and always wanted to work with her."

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 is 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 is 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," she says. "So he'd be completely horrendous, screaming in my ear and all the rest of it, and then suddenly go, 'Okay, 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."

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. "I thought his history was fascinating, and it turned into a part which I thought would be good fun to play."

Smiling mischievously, he adds: "Then I gave myself a ring and said, 'You're playing it, what do you think?' 'Oh, okay, I will then'!"

Costner, a fellow actor-director, is an old friend, it transpires.

BOOZY

"It's like coming full-circle," says Branagh. "When I first went to Hollywood, on tour with two Shakespeare plays, I got a call at the theatre saying a fellow called Kevin Costner would like to take me out to lunch.

"He wanted to ask me what it's like to act and direct in a movie at the same time, because I'd just done it in Henry V and he was about to do it in Dances With Wolves.

"We had a long boozy lunch sharing war stories. It was the beginning of a friendship that's lasted all that time and, in fact, he was very helpful about the same process 25 years later."

Branagh is now an old hand at directing himself, having doubled up for a number of films, including 1994's Frankenstein.

Then in 2011 he took the helm of the adaptation of Marvel Comics' Thor.

So what attracted this thespian to the world of action films?

"I always felt as though I started making action films with Henry V, which ends with the Battle of Agincourt, 10, 15 minutes of non-stop fighting," he says.

"But with most movies, I'm interested in the mainstream. Where there's action, it's usually a sleight of hand."

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.

"I've never done a thriller before, and it's been a genre that I've really liked. I was excited by the challenge," she says.

The break from tragic heroines has given Knightley a taste for lighter projects.

"It's always nice to have somebody who's intelligent, although I don't know," she muses.

"I don't think I've ever played an unbelievably stupid character, and actually that might be quite interesting.

"I'd be quite interested to play a really, really stupid person!"

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is in cinemas now


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