Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – Interview
Bombs, bullets and banking schemes: it’s all in a day’s work for Tom Clancy’s super agent Jack Ryan. With the series born anew in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Van Connor caught up with stars Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, director and star Kenneth Branagh and producers Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and David Barron to find out the parameters of Ryan’s latest mission.
Tom Clancy’s character of Jack Ryan has been around in the pantheon of cinema for over twenty years now, starting with the likes of Alec Baldwin in The Hunt For Red October, taken through two films with Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger, even unsuccessfully rebooted in 2002 with Ben Affleck in The Sum Of All Fears; so why bring him back in 2014?
“we could introduce a new audience to an old character"
“The opportunity we had was in telling an origin story” says producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, “which was something that hadn’t been done before and so you were able to see a more complete character study of somebody. You rarely see a movie in which you see the lead character facing the three or four most seminal moments of his life all in one movie, it’s usually one seminal moment if that. That was a great opportunity to connect the audience to the character again. Co-producer David Barron echoes Di Bonaventura’s position. “Being an origin story meant that we could introduce a new audience to an old character, a character previous generations had lived with but they’d not necessarily had. It was very useful that we got to start from the beginning.”
Of all the various Jack Ryan projects that have been mooted over the years, Shadow Recruit seems an unlikely place to start a new franchise, so one imagines the project must have promised something truly special to reel in top shelf talent the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Chris Pine and Keira Knightley. “I just couldn’t put the script down, it was as simple as that” was the reply offered by Branagh. “David Koepp’s script came along, I knew that Chris was involved and that was exciting, I thought that was a great piece of casting. I did know the previous films and some of the novels, and like Keira I love thrillers so it was a chance to try and do what the boys were saying, put Jack Ryan and the things that made him compelling for and audience, that character as created by Clancy, into the twenty-first century and see if he and that new world collided in a strong and entertaining way.”
“action with proper storytelling"
Knightley offered a more earnest reason for signing on: “I’d never done a thriller before, and it’s a genre that I’ve always really liked. I think it’s a very difficult one because you combine action with proper storytelling and it needs a proper storyteller to do it, so I was quite excited by the challenge of it.” As for Pine? “I was curious about playing a guy whose experience really pivoted on 9/11 and a man who went and served in the war, was affected by the war, that was damaged physically, psychologically and emotionally but was still compelled to serve and had to serve. It felt very contemporary, it just felt very “of the now” and I liked the idea of that kind of reluctant hero being compelled to serve from something deep within himself, a deep sense of a personal moral code.”
It’s a tough sell for a young up-and-coming star the likes of Pine. Fresh off having played the rebooted James T. Kirk in two successful Star Trek outings, Ryan is a character not one, but three A-Listers have failed to commit to past one of two movies over the years. Pine though still sees the character in a warm, albeit conflicted, light. “I like the fact that he’s a bit more real and grounded than the other action heroes, y’know there’s no Q and there’s no fancy gadgets and he’s not a man of fancy suits or Russian supermodels or whatever – we have the lovely Keira Knightley. He’s monogamous, simple. For all of his complexity and intelligence, there’s a man. And I fought this for a long time with Ken, I wanted him to have some kind of crutch or something to make him brooding and angstful and all that, but really he’s a simple guy that wants to serve, he feels compelled to serve and I think in that simplicity and that kind of everyman quality – he could be your professor, he could be the guy that you get coffee next to, wouldn’t think twice seeing him in the street – there’s something about that normalcy that I think sets him apart from all these guys that are trained assassins and drive fast fancy cars and hopefully that relate ability for the audience will be the thing that encourages them to come back for more.”
“a moral human being"
It’s not all flag-waving sincerity however, as Pine goes on to explain. “You get a lead character that has to deal with the consequences of taking a life. Ken and I talked about that, and we’d never really seen that in an action film of this size, so I think moments like that, moments of a moral Jack, of a moral human being, of a man that feels, that isn’t closed off, you see the effects of living in that world for so long and the young man who’s just getting into it, who still feels it. I think especially with having an actor like Keira with Kathy that warms Jack, that reminds Jack to feel, will set him apart from other heroes in this genre.”
Elsewhere in the press, a notable aspect of the film has been that, despite it’s lavishly urban contemporary-Moscow setting, the film is shot seemingly everywhere but. Specifically: here in the UK of all places. You’d think having Britain stand in for 2014 Moscow would be a challenge, but Branagh merely saw a chance to make it work to his advantage. “We were there briefly” he recalls “and one the things that we did do was try and establish a breathless pace – which the film often has. I remember we got off the plane from New York that morning and that afternoon Chris was on a hotel roof with us saying “you’ve got forty minutes, the sun’s going, it’s a three page dialogue scene, do you mind doing it all in one?” Moving around in Moscow was a bit like that, so when we came we came back to some of the “cheated Moscow” in Liverpool and Manchester and parts of London, we adopted the same sort of “hit the ground running” approach but we were there for long enough, I thought, to get the sense of vibrancy that the new Moscow has.”
"I fancied doing something fun"
For Knightley, Shadow Recruit offered her a chance to return to a franchise picture for the first time since her role in the Pirates Of The Caribbean series came to a close back in 2007. “When I finished Anna Karenina, I realised I’d been playing characters who’d pretty much died, or something horrendous had happened to them, for about the last five years and I fancied doing something fun!” she jokes. “I really enjoyed the script, it was a page-turner and then there was Ken and Ken basically said ‘oh go on, do it!’ and I said ‘oh alright then…’
It’s not the typical damsel-in-distress role offered to most young starlets however, and the very game actress leapt to the challenge – the unique aspects of the character drawing her in. “As far as the relationship between Jack and Kathy goes, I was interested in the idea of what happens to a relationship when there is a secret. When there is something that can’t be discussed, when there’s something that can tear two people apart even though they are completely in love. I was interested in what that did to the relationship and I thought that was a very interesting part of the story as far as people who work in the secret services have to give up and the kind of emotional toil that it takes on them. I thought that was very interesting.”
"it can stimulate you"
Fresh from a high-profile directing role on Marvel’s Thor, Branagh (stepping in for Lost-alum Jack Bender) was surprised but welcomed the challenge apparent in directing a franchise picture such as Jack Ryan. “Frankly, it was astonishing to think I’d have any kind of a film career of any kind when I started out! But before Henry V we had a very doldrummy period in the British film industry, films weren’t being made, I remember having a conversation with fellow actors and wondering if we’d ever be in a film, so that’s a surprise” he reminisces. It’s a genre with which he has an obvious interest. “It’s astonishing really, I love going to see pictures like this; they’re hard to make, they appear simple – you hope if they work actually, that they appear simple – and yet they’re very interesting to try and put together. In terms of a moment where you wonder how and why you’re doing it, that is bypassed essentially because you’re always trying to follow your instincts as best you can. For me, the moment when you read the script is the key one, I try and make that a very special moment, plenty of time aside to see what it does to you and if it really grabs you then you know that you have a chance that over the maybe two year cycle that that might be – certainly in directing it – that it can stimulate you. Then I was very lucky to work both producorially and then with these great actors, people who were going to be fun to work with.”
The challenges of directing yourself however are a logistical issue into and of themself. However, Branagh has taken the job on for most of his cinematic career with the likes of Peter’s Friends, Dead Again, Henry V and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein amongst many others. It’s a process, he cheerfully admits, which has gotten easier over time. “Way back when I started the first one, we didn’t have monitors, we made the whole of Henry V without any kind of monitors, so your judgement of performance was based on conversation with your fellow actors and the camera operator and then you had to guess twenty four or forty eight hours later when you saw the dailies about whether you were right about that, which I do think allows you to tap into a certain kind of instinct. We did a number of things. From my point of view, you just prepare as much as you can and you try to be ahead of the game, with the accent and everything, and then we arrived at a sort of consensus of how we might do things which put us all on the same page both Chris, from the get-go, and Keira, when she came in as well, were good about shooting quite soon each day. We often started shooting with close-ups, we didn’t rehearse much, we talked quite a bit but we got straight in so that the idea was that we sort of played with each other. For instance, we did the scene at the dinner table which is a number of different scenes but I remember saying to [Keira] some days ahead “would you mind if we did this as an entire scene, which will be many pages of dialogue but we’ll run it as one?” and to make that case we often improvised that bit between the division of the scenes. That was the kind of thing Chris was doing as a matter of course from the word go, there was a sense of play about that. One thing I wanted with this movie was to feel that the character work and the reality of the acting all had that sort of edge underneath it, which is part of Jack’s journey, it’s part of the rhythm of the film and part of the naturalistic edge which I enjoy doing with my fellow actors. That was a goal for the atmosphere of the scene, rather than me necessarily having to hit acting beat X, Y or Z. I prepped for that as best I could, but I wanted it all to feel as relatively raw as possible so we weren’t too slick or too smooth.
"the Russians are great storytellers"
One thing Shadow Recruit must contend with that previous Ryan movies didn’t meanwhile, is that international distribution is now the buzzword, especially for a globe-spanning spy-jaunt like this. In the twenty-first century tradition of day-and-date and global releases, Russian audiences are more likely than ever to see first hand how their countrymen are portrayed onscreen, and so it’s not unfathomable that they could take issue with the previously quintessential Russian villains. “My sense was that people understood that this was a drama and that, in a way, without copping out but being quite specific, our intention was to tell a story of one fictional Russian oligarch with a very specific personal biography and history that was not trying to say “here are what all wealthy Russians are like”.” answered Branagh. “I think people understand any more than having just played MacBeth in the theatre. Y’know, the Scots are up in arms at being portrayed as murderers and regicides, one has to take it in the context of that and, in a sense for us, what was fairly interesting in the Clancy DNA of these books set in the Cold War period, (they) featured this old enemy, this old rivalry between Russia and America. It’s very clearly there right now and in the person of this unusual modern creation – the oligarch – wealthy, sometimes we don’t know what the estate owns, they’re blurrily linked to government but they’re formidable individuals so the possibility of looking at that as a certain kind of threat is a legitimate dramatic investigation as in the tradition of such things. I think they took it in that spirit, the Russians are great storytellers, we don’t make the Americans whiter than white, I don’t think; we were trying to be complex and I hope they respected that and we managed to leave in one piece.” Cracking a smile, Branagh simply had to add: “In fact, the movie, right now, is number one in Russia!”
“this man was an American movie star"
The noticeable absentee from the British wing of the press tour meanwhile, is also perhaps the film’s most valuable player. In the role of Thomas Harper, housewives’ favourite Kevin Costner serves not only as Jack Ryan’s mentor, but also as the mentor figure in another hopeful Paramount franchise as well. Namely that of shadow ops agent John Clark, previously played by the likes of Willem Dafoe and Live Schreiber, and rumoured to be being circled by the always popular Tom Hardy. With not one but two franchises on his shoulders, Costner seems to be more than up for the job. “Kevin Costner is sexy, that’s for damn sure.” offers Pine. “When we were doing press in LA, he rolled up in cowboy boots, a vest and sunglasses, and you knew that this man was an American movie star.”
“One of the things that’s so interesting about Kevin is, as a person and as an actor, he commits so utterly, so completely to his point of view and so I think it’s one of the things that endears him to us is that he is a guy who wears it right on his sleeve” added Di Bonaventura. “In this case, having Kevin in this movie was fantastic for us because it’s not the traditional younger-older man relationship because he’s not sitting behind a desk. So you needed a guy like Kevin who could go out in the field and shoot somebody and be active and let the audience believe that that character is capable of it so the wealth of it was a great advantage to us.”
Branagh meanwhile, had his own unique bond with Costner. “For me it was a sort of coming full circle. When I first went to Hollywood it was to be in two plays, we were on tour with two Shakespeare plays and I got a call at the theatre one day saying “there’s a fellow called Kevin Costner who’d like to take you out to lunch”, this was at the beginning of 1990, and so I said “oh I’m very excited, thank you very much” and I went out and he wanted to ask me about what it was like to act and direct in a movie at the same time as I’d just completed doing it with Henry V and he was going to do it for a film called Dances With Wolves. We had a long boozy lunch, sharing war stories about the madness and fun of all that, so it was the beginning of a friendship that lasted right across that time and in fact he was very helpful about the same process twenty-five years later. Having him there was very nice, it felt like the conversation was ongoing. A generous act in the first instance and it was very generous of him to be in the picture.”
Pulling his thoughts together, Barron relented and admits “Even I found him sexy. Though I can’t say much more than that!”
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is in cinemas nationwide from today. Check out Van Connor’s review, along with the rest of the week’s releases, in our Movies section and live on Slam Dunk Cinema every Saturday at 12PM on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM or on the podcast via iTunes.