KENNTH Branagh says there is a simple trick to assembling an all-star cast - get Dame Judi Dench first.
For his new big-screen version of Agatha Christie's classic whodunit, Murder On the Orient Express, the Oscar-nominated actor-director has wrangled a who's who of Hollywood, including respected veterans Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz and William Defoe as well as up-and-comers such as Star Wars' Daisy Ridley.
But the key to getting them all to sign on the dotted line was his old friend and legend of the stage and screen, Dench.
"The secret is that you ask Judi Dench first and if she says yes, then everybody else follows," says Branagh, who also stars as "the world's greatest detective", the fastidious and magnificently moustachioed Belgian, Hercule Poirot.
"That's my tip to all directors - get her first and then Michelle Pfeiffer and Johnny Depp will go 'what, you have Judi Dench?'. She's like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for them and also a really good egg to boot."
Despite some of the big-name actors being in awe of Dench - Branagh says that Pfeiffer burst into tears after meeting her and that Depp "worships her" - the "disarming" Dame was adept at putting them at ease, often by giving her director a hard time on set.
"Because she and I have worked together a number of times over the last 30 years, she has a complete disregard and contempt for my ability," he jokes. "So that when she starts the teasing and the ribbing that goes on, it settles a lot of people down because they also know that she is deadly serious as an artist and unbelievably disciplined but she does operate from the position that there should be lightness around this work."
Christie's detective is one of the most famous and beloved creations in literary history, appearing in 33 novels and 50 short stories, to the point that even the author herself had a love-hate relationship with Poirot, at one point calling him a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep". When she finally killed him off in 1975, he became the first fictional character to receive an obituary on the front page of the New York Times. He's also appeared many times on the big and small screen, played by acting greats including Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Orson Welles, David Suchet and Ian Holm. But, as a Shakespeare veteran, Branagh says he had no problems following in the steps of greatness and putting his own stamp on the great sleuth.
"I always honour the people who have done this sort of work ahead," he says. "Coming from the classical theatre if you get a chance to play the great parts like Hamlet, thousands of people have played the role brilliantly and you get used to tipping your hat to them but also re-engaging with the source material, which makes you realise that part of what makes it great is that people can come to it with their own imagination."
After immersing himself in Christie's work, which varied in accounts of the character, he describes his Poirot as "less perhaps of a dandy and a popinjay than other accounts of the part and more a sort of Rain Man-ish obsessive about the need for clarity and neatness and space to do what he likes to do".
And then of course, there's that moustache. Poirot is as well known for his facial hair, variously described by Christie as "gigantic, immense and amazing", as for his powers of deduction. Branagh pulled out all the stops to come up with a truly stupendous mo, which he says is intentionally ridiculous, as Poirot used it as a mask and a distraction that would cause the many Orient Express murder suspects to drop their guard. Sadly, he admits a little sheepishly, he wasn't quite up to the task himself.
"There was a time when I tried every element of personal moustache growth," he says with a laugh. "We started in a Hitler-esque, Chaplinesque world and we just kept getting wider and wider. I tried growing it for as long as I could but the moustache got so wide that I personally couldn't keep up with the kind of growth hormones that I was going to need to make it as big as it was."
Even for a career as diverse and celebrated as Branagh's - he's done everything from Harry Potter to Henry V and Cinderella - his foray into the Marvel universe with the original Thor film in 2011 was an unexpected detour. With the third film, Thor: Ragnarok now a critical and box office smash around the world, Branagh, who took a punt on Aussie Chris Hemsworth as the title character, admits to "having some distant pride in its continuation".
He says he's a fan of Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and reveals that he was approached to make a cameo in the more comedic take on the God Of Thunder, but the stars didn't quite align. "At one stage there was a delicious invitation to potentially be involved but the dates couldn't work out," he says. "As you know, Marvel love their little Easter egg surprises in the movies, but I just couldn't do it. But I got a lovely message from Kevin Feige, who runs Marvel, the other day about how pleased they were with the movie and how grateful they were for us all being involved in the beginning.
"I am very fond of Chris Hemsworth - I think he's a great lad - and it's amazing that across seven years he's played that character half a dozen times now and has genuinely developed it."
Murder On the Orient Express opens in cinemas tomorrow.
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