Sir Kenneth Branagh has recruited an A-list cast for the retelling of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery Murder On The Orient Express. The stars talk to Laura Harding about the adaptation...
A luxury train has derailed in the middle of nowhere. Snow is falling and one of the passengers just turned up dead. So the stage is set for Murder On The Orient Express, one of Agatha Christie’s most beloved and enduring murder mysteries.
Published in 1934, the timeless whodunnit - which leaves Hercule Poirot to determine which of the passengers is the culprit - has now been re-imagined for the big screen by Sir Kenneth Branagh, who not only directs the classic tale but also takes on the role of the mustachioed sleuth.
He leads a line-up of acting talent so starry it will make your head spin and includes Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Sir Derek Jacobi, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe and Josh Gad.
While the double duty of starring and directing may sound like a lot of work, it made perfect sense to Sir Kenneth, who thought playing Poirot in front of the camera went hand in hand with being the filmmaker behind it.
“It felt that there was a way in which those two things were very congruent with one person doing the same job because, crucially, I think Hercule Poirot is a director,” he says.
“He directs the characters, and like a director, Poirot intuitively tries to listen to the way in which he can be specific and bespoke about how to create the mood that’s required for each interrogation.”
But being directed by an actor of Sir Kenneth’s calibre was not without its stresses for Colman, who plays Hildegarde Schmidt, the maid to disgruntled Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, played with dissatisfied aplomb by Dame Judi.
“Being directed by someone you know could do what you’re doing, probably better than you, you don’t want to let him down,” she says.
The process was somewhat more relaxed for Sir Derek, a frequent collaborator with Sir Kenneth, who plays butler Edward Masterman.
“He has such humour, such humanity, such talent and he’s a great actor and a great director,” he says of the filmmaker.
It was at the director’s behest that Sir Derek, often hailed as one of the best classical actors of his generation, adopted an east London accent for the part.
“I quite enjoyed it,” he says, “as I think I’m sometimes considered a bit posh as an actor, you know: classical and Shakespearean, so it’s very nice to come down to earth occasionally!”
It also helped that the star is a connoisseur of the Christie canon, having first seen The Mousetrap with his parents when he was 13.
“That inspired me,” he reveals, “to read other novels and I think over the years I’ve read all of them.
The Mousetrap was also Leslie Odom Jr’s first introduction to Christie, when he was at school in New York.
But being on the Orient Express, recreated in painstaking detail at Longcross Studios in Surrey, felt a million miles from Broadway, where the actor became famous for his starring role as Aaron Burr in the smash-hit hip hop musical Hamilton. “Hamilton was basically a blank set,” he says. “It was a blank stage so you have to use a lot of your imagination. This is more like time travel.
“After you’re in your costume and wigged up and you step on the set, it’s so detailed and it transports you, you can sit back and try not to get in the way of all the wonderful stuff happening around you.”
Pfeiffer was also one of the stars anxious not to get in the way of the action, and admitted to a deep nervousness about messing up the long shots Sir Kenneth set up to take the audience through the length of the train.
“They were really stressful!” she says. “I was at the end of those usually and I was so stressed because just the whole time I’m going ‘please don’t let me be the one who messes up, please I don’t want to be the one who messes up’ and I think I did maybe twice.
“It was extraordinary working with Ken because you don’t know what to expect really when it is somebody who is starring and directing because both things are all consuming.
“I’m interested in directing, it appeals to me but I don’t think I would star in a movie that I directed, at least not my first time out.”
Murder On The Orient Express is out now.