‘ Mur­der’ star Branagh re­calls ’ 90 Chicago trip

Chicago Sun-Times - - LIFE - bzwecker@ sun­times. com @ bil­lzwecker | TIM P. WHITBY/ GETTY IM­AGES

LON­DON — Even after al­most three decades, at the mere men­tion of Chicago, Ken­neth Branagh im­me­di­ately flashes back to his first visit to the city in 1990 — with Emma Thomp­son, then his wife — to par­tic­i­pate in the Chicago In­ter­na­tional The­atre Fes­ti­val cre­ated by Jane Sahlins.

“It is such a great mem­ory,” said the ac­tor and film­maker, sit­ting down to chat about di­rect­ing and star­ring as uber- de­tec­tive Hercule Poirot in the new film based on Agatha Christie’s leg­endary novel “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” ( open­ing Fri­day). “That first visit ex­posed us to such a great group of ded­i­cated peo­ple, with such a pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to the arts in var­i­ous forms.

“Chicago has such a fierce civic pride. Your town is full of mak­ers. They are mak­ers of things, mak­ers of stuff, yes, but also peo­ple who are so proud of the city’s artis­tic ac­com­plish­ments.”

Though the 1974 film of “Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” has held up quite well, Branagh ex­plained, “I felt it was the right time to seize the op­por­tu­nity. When I reread the novel, I saw in my mind this cin­e­matic em­brac­ing of the Golden Age of Travel — a chance to put these peo­ple on the train and take them from Is­tan­bul on­ward. I wanted to show the mys­tery slowly un­fold­ing, then move to this darker psy­cho­log­i­cal drama.”

Among the high- pro­file cast mem­bers in “Mur­der” is Michelle Pfeif­fer, who por­trays the Amer­i­can so­cialite Mrs. Caro­line Hub­bard. Mak­ing the film brought Pfeif­fer to tears, but it had noth­ing to do with cre­at­ing her char­ac­ter. It was all about meet­ing a co- star, Judi Dench. “She is so amaz­ing. I met her in the makeup trailer and just got over­whelmed think­ing, ‘ I’m mak­ing a movie with Judi Dench!’

“She is so warm and beau­ti­ful and has such grace. Talk about a won­der­ful priv­i­lege!”

Josh Gad — who plays the side­kick to gang­ster and mur­der vic­tim Ed­ward Ratchett ( Johnny Depp) — had a much more hu­mor­ous first meet­ing with Dame Judi. When he learned she was in the makeup trailer on one of the first days of film­ing, Gad im­me­di­ately made a bee­line for it, de­spite warn­ings from a pro­duc­tion staffer to leave her alone.

Ap­proach­ing Dench from be­hind, he caught her eye in the mir­ror and quipped, “Dame Judi Dench? … More like damn Judi Dench!”

Not sur­pris­ingly, she and Gad im­me­di­ately clicked and be­came great pals while mak­ing the film.

Two of the other “Mur­der” stars had com­ments of in­ter­est to Chicagoans:

◆ “Be­ing from Ap­ple­ton [ Wis­con­sin], Chicago was our big city in my mind while I was grow­ing up,” said Willem Dafoe ( who por­trays Ger­hard Hard­man). “We went there a lot. … It ob­vi­ously wasn’t any­thing as el­e­gant as the Ori­ent Ex­press, but I do re­mem­ber tak­ing a train trip to New York from Chicago when I was a kid — never re­al­iz­ing that not many years after­ward, I’d be liv­ing and work­ing as an ac­tor in New York. Yet, it all started with that de­par­ture from Union Sta­tion in Chicago.”

◆ As for Les­lie Odom Jr. ( Dr. Ar­buth­not), the ac­tor- singer loved “per­form­ing at Ravinia this past sum­mer, and know­ing that I’m com­ing back to Chicago very soon. I’ll be there [ at the Chicago The­atre on Dec. 11] as part of [ former Vice Pres­i­dent] Joe Bi­den’s book tour. I’m go­ing to do a Q& A with him in Chicago!”

Chicago’s WWII ef­fort

In honor of Vet­er­ans Day, WTTW- Chan­nel 11 will broad­cast the pre­miere of “A City at War: Chicago,” a new hour­long doc­u­men­tary fo­cus­ing on the city’s war ef­fort dur­ing World War II — as well as the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly. The pro­gram will pre­miere at 8 p. m. Thurs­day and re­peat Sun­day at 2: 30 p. m.

The doc­u­men­tary show­cases how the Chicago area was turned into an im­por­tant pro­duc­tion cen­ter — mo­bi­liz­ing the en­tire pop­u­lace into the ef­fort.

“A City at War: Chicago,” cre­ated by former WTTW pro­duc­ers John Davies and Brian Kal­lies, is nar­rated by Bill Kur­tis and uti­lizes per­sonal rem­i­nis­cences, de­clas­si­fied and vin­tage pro­pa­ganda films and pe­riod posters and im­ages.

“Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press” stars Derek Ja­cobi ( from left), Judi Dench, Ken­neth Branagh and Michelle Pfeif­fer at­tend the film’s world pre­miere in Lon­don on Nov. 2.

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