A ‘ GREAT’ CITY MEMORY
‘ Murder’ star Branagh recalls ’ 90 Chicago trip
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.