ALL ABOARD FOR THE NEW STAR-STUDDED MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
Fifteen people board a train. Come morning, one will be dead and nearly all the others are suspects. It’s a murder mystery so classic that only one person could have crafted it. More than 80 years after its publication as a detective novel, and more than four decades after its first adaptation as a movie, a new, star-studded version of Agatha Christie’s
Murder on the Orient Express steams onto the big screen Nov. 10. Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and others come aboard to play suspicious characters from all corners of the world.
Of course, everyone—from the wealthy widow to the diplomat, the doctor and
the aristocrat—claims innocence. Leave it to master detective Hercule Poirot, the hero of 33 Christie novels, to sniff out the duplicity and the deception. Though the classic whodunit has been around since 1934, “the story still feels superfresh,” says the new film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the legendary Belgian sleuth.
Branagh, 56, who also directed Thor and Cinderella, stuck to Christie’s original 1930s setting in hopes that audiences will appreciate a time when train travel was considered an exotic experience. “We live in a world that is so manic,” he says. “I wanted to take people to a place where you could see the world go by. There’s something magical about it.” Christie’s novels, such as And Then There
Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution, have been adapted for the screen dozens of times since 1937. Murder on the
Orient Express spawned a previous 1974 film, as well as a 2001 TV movie and a TV episode of the British series Agatha
Christie’s Poirot. TV’s 30 Rock parodied it, and every movie or television show with a suspenseful moment on a train pays it some kind of homage, intentional or not.
Many of the cast members of the new movie were very familiar with Christie and her work. But Josh Gad, 36, who played LeFou in Beauty and the Beast and voiced Olaf in Frozen, admits he wasn’t one of them. “I was not somebody who grew up reading [her], but I’m absolutely obsessed now. Her books are indelible. They’re as romantic and captivating now as they were when they were first released—the very essence of a page-turner.”
To help assemble his dream cast, Branagh approached an old friend who directed him in two plays in the late ’80s. Her friends call her Judi. Others call her Dame Judi or Dame Dench. “Judi was doing a play on London’s West End,” he says. “I went backstage and presented her with a silk handkerchief embroidered with her initials, and put it in a box with her character’s name on it. If you know the story, you’ll understand it. There was a note inside that read, ‘Would you like to play Princess Dragomiroff?’ She said, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’”
With the 82-year-old Oscar winner signed on, many others followed, excited at the prospect of collaborating in an acclaimed ensemble—and, in some cases, reuniting with old friends and former co-stars. Dench and Depp had a particularly memorable experience on the set of 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
“He jumped into a carriage in which I was sitting, bit my ear and took my earring off,” Dench recalls. “And then maybe a year and a half later, suddenly the earring was returned to me.” It’s framed in her kitchen.
FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
On day one in January, the cast was dropped off at the set outside London, where the vibe was akin to the first day of school. As they stood in front of a massive replica of a four-carriage train (plus the locomotive), “some were very, very quiet,” says Branagh.
Ridley, 25, known as Jedi fighter Rey in the new Star Wars films, agrees. “I was so nervous! I thought to myself, I shouldn’t
be here,” says the actress, who had to audition for her role as governess Mary Debenham, the secret girlfriend of another passenger on the train. “I was surrounded by people who have worked for years and years and have proven themselves again and again. I’ve done neither.”
Before the day was over, the ensemble had shot the film’s most intricate scene, in which Poirot interrogates all the passengers. “I thought it was a mistake on the schedule,” says Cruz, who portrays Spanish missionary Pilar Estravados. “He did it on purpose to capture the fear and
insecurity on the first day!”
The close quarters inside the perfectly proportioned train (which ran on a mile of real track inside the soundstage) quickly led to close bonding. Gad—who plays Hector MacQueen, the assistant to Depp’s secretive American businessman, Edward Ratchett—still can’t get over how the enigmatic 54-year-old A-lister star of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and dozens of other movies invited him to hang out in his trailer between takes, where they watched funny YouTube videos.
“We’d sit there and guffaw like 13-year-old boys,” says Gad. “He’s so instantly relatable and charming.”
FUN & GAMES
In the off-time, the stars hung out together, enjoyed after-hours drinks and played the party card game Werewolf. “I brought it with me because I thought it would be a good acting exercise,” Cruz explains. “It’s about keeping secrets, trust and telling lies.” Adds Leslie Odom Jr., the Hamilton Tony winner who portrays the movie’s Dr. Arbuthnot, “We’d play for hours and hours. We were the biggest nerds.”
That playfulness translates onscreen, says the director. “But when the camera rolled, there was intense concentration. It felt like working with the Harlem Globetrotters. Nobody wanted to drop the ball.”
Branagh is eager to introduce his cast and his old-fashioned thriller to a new audience. He filmed it with old-school widescreen cameras because “I wanted to make a movie that people see on a big screen. You’ll get to see and hear the train. There’s an excitement to that.”
Ridley says Murder on the Orient Express is a fresh alternative to special-effects extravaganzas—including her next movie, Star
Wars: The Last Jedi, which opens on Dec. 15—“a nice escape, a slower story that unfolds in a place that people can’t escape from. Just watch people on a train who have potentially done something bad and watch someone try to figure it out.” Indeed, there’s a reason why an 83-year-old mystery endures. “When you think you know the answer, it completely turns in an unexpected direction,” Cruz says. “There are so many layers that an 18-year-old and an 80-year-old can connect with it. This is a story that will never get old.”
From left: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Tom Bateman, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Lucy Boynton, Leslie Odom Jr. and Penélope Cruz