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'Thor' director Kenneth Branagh: From 'Hamlet' to hammers

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There were those who wondered whether putting Shakespearean actor-director Kenneth Branagh at the helm of Thor, the latest comic superhero offering from the Marvel universe, might be a bit like pairing peanut butter and caviar. But after Thor‘s No. 1 opening last weekend with $65.7 million in ticket sales — that’s the second-biggest opening of the year, behind Fast Five — this unlikely coupling has certainly paid off. ”It’s a thrill,” says Branagh, understandably cheerful the Monday after Thor bowed to surprisingly positive reviews. (The action flick, starring Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, has also taken in a hefty $176 million overseas.) ”The numbers game can be an exciting thing, but from my point of view, it just means people are going to see the movie.”

The 50-year-old, whose past directorial credits include Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, took the opportunity to sneak into the back of a Los Angeles theater over the weekend to gauge audience reaction. ”I get kind of emotional about it,” he says. ”The fact that the cinema is full of people makes me a little weepy.” (For comparison, his last directorial effort, 2007’s Sleuth, made $46,265 during its opening weekend.) But, Branagh argues, just because he’s more associated with feather quills than mystical hammers doesn’t mean he couldn’t relate to the comic book’s main themes. ”There’s a young prince who is supposed to be king who is suspected by his father of being not up to the job. He does something provocative that ends up in a battle, and he earns his maturity and wisdom and responsibility by paying a price,” he says. ”In fact, you could say that I sort of made a version of Thor with my first picture, Henry V. There was something about the high stakes, heightened language, and people in exotic costumes that I thought I could be comfortable with.” One important difference between Thor and his previous prestige pics? The Marvel movie’s massive budget of $150 million. ”I could avoid the moment I sometimes have on a Shakespeare film when I say ‘It’d be great if this could look like…,’ [and they say] ‘Oh, but we don’t have the money,’ ” Branagh admits. ”Here you can have a rainbow bridge in outer space and not only know they’re going to pay for it, but demand that you put it in.”

Branagh says that while he understands that ”for the next three or four days I may be the go-to guy for epic fantasies,” he hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll continue along this blockbuster path. His only immediate plan is to take a couple of months off in his native U.K. (The Northern Ireland-born star will be on screen again this fall playing Laurence Olivier opposite Michelle Williams‘ Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn.) Surely the gods — or at least the studio suits — are clamoring for Thor sequels? ”Marvel has these great plans and large schemes, so I’m sure they have some sort of plan in mind,” he says. ”I’m happy we haven’t gotten into the details of it because I don’t want to rush past this delicious initial moment and into any other future plans. It’s a rare, rare moment that took a long time,” he notes. ”It was hard work, and [the movie] is actually successful. I’m long enough in the tooth to know to enjoy that — because it doesn’t happen all the time.”

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