Murder on the Orient Express – the big interview

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There’s less than a month to go before the new remake of Murder on the Orient Express appears in cinemas, and we’re getting excited. We know Crime Fiction Lover readers are too, because you keep telling us. As a consequence, we’ve been pestering the film’s PR team for more details about the picture and finally our persistence has paid off. We’ve landed an enormous Q&A interview with the cast of the movie – including director and Poirot actor Kenneth Branagh – and some new stills for you to ogle until the launch day on 3 November.

We’ve already posted a feature about the film and the book it’s based on, but here goes, as the cast talk about how they made the movie.

Could we start with you each telling us about the characters you play?
KENNETH BRANAGH: I’m Hercule Poirot, and as he says anyway, as he thinks, perhaps the world’s greatest detective, but a Belgian who is on the journey from Istanbul on the Orient Express when he meets amongst others…
LUCY BOYNTON: The Countess Andrenyi who is travelling with her husband the Count, and is an ex-ballerina who we realise is slightly nocturnal.
OLVIA COLMAN: And Hildegarde Schmidt is on the train who is maid to…
JUDY DENCH: Princess Dragomiroff and we have two very, very nice dogs.
PENELOPE CRUZ: So I’m Pilar Estravados who is a missionary, who used to be a nurse, worked with little babies, little kids, and is now a missionary.
WILLEM DAFOE: Gerhard Hardman who is a professor of engineering and he’s heading to Turin to give a lecture on the military uses of Bakelite.
JOSH GAD: Hector MacQueen, Johnny Depp’s bitch (laughs).
MANUEL GARCIA-RULFO: Biniamino Marquez who is a car salesman immigrant from Cuba.
DEREK JACOBI: I’m Edward Masterman, Johnny Depp’s butler.
MARWAN KENZARI: I play Pierre Michel and he’s the first class conductor on the train.
SERGEI POLUNIN: I’m Count Andrenyi, I’m a famous dancer in the movie, and I’m husband of Countess Andrenyi.
DAISY RIDLEY: I play Mary Debenham who is a governess travelling from Baghdad, originally, to England.
KENNETH BRANAGH: And Johnny Depp plays Samuel Edward Ratchett who is potentially an unsavoury American businessman who’s travelling on the train. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Mrs Hubbard who is a widow, possibly on the husband hunt as she puts it, on her journey on the train through Europe. Tom Bateman who plays Bouc who is the director of the train and becomes a rather brilliant assistant and in fact partner for Poirot as the investigation continues.

It’s often been said that being a director is like having your own train set to play with and in this case, you really did. The Orient Express is very much a character in the film isn’t it?
KENNETH BRANAGH: Yes because it can be exciting, glamorous, romantic, lethal – it travels quickly – and it is marooned and is in a dangerous place here as well so it becomes a claustrophobic confined environment in which people can be tested, nerves can be frayed, and drama and conflict which is the stuff of good story telling comes out. So it became a very flexible environment both the inside and the outside.

And you actually built a real train at Longcross Studios?
KENNETH BRANAGH: We did, and it was a train that moved, it left our station. We had Istanbul station at Longcross and we had Braut station in the middle of the Dinaric Alps as well, and all of these people travelled, were passengers on the train that travelled down the leafy lanes of Surrey pretending to be the former Yugoslavia. But it was through the magic of cinema and a great deal of actual rail track that we were able to do it. And once you did that it transported you, and in fact quite a lot of us got motion sickness just through being on the train in Surrey.

When you’re limited to such a small environment how does that make its way into your character?
JOSH GAD: It was surreal, I actually just had an opportunity to go on the real Orient Express which was – some of you were there – pretty amazing. The detail that the production team brought to this production is unreal. I mean it is exquisite, it’s so spot on. For us, I think that intimacy, it really lends itself to Ken’s vision. Which is, everybody’s got a secret, everybody’s got their story, right, and everybody is… what they appear to be, but there’s more to them. And when you’re confined in a space like that, it does something to you. It creates this sense of unease, even if you have nothing to hide, there’s a sense of who’s responsible, which one of us is the killer, and that sense of mystery, that sense of, you know, are we on a train with a murderer? It gives you that sensation, but more than that, I don’t know if you’ve spoken about this, but the actual backgrounds that you shot, all of us felt like we were on a train because the images were rolling by us. They have like hours and hours of footage of actual mountains, and the train is moving, so it really felt like we were there.
KENNETH BRANAGH: It was curious that on the first day that we used our gimbled train sets, and our LED screens that had footage that we’d gone to great trouble to shoot for the various environments, the lowlands and then the Alps et cetera. After a day people really did feel quite sick. I remember there was one moment when there was a little break, and the screens were still running, and I went down to one end of the train just to look at the scenery passing like you would on a real train, it was funny to do that but I wasn’t the only one. So there was an immersive thing immediately, we forgot where we were, like we hoped to do with the audience. People were transported.
OLVIA COLMAN: Yes having secrets if you’re shut in your own room, that’s fine, but being confined with everybody. You know when you’re at school and someone said, “Who put the whoopee cushion under my chair?” And everybody goes red, and it could only have been one or two people, but you all feel guilty and go red, I am likening the experience to that.
JUDI DENCH: As Kenneth said, what was extraordinary was that we were all together, it’s not like a film you do when you’re all in different bits. I remember once being in a film and going to the premiere and saying to an actor friend, “Hello, hello! What are you doing here?” “I’m in it,” he says. But in this case, we were all there all the time, as Ken said. And with all this (footage) going by, I wasn’t even aware that they were big screens, I think that I thought that we were there, it was so believable! If the train’s moving like that all the time, and I’m trying to control Olivia Colman and two dogs, it was very, very believable. So a lot of our job was done because, you know, the surroundings are done for you. Lucky us, lucky us.

Traveling together – Olivia Colman and Dame Judy Dench.

We need to talk about Poirot’s moustache. It is the best moustache ever…
KENNETH BRANAGH: Well, you’re very kind. Agatha Christie describes it in the books as immense and so that’s what we decided to do. The moustache is one and the same time; it’s a protection and it’s a provocation. He can hide behind it, but also when people ridicule it, or mock it, or sneer at it, or dismiss him, they underestimate him and therefore his job as a detective becomes simpler. And in fact part of Poirot’s style is an unashamed delight in that, in that piece of his own personal vanity. But it turns out, along with his accent, and his funny little ways, his little originalities, to be something – that as he says – puts people off guard. They dismiss him, and then he can analyse their truth that much more swiftly.

It’s a very dark story at its heart, is that something you wanted to bring to the film?
KENNETH BRANAGH: It is very much, and as I say, there’s the mystery, but then there’s rage and there’s loss, and there’s grief underneath it all and everybody has a story. Derek did want you to talk about it at all, the sort of underneath of it for Masterman.
DEREK JACOBI: Yes I can only echo was Judy said. The great thing about it for me was that we were all together, every day, for most of the time. And we all established relationships with each other, not only as characters but also as actors, as a company. It had a wonderful company feel about it, and we had a lot of fun. One of the things about working with Ken on a film is that you get to laugh a lot, and the great thing about Ken is that the atmosphere he creates on a set is one of an unstressed atmosphere. An atmosphere where you are free to be yourself, to indulge yourself, to have fun – but what is important, mainly, is the work. And Ken can turn on a sixpence, and he asks his fellow actors to also turn on a sixpence. You don’t have to face the wall for half an hour getting into character, you can be joking, chatting, being perfectly normal, but because you are so sure of who you are and the situation you are in, when the camera rolls you are there. It’s very true of Ken himself, he has this extraordinary ability to… When you think he was playing the leading role, he was directing it, he was doing everything. Yet the moment the camera was ready he was Poirot, he wasn’t Ken, but for the rest of times he was Ken, I was me, and I think none of us were deep into character studies and being characterful all the time. And that is one of the things about acting, it is called craft, it is called skill, it is called art, it’s also tricks. And you have to have a full portmanteau of all those things, and it is a combination of all those things, so not to get too serious about it I think what Ken gives on a film set, the atmosphere he creates, and the ability to function artistically, emotionally, is one of his greatest gifts.

A question for Ken, did you watch Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express before shooting your film?
KENNETH BRANAGH: I did not look at it and that was conscious. Our goal was to try and find a new approach, that’s why I think classic stories are worth retelling, you know, it’s like you hear a great piece of music across all of your life and I personally enjoy hearing different versions of it. So I wanted us to be settled on our own version. Did you in fact watch it Penelope?
PENELOPE CRUZ: Of course. I had seen it before when I was a teenager but I didn’t remember anything. But I saw it like this, with one eye open and one eye closed, because I didn’t want to… I was happy that you said that, because I was playing this character that Ingrid Bergmann played so well, and there was no way that I could approach it, you know, trying to do what she did. And it was very clear for us that you wanted, that you were doing something new, all the respect to the other film but it was something new and very modern. So I kind of watched it with a distance, but yeah I had to, because it was so long ago, I was like 13, 14 the first time I watched it.

Penelope Cruz as the missionary Pilar Estravados.

Who in the cast would you want to bunk with on the Orient Express?
KENNETH BRANAGH: Lucy, would you like to begin by answering that question.
LUCY BOYNTON: Who would I want to share a room with on the Orient Express? Probably I’d have to choose Josh Gad just for the rolling comedy.
JOSH GAD: Not for my good looks.
KENNETH BRANAGH: Olivia, who are you bunking with?
OLVIA COLMAN: Can I bunk with Judy? I’m right next to you so you have to say yes. And Daisy, is that alright, can we have Daisy too?
DAISEY RIDLEY: Yes we can, but I’m going to be with Josh Gad too.
PENELOPE CRUZ: Well I was going to say Judy too, but it’s okay, I’ll go with Daisy because we were sleeping together in the film. Don’t write that the way I said it okay (laughs). I stay where I was, Daisy.
JOSH GAD: Everyone who said me of course. Daisy I would have you in the train so that I can just bug the hell out of you. And Judy, who the first day I met her, do you remember what I said to you, I said Dame Judy Dench, more like damn Judy Dench!
MANUEL GARCIA-RULFO: I’ve got to go with Judy as well.
DEREK JACOBI: Well I think that now he’s a gay icon I’ve got to go with Josh too.
MARWAN KENZARI: Not just because he said it, but Willem.
SERGEI POLUNIN: I’ll go with Johnny Depp..
DAISY RIDLEY: I’ll go with Coly (Coleman) and Petey.

The story is 80 years old, what themes will appeal to modern audiences?
KENNETH BRANAGH: I think we’ve had a chance, with the blessing of James and the Agatha Christie Company, to be inventive, a bit imaginative with how the story goes, we hope, in consultation with them in the spirit of Christie. So I think there are some surprises, so that’s one way to approach it, some different characters. It does ask quite a stark question about whether revenge, or an eye for an eye, is finally a good or satisfying way to avenge even the most terrible of crimes. And again, I stress with the sort of way these actors approached it that you get a chance, not just to consider that intellectually, you feel it, you really feel it. With some of what Derek was saying about the sort of company atmosphere that was engendered meant that there was a sort of trust, even with again what he was talking about, a serious and fun approach to it, meant that the biggest and most pleasing surprise to me is the quite revealing and emotional dimension to it. Which once again just illuminates the fact that Agatha Christie, and then as James kindly said, (screenwriter) Michael Green, found something in the depths of these characters. What they experience by way of loss, all of us kind of understand, it’s illuminating; I think it’s very illuminating. I hope the heart of the piece comes out of the mystery.

Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen with Edward Ratchett.

With such a classic story how do you decide where to make changes and where to make tweaks?
KENNETH BRANAGH: Obviously I’d have to kill you if I told you the detail of all of it. I think you respond sort of from the inside out, one of the things we did early on was wherever we could was try to improvise a bit. We tried to rehearse a bit. We tried to find nuggets of character information that came from what Agatha Christie wrote, what Michael expanded on, but also what our characters were sort of drawn to. What our actors were drawn to. I don’t know if anybody else wants to comment on how they found their particular characters, Willem do you want to say anything? I have a lovely microphone for you.
WILLEM DAFOE: You know everything was there; everything was there for the pretending. When you’re making a world and you’re part of this really strong ensemble it’s all about finding your place. Finding out what the character needs, what you need, and living in that world. Of course, we were given lots of opportunities because we’re hanging out together all the time. As Judy said, it was quite complete so I never felt stressed about finding the character, because we were living together and we were creating the world and very much guided by a witty and sharp screenplay, with a real edge. There was an aspect where it was a lot of fun, and a romp for us, but always in the background was this kind of dark question about revenge, and the morality and the judgement of people’s behaviour, and how they deal with their strategies for living. So yeah, I didn’t stress on this, this was pretty much fun.
KENNETH BRANAGH: Marwan, what did you do to research your character?
MARWAN KENZARI: Absolutely nothing. As Derek has mentioned it before as a young student or actor or whatever you want to call it, you go through phases where you think ‘alright maybe I should approach this project or this character in that way, or maybe it’s more technical.’ And it’s not really necessary to find out immediately what the modern day equivalent of the Orient Express is, or the Orient Express as Josh mentioned goes on now. I think here with this project, it was just a matter of trying to understand exactly what it is that you want to add to the story, and for me the character of Pierre Michel has a very specific and touching element in the whole thing. And that’s basically the thing that I tried to focus on, but nothing that goes too deep, is that weird to say? I think that’s what it was, yeah.

Manuel Garcia-Ruflo, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom, Jr.

We should mention the production designer Jim Clay who has done an incredible job. What kind of challenge was it for him?
KENNETH BRANAGH: He has a great CV, and he knew that we wanted to have a physical landscape in the film that really made the idea of travel exciting. We all know that it can be pretty stressful these days, even though there are miracles of speed and organisation. But there was a kind of attention to detail in the idea of travel, in the golden age of travel. Whether you were on a boat, or a train, or an aeroplane – which we did try to lovingly to convey. It was not about exclusivity, because in a way we want to invite the entire world cinema audience that might want to come and see this film to go on the train ride to feel the quality as it were. To feel the attention to detail, whether it’s the crispness of a piece of linen that’s been beautifully chosen, as a beautiful thing in itself, because they’re fine things, not because they’re better or worse than anything else. But because in themselves they represent a level of craftsmanship, and a level of artistry in some cases, that is very beautiful to appreciate. Given that train journeys are short, the intense flavours with which you experience either the food, or the view, or the flowers, or the way the vegetables are cut, or the carpet, or any of the artwork, is very concentrated and special. And Jim Clay really took that invitation and brought all of that into the sets.

Ken, did you want your cast to read the book? Or did you prefer them to stick to the script?
KENNETH BRANAGH: They were free to do either really, we took inspiration from everywhere. Manuel did you find yourself reading the book, or were you interested to, or did you stick to the screenplay? How was it for you?
MANUEL GARCIA-RULFO: I did come to the book once I knew I was going to be in the film. I remember reading it a long time ago but just for fun. I mostly I listened to the script, to you and the characters, like everybody says I think the train, the sets, were all so amazing, it was easy to get into character. The wardrobes were amazing, with these actors and everything, but yeah I think I listened more to the script, and to you, Kenneth.

And you Sergei and Daisy did you use the book as a reference?
DAISY RIDLEY: I read the book for sure. I read the script first, before I auditioned, and then I went back to the script and I read the book to sort of see anything extra that I might need to know, although it was quite different. But the thing I found for me that was most helpful was at the beginning, at the first session we had with Ken we were talking about questions of moral and the moral compass. I think what was interesting as the filming went on, and there were these incredibly emotional days, that I wasn’t actually expecting from a murder mystery film, if that makes sense, and the questions of morality, to my mind, were shifting as we went on, which was interesting. But that mainly just came from a conversation with Ken about how one would react in a given situation and then how different circumstances are added, how that changes.
SERGEI POLUNIN: And for me, I didn’t really didn’t reference the book because my character was made up. I play a dancer and I am a dancer myself so for me it was just digging into my own life, my own experiences rather than taking from a book.

Sergei Polunin is Count Andrenyi.

And as we’ve seen from the footage, you get some action to do. Was that fun?
SERGEI POLUNIN: Yes that was fun. And that’s where I felt at home because it’s a movement. This was my first movie, so I was really worried when there was an acting scene, but when it was fight scene, I felt at home.

Willem, does your character hint at the darkness to come? We’re in the 30s in Europe.
WILLEM DAFOE: That’s fair; I think you saw it in the clip here. That’s true, and the reference to Bakelite for military use, and also he’s pretty wound tight. If I was watching this movie I would suspect him pretty early.
JOSH GAD: I feel like any movie with you I suspect you really early. You’ve got that, like, sinister thing going.
WILLEM DAFOE: Josh, you know how much work I do to work against this thing, to kind of broaden the idea of what I can possibly do, you just put another nail in the coffin. Thanks.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs Hubbard.

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