He may have been one of the stars of Friday’s Olympic Opening ceremony, but that’s not the only regal highlight Kenneth Branagh’s recently had – having been knighted in the Queen’s 2012 Birthday Honours list last month.
“The response has been overwhelming from people I haven’t seen for a trillion years: old school friends, people from all over the world. I’ve been touched,” says the Belfast-born actor.
Branagh, 51, turned down a CBE in 1994, but there was no such hesitation over the knighthood. In fact, he said his heart was “fit to burst” when he first heard.
His recent work before Danny Boyle’s incredible piece, however, has been somewhat bleak. He has been playing troubled detective Wallander (based on the books by Swedish author Henning Mankell); a man of few words but many emotions, who Branagh brings to life with a stripped-back performance that has earned him great praise.
“There’s nothing superficial about him,” he says. “He doesn’t really do banter, there’s no small talk. Many might say it’s sheerly miserable, but there’s a seriousness and preoccupation about him.”
In contrast to his bombastic Henry V (Branagh kicked off his film career in 1989 with Henry V, which he directed, starred in and received Oscar nominations for), or his clownish Benedick in Much Ado, Wallander is aloof. And, despite living and breathing the character on and off since 2008, Branagh admits that even he was taken aback by the latest series, which opened with a 90-minute film in which Wallander investigates a crime very close to home.
“When I read it I thought it was the bleakest thing ever,” he recalls. “I remember standing on the side of the road during filming and my producer said, ‘Can we really put this out on a Sunday night?’ And yet, there’s something so compelling about it.”
Wallander faced several personal challenges in the episode. Not only was one of the crimes a bit too close for comfort, but he found the semblance of happiness he allowed himself (he moved to a country house with his new partner, her son and a dog) threatened by his all-consuming approach to solving crime.
“What’s touching about it is he’s embracing the chance for a relationship, but the old dog can’t be taught new tricks,” explains Branagh.
It’s something that he shares with fellow Scandinavian detective Sarah Lund from The Killing, another character who Branagh says he finds fascinating.
“I loved the second series very much,” he nods. “Who knew Scandi crime would turn out to be a genre? “People seem to like battered, thinking, feeling people coming up against crime and everything that it embodies.”
He admits to getting caught up in a box set like the rest of us. “You suddenly watch three in a night, then four, then think, ‘Blimey, it’s midnight!’ But having seen The Killing and done this, personally I’d be happy watching a box set of Carry On films next.”
He is hoping to make three more Wallander films before they “put him to bed”, but first he’s planning on getting back into the director’s chair.
A project based on another Mankell book, starring Jack Nicholson and Dame Judi Dench, has been sidelined because of scheduling conflicts, as has a film adaptation of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (“so hard to explain in America”).
More promising is a Tom Clancy adaptation, featuring famous character Jack Ryan.
“Yes, I should be directing that,” says Branagh. “It’s a prequel to how you might have seen the character as played by Ben Affleck and Alec Baldwin. It takes him from Wall Street where he’s working covertly and throws him into a global adventure that puts lots of scary things at stake.”
Whatever happens, Branagh doesn’t want anyone to start calling him ‘Sir’.
“No!” he exclaims. “I want to be called Kenneth.”
Wallander series 3 is available on DVD, iTunes and streaming services now