Murder on the Orient Express
In the most timeless of whodunits, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS follows renowned detective Hercule Poirot (KENNETH BRANAGH) as he attempts to solve what would become one of the most infamous crimes in history.
After a shocking murder of a wealthy businessman on the lavish European train barreling its way west in the dead of winter, private detective Poirot must use every tool of his trade to uncover which of the train’s eclectic passengers is the killer, before he or she strikes again.
Published in 1934, Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder on the Orient Express is considered one of the most ingenious stories ever devised. More than 80 years after its publishing, Christie’s novel remains beloved by new generations of readers. Kenneth Branagh’s stunning retelling of the beloved mystery with its acclaimed ensemble and breathtaking visuals invites audiences to take the most suspenseful train ride of their lives.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
EVERYONE IS A SUSPECT
Agatha Christie’s classic mystery, with its richly drawn characters confined to a luxurious passenger train, taut scenes and crisp dialogue, has fixated audiences since the novel’s debut in 1934. The Times of London wrote upon its publishing, “The little grey cells solve once more the seemingly insoluble. Mrs. Christie makes an improbable tale very real, and keeps her readers enthralled and guessing to the end.”
Readers have been captivated with the mystery, the crime, the story, and the character of Hercule Poirot for generations. The allure of the Orient Express was magnified by Christie’s work, and travelers continue to flock to discover the illustrious compartments and service to this day. Room 411 in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, where Christie allegedly wrote the novel, also remains a popular destination site. There are societies and clubs the world over dedicated to rediscovering Christie’s mysteries, particularly those featuring Hercule Poirot.
Why the endless fascination?
“Agatha Christie is expert at bringing depth (with economy) to the observation of characters, making them distinct and colorful, but also believable. I think she enjoys the literary dazzle of that, but in the Orient Express, you also have glamour. You have snow. You have elegance and the golden age of romance in travel. And, of course, you have a murder,” says Kenneth Branagh. This film introduces another generation of moviegoers to an enthralling new interpretation of one of the most beloved mysteries of all time. A “who’s who” of celebrated actors and an acclaimed production team up for the journey.
With everything Agatha Christie, it all starts with the story. But to make a film, of course, you then need to get the rights to that story – and for producers Mark Gordon and Simon Kinberg, that proved to be a near-five-year-long journey. Initially, both men had enquired about the rights separately but soon decided that teaming up would be the best approach.
Gordon and Kinberg subsequently partnered with Ridley Scott. Now it was time to commission a script…
As a huge admirer of Agatha Christie and long-time collaborator with producer Ridley Scott, screenwriter Michael Green (LOGAN, BLADE RUNNER: 2049) was thrilled when he was asked to bring this fabulous story to the screen. Producer Scott, a Christie fan himself, and an admirer of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, had leapt at the chance to re-explore the book, seeing it a wonderful opportunity to present the author’s work to a modern-day audience. Green agrees.
“They’re incredible stories with characters that you want to see more and more of,” says Green. “And if you’re lucky enough to catch an Agatha Christie book or play at the right age, it’s going to stay with you and remain charming in your memory.”
But even as a Christie fan, one story stands out for Green: “I’m very fortunate that my favorite Agatha Christie is, hands down, Murder on the Orient Express. It not only features Poirot, my favorite character of hers, but it’s a story that has a surprising ending, along with the fascinating people you meet along the way. The setting is grand and everything about it makes it stand apart in my memory as the special one.”
Green met with the Christie estate to discuss the project: “We all had the same goal: we wanted to bring it into the modern world without changing what’s essential to it, without altering its soul, so that a contemporary audience can experience it, believe it and be thrilled by it.”
For Green, his interpretation of the classic murder mystery came together when Kenneth Branagh (HENRY V, CINDERELLA) came on board: “Probably the most exciting day in the development process was finding out that Ken was interested in directing and starring in it,” says Green. “I have immense respect and appreciation for him, both as an actor and a director. Suddenly, this hypothetical script I had written became a film – one I could now imagine through Ken’s lens and the caliber of the people he would attract to the project.”
Great-grandson of Agatha Christie and Chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd, James Prichard, agrees with Green: “I have watched Ken’s films since I was very young – I watched his Henry V as part of my university degree, and to have him on this film, an incredibly talented director and one of the best actors of his generation, to have someone of that quality want to play Poirot gives me an enormous sense of pride.”
Known for his love of classics, Kenneth Branagh was a perfect fit from the start. “Fox knew that I loved thrillers, and so they came to me with this most classic of thriller mysteries,” recalls the actor/director. “I think maybe they even knew I liked trains – I certainly liked this title, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. It’s always had a special sort of ring to it and it takes you to the golden age of travel. It’s also a character piece set in a very confined space, under tremendous tension. There are very interesting disparate characters interacting about the most profound and dangerous of subjects and themes. I read the script by Michael Green, and I was really taken by it.”
With no shortage of interpretations of Christie’s work, Branagh’s desire to revisit these characters started with the depth and compassion Green mined, as well as the exploration of the darker idea of the motivation for revenge.
“Michael Green clearly loved the material, and he loved the characters. He wasn’t trying to get easy laughs, and he wasn’t poking fun at the characters – particularly Hercule Poirot,” said Branagh. “There was a compassion in the screenplay, and one of the things that surprised and thrilled me about the film is that it’s much more an emotional experience than people might imagine. This goes deeper because, it explores grief, and loss, and revenge, with sophistication and soul.”
Then there is the setting. For modern audiences, travel has become a hassle, a means to an end destination. The setting of Orient Express harkens back to the care and precision given to travel, and the true luxury of the experience. Green’s script captured the allure of the time and the meticulous details of the famous train.
“Michael relishes in the golden age of travel and the attention to detail in the Orient Express, the train, as well as other people’s appreciation of it,” says Branagh. “We both experienced that sort of childlike sense of excitement about being able to cross Europe in this wheeled palace, with its confined spaces that also make you think certain things could go bump in the night. So, his feeling for the piece, both for the emotional depths and colors in it, the sense of fun and excitement, where it exists, and the respect for the material, along with certainly the desire to entertain – all of that came winging off the page. His screenplay felt very rich to me.”
Not only was Branagh excited at the prospect of working with Green’s script, he was also very keen to collaborate with the Agatha Christie Estate: “Mathew Prichard [Christie’s grandson] and James Prichard [Christie’s great-grandson] were two of the first people I met when I came on board for the project, and this very particular connection was very important to me. Mathew grew up with Agatha Christie, and James is not only a family member, but a very smart, creative influence in the way that estate is run, and a very good collaborator. We all feel that Agatha Christie work is in a very potent moment of evolution. She has already made this massive contribution to the world’s entertainment yet she is being rediscovered as someone who has touched on areas of human experience that have relevance for today. She continues to entertain, and make us think in a different way.”
On the relevance of the story, James Prichard explains: “To me, Murder on the Orient Express is one of the cleverest stories that Agatha Christie wrote. There is an astonishing exploration of justice, and justice was very important to my great-grandmother, and there are elements to this story that I think are unique, and that go to the core of what makes this story so powerful. The back-story is incredibly moving and challenging, and the way Poirot deals with the whole episode is extraordinary.”
Mathew Prichard, adds: “It’s a mixture of all sorts of things. The glamour, the originality of the story and the outrageousness of the solution. It was a brilliantly written book in the 1930’s and I think it’s hard to remember nowadays, how original it must have seemed then. My grandmother traveled in that direction, and she stopped off in Istanbul on her way to Syria and Iraq, so for Christie lovers, it has a sense of genuine authenticity of where she used to go herself.”
For Green, it was the first time in his career where he would develop a script with someone who is both the director and the lead actor. “Together, we would be thinking not only of how it would be shot, but how he would want to play individual moments. We could look at a line and discuss the tone and the camera angles, but also, I could hear him read it directly to me and I would be able to shape the lines instantly for him. It was a very interesting and efficient process and takes out a lot of the guesswork when the director is the one who knows precisely how the lead actor is going to be speaking the words.”
Branagh explains why it was a natural fit for him to direct and play Poirot: “It felt that there was a way in which those two things were very congruent with one person doing the same job. Because, crucially, I think, Hercule Poirot is a director. He directs the characters, and like a director, Poirot intuitively tries to listen to the way in which he can be specific and bespoke about how to create the mood that’s required for each interrogation.”
As a director, the concentration that Branagh would have on all of these amazing actors, and the detail of performance was exactly what Poirot had to have, as he looked for the tell-tale signs of the culprit, which, as Christie points out, is often “Poirot observing just the flicker in an eye.”
“Poirot’s a master of observing body language,” said Branagh. “It’s not someone with an object. It’s what somebody does with an object. It’s the way they eat, or what they leave, or what they don’t say, or what constitutes humor. And from his own alleged separate perspective, he often uses this notion that because he’s a Belgian, he’s separate, and he plays up to a sense that other people have of him as being different, some might say, eccentric, because when they’re saying that, they’re underestimating him.”
Oscar-nominated actor Johnny Depp was intrigued by how the story felt relevant and fresh. “It’s got everything you might expect from Agatha Christie,” said Depp. “Death, murder, interesting characters, an unusual, often glamorous situation – all of those elements, inside a wonderful location and journey, are all there. But I was really impressed to return to it and see how it hadn’t dated, and, in fact, it had reinvented itself, I think, which is a sign of very good storytelling.”
Oscar-nominated actor Willem Dafoe was drawn to the script for its character-driven narrative: “For this story, it’s the tone that’s so important, and the role of Poirot is interesting and beautifully written, as are the balance of the characters. It has a nice edge and it’s fun, but it also has a moral dilemma at its center.”
“All of the major plot points are there,” says Leslie Odom, Jr., “but it’s really told for a modern audience who has seen everything and heard everything. How do you excite these kids? How do you make them lean forward in their seats when they’ve seen so much? I think Ken and Michael have done a really great job with that aspect of the script.”
The other big draw was the opportunity to work with the esteemed Branagh. “What’s so great about Ken is he comes to it with the perspective of being one of us,” said Gad. “He’s an actor, first and foremost, and so he understands the questions we ask ourselves, the insecurities we may have, and he is able to speak to those questions with the authority of somebody who has been in our shoes.”
Dafoe sees many similarities between Branagh’s work as a director and his role as Poirot. He explains: “The role of the director is paralleled by the role that Ken is playing in the story, because as the director he’s the circus master who sets the scene and tells everybody what they need to know going forward in the story. A similar thing happens in the story itself, as Poirot really takes hold of the situation and directs the events.”
A longtime collaborator with Branagh, Derek Jacobi, thinks what makes Ken a very good director is that he’s an actor first. “The number of balls he keeps in the air is just mind blowing, but I’ve always admired his ability to perform and then cut himself off and look at himself objectively… I find that extraordinary, says Jacobi.” “It’s quite amazing to see what he does because his eye and his mind are everywhere at once.”
Oscar-winning actress Penélope Cruz was also impressed with Branagh’s ability to seamlessly move between directing and playing Poirot. “What he’s doing with the performances and the camera is really powerful and I feel like he’s making a film that will get into our brains in a way that is going to trap us, like some strange magic,” said Cruz.” “It’s like this amazing dance that seems so easy for him, which is very rare and all of us are shocked and blown away by how he can be so present. We are such a big cast and he has so much responsibility.”
Adds Tom Bateman: “Branagh is an incredible company leader, he’s a wonderful director, but as an actor, it feels to me is where his energy is and his blood is. He wants to be there and you can feel it when you’re acting in a scene with him. He gets so excited to be there which is very comforting, and you almost don’t see him directing because he does it so effortlessly.”
THE DETECTIVE (Hercule Poirot – Kenneth Branagh)
The beloved fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous characters, appearing in 33 novels and over 50 short stories, Poirot was key to ensuring the film worked. Agatha Christie Ltd Chairman James Prichard explains: “I first read the script quite a long time ago, and what’s interesting is that things have changed, but the overall tone and flavor of the script have not. From the start, screenwriter Michael Green got that right, particularly Poirot, he really understands Poirot and it’s very clear that he does in the script. There are changes and differences, particularly in his look, from what one might have seen before, but the essence of Poirot is there and that to me is incredibly important.”
Branagh’s preparations to play Poirot were extensive and included reading all of the Poirot novels. He began a year ahead of the shoot with a birthday present of a paperback First Edition – The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Fittings for his bespoke suits started nine months ahead of shooting. The most time-consuming element was the exact thickness and angle of the knot in his tie, and its perfect reproduction every time he wore it. This required three months of experiment with fabrics, starch and a good deal of patience.
He was also measured and fitted for handmade shoes, wearing them in over a period of three months.
The actor also gathered all written descriptions of Poirot’s moustaches by Agatha Christie, using the extensive resources of the Agatha Christie Estate. After which began the nine-month process of research and development for the requisite face furniture that would live up to what Miss Christie described as “the most magnificent moustaches in all England”.
Branagh even revisited the work of famous Belgians including the surrealist Magritte, and Hergé, the author of TinTin. He listened to recordings of 27 different Belgian accents by gentlemen of Poirot’s age speaking in English, and met with a dialect coach three times a week to study and practice Poirot’s accent. These included the occasional Skype sessions in his Garrick Theatre dressing room during his performance as Leontes in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
With Branagh committed to play Poirot, he and Green discussed how to accurately hone the multi-faceted character. As Green explains: “We wanted to work out how to make him quirky and strange and odd and loveable in all those ways that he is, that make him so memorable and beloved. But also, how to make him feel like somebody who could really exist in this world.” He continues: “We wanted to make it thrilling, and to feel genuine unease and tension. Poirot can be seen as a comedic character, but in very serious circumstances, and part of our approach was to show that contrast. Poirot is used to being ahead of the game, in control of the situation, and in this story, he meets a case that is beyond his understanding at that time.”
Green’s affection for Poirot is evident in the script and he explains why: “What I always love about him is that he’s very smart, very funny and very peculiar. If you can weave all those things into his investigation then you have wonderful scenes, as you can make his particularity and peculiarity be what turns his interview with a suspect, so that he can find the piece of information that he needs. He’s also an incredibly fun man to frustrate, because he is so perfect and particular, that when he is off balance, he becomes incredibly interesting. That’s what ignites him and sets him off.”
Hercule Poirot has been described by Agatha Christie in a variety of ways throughout her work. As Kenneth Branagh observes: “She had fun evolving him and not being too strict about rules she may have set. Occasionally, I think she was frustrated by him in that he was her most popular creation, but I think she learned to love him again and again and again. His distinguishing feature is his kindness, and it’s often repeated how kind he is. He is also very fastidious, both about his personal appearance, but particularly about his immense and magnificent moustache. A touching piece of vanity that Christie often reports on, and that Poirot acknowledges. She also is quite wry about suspecting that his hair color may not be entirely natural, and may have been helped out by various unguents. His sharpness of mind and his clear brilliance as a detective is something that she makes no bones about. His ability to see detail, and particularly, to see human psychology in depth, and with nuance, I think she enjoyed. She clearly had that as an individual herself. She makes a lot of snap judgments about people, in her life, in her letters. She herself travelled widely, and she was a very independent-minded person, and very, very observant. So, she gives all of those qualities to Poirot.”
The design of Poirot’s moustache was a key component in finding the character. Branagh says: “It took many months to design the moustache – Carol Hemming [Hair and Make-Up Designer] was behind it, and she came up with a brilliant reference. We began with this line of Agatha Christie’s where she referred to Poirot as having the most magnificent moustaches in England. So “moustaches” was a clue. We know she meant it in the old sense, but Carol’s idea was that there should almost be this double-moustache effect. It had to be, because Christie kept using the words “majestic, immense”. It was almost like a mask. It was Poirot’s superpower. It kept people at a distance. It needed to be in itself, structurally and luxuriously pleasing in appearance, and it needed to make a big impression. It had to, because the story and the characters’ reactions to him in the story and many other stories needed that.”
Following the initial design stage, they started testing the moustache on Branagh. It was a challenging test per Branagh’s recollection: “We kept asking does the mustache do what it needs for the character, every single time? And in a murder mystery with a man like this, the moustache is doing quite a lot of thinking for you, quite a lot of the time. So, we knew it was a tremendously important subject.”
The man must suit the clothes, and the clothes must suit the man. On his costume, Branagh comments: “Poirot would not be a dandy in the sense of extraordinary colors, or a massive number of clothes or a constant change of outfits, but he would be extremely precise, and we knew that the tailoring of all of the suits (there aren’t so many, because he’s travelling) would be precise and crisp, and that was a constant process of readjustment. We spent a lot of time thinking about what he would do with his hands – would he use waistcoat pockets, how much would he use the cane, what height would the cane be. Everywhere there was something that you might expect from the period, like a watch, and a watch chain, it was made very specifically, and everything had a Poirot-ish specificity. The same went for the way he tied his ties, the degree of the knot, just like the moustache, he would be insistent on where they sat, and for it to be the same every single day.”
Much like the character is fascinated by alignment and perfection of symmetry, the creation of Poirot became like a classic timepiece: distinct, clean and with the utmost precision. “We were looking for an immensely precise, cultivated, crisp, clear, clean look, and finding in those cuts, and in those colors, a timeless kind of elegance,” offers Branagh.
Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne’s impeccable eye for this precise look dramatically enhanced Poirot’s presence on screen. “The first discussion was about the moustache, so that started with Ken and Carol Hemming and helps to define the character,” says Byrne. “Then I joined in, with Ken being very keen that Poirot had a military background. We did a lot of research on what that meant, to be a Belgian with a specific military background. We worked towards his vanity being a “vanity of precision” rather than a peacock vanity— we felt that Poirot would have developed a style of suit that worked only for him. He’s not interested in fashion – he has his style, he has his tailor, and that’s who he goes to. He has two suits and an evening suit, which is about right for a man of his class. They’re beautiful, they’re honed down to the precision of what he feels is right, and there’s this absolute symmetry and tidiness, so that when he’s in a fight and his collar gets disarranged or a button comes off, that is deeply distressing and unacceptable to him.”
In bringing Branagh’s version of Poirot up to date, there was room to make him more nimble than previous incarnations. Equally cerebral. But with a touch more brawn and agility. Enter Stunt Coordinator, James O’Donnell: “I spent some time thinking about how we could get Poirot involved in the action without making it stand out too much with an audience,” recalls O’Donnell. Having spoken to Ken, I wanted Poirot to be an Aikido master with a cane, which was someone who was masterful, not only with the way he analyzed and interpreted crime, but even in the way he fought. He wouldn’t go fist to fist, he would be clever, like David vs Goliath, which fitted in well with the character.”
THE GANGSTER (“Edward Ratchett” – Johnny Depp)
While many of the characters in the film are grappling with the lines between good and evil, Ratchett is seemingly the one inherently evil character on the train. “Ratchett is a gangster, a small-time gangster, it seems, who is on the train with his secretary and his butler,” says Kenneth Branagh. “He has money, but he does not have peace of mind.”
Ratchett is disturbed and unsettled, as someone is after him, and he becomes aware of it through a series of provocative notes, threatening messages that are found on the train. He seeks Poirot’s help, and it is not an easy conversation between him and Poirot. In turn, audiences can see Ratchett is not going to have an easy journey on the Orient Express.
“From the second Ratchett enters the story, you can sense his paranoia and his urgency to befriend Poirot and protect himself,” says Depp. “The elegance of the train, the gangster swagger of Ratchett combined with his greasy confidence culminate into an extremely compelling and amusing character to play.”
Branagh describes Depp as bringing: “A wonderful, seedy glamour to this very sharp-minded, clearly dangerous, and clever mobster. Johnny’s performance is dark, it’s dangerous, and it is very funny.”
“In many ways, he’s the antithesis to Poirot, which makes their exchanges so tense,” says Depp. “Ratchett wants the respect of Poirot, but he’s never going to get it.”
You’re the world-famous Hercule Poirot. Avenger of the innocent. Isn’t that what they call you in the papers?
And you are an innocent?
“Johnny Depp oozes charisma and charm and confidence and is the loveliest, sweetest and most fun co-star you could imagine,” offers Josh Gad. “And then he can turn on this character like Ratchett, who’s the complete opposite in every way, and it’s incredible to watch. It’s become an expectation now, that every time Johnny creates a new character, you’re so excited to see what that’s going to look like. Each one has so many layers, physically and vocally— he’s able to identify it so specifically.”
THE ASSISTANT (“Hector MacQueen” – Josh Gad)
Hector MacQueen is Ratchett’s secretary and a very nervous individual. He is well-traveled and scholarly, trained as a lawyer, and fluent in many languages, but is not a happy man, and prone to excess. “He seems to drink and smoke a little more than is good for him, and he seems unsettled,” says Branagh.
The role was a departure for Gad who understood the dynamic between MacQueen and Ratchett. “MacQueen is a complicated guy,” says Gad. “He’s got a story which seems fairly obvious, but then there’s what’s going on behind all that. He is sort of a slave to Ratchett. He is a trembling, insecure secretary to this rather abusive boss who expects a lot of him, and demands even more.”
“Josh has a fantastic naturalism in the part. We know how funny Josh can be, and of course he’s very musical as well,” says Branagh. “Here, he plays something with great simplicity and vulnerability. McQueen is someone who feels, in some way, as though some damage or some wounds have occurred in his life, that, Josh, in the performance, seems to wear very lightly. It makes him very intriguing, and it makes the little trio of Ratchett, Masterman, and McQueen a very tight-knit but also conflicted group. They are an electrifying trio.”
In talking through the character with Branagh, Gad explains how much back story was necessary to truly embody MacQueen. “We went into great detail about who this guy is, what his upbringing was – where does he come from? How has he gotten to this place? The beauty of this film is that you think you know what you know, but you don’t know anything. And MacQueen is just one piece of the puzzle.”
THE BUTLER (“Edward Masterman” – Derek Jacobi)
Masterman is Ratchett’s trusted butler. He appears to be entirely obedient and subservient – very English, and very polite. But, in the hands of Derek Jacobi, he’s played more as an officer from the military with a cockney swagger and a no-nonsense demeanor.
“We understand that Masterman can be very kind and very solicitous,” says Branagh. “And he is very strict about performing his duty, but we also know him to be something of a tough guy himself. He is a man with a beautiful question mark over him.”
Jacobi and Branagh have collaborated many times on theatrical and film productions. When he was asked to play Masterman, Jacobi accepted without hesitation. “He’s an interesting character,” says Jacobi, “he was a batman during the war, and then a valet, and now he’s a valet to a rather unsavory character in Ratchett. Masterman is a bit uptight, but he’s also very ill, probably dying, and also has a degree of revenge somewhere in his psyche.”
“Derek has the ability to play and suggest many layers of dimension in that kind of person,” observes Branagh. “Derek’s an East Ender himself, so it was nice for him to play an English butler, not as a sort of constipated character, but more of a sleeves-rolled-up kind of individual, who could take care of himself and his master, if he needed to.”
At Branagh’s behest, Jacobi played the role with an East London accent. “I quite enjoyed it,” says Jacobi, “as I think I’m sometimes considered a bit posh as an actor, you know: classical and Shakespearean, so it’s very nice to come down to earth occasionally!”
THE WIDOW (Caroline Hubbard – Michelle Pfeiffer)
Michelle Pfeiffer dazzles as Caroline Hubbard— a kind of character that Agatha Christie met numerously on her own travels, and is often quite ruthless about describing.
“Hubbard is a husband-hunter,” offers Pfeiffer. “Or so she says. In some ways she’s a lonely, and rather sweet, and tender, and often funny woman, but she can be very forceful, and to some people a little irritating and a little intense. It was fun to step into her shoes.”
“Michelle charts the sort of inner loneliness that Agatha Christie knew well,” says Branagh. “The challenges of being a woman alone, and travelling in difficult circumstances. Once on the Orient Express, with all of its glamour, in the golden age of travel, it was different. But to travel in the Middle East at that time was a challenging thing. And so, the intrepidness, the pioneer that is Christie is in Caroline Hubbard. And with Michelle Pfeiffer, who is also a tremendous comedienne, there is also a wonderful sense of fun.”
“What you look for in a role is range,” says Pfeiffer. “Where there’s humor and levity and then, where does it turn? You want to build to those moments. And that was one of driving forces for me coming aboard. And the period… the costuming was magical, and so elegant. There is such an appreciation for style and glamour and you really walk away with a sense of that after seeing this film.”
Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne described dressing Hubbard as: “The most fun, and the most challenging, because she’s described as a woman who we hear coming before she enters the room, and she’s too big for the space. That’s quite difficult to pull off on film because it’s about creating a character with a lot of contradictions that don’t all add up in the same direction. She’s got to be credible – extraordinary, but credible. When we first meet her, we’ve got to believe in her and we’ve got to like her and be invested in her.”
THE MISSIONARY (Pilar Estravados – Penélope Cruz)
Pilar Estravados is the name of a character who appears in another Poirot story, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. However it is just her name, and not her character traits that have been “borrowed”!
“In our delightful and delicious attempts to surprise people with the plot, and following consultation with Agatha Christie Limited who are the guardians of her work, we allowed the character of Greta Olson to make an exit, and the character of Pilar Estravados to make an entrance,” said Branagh.
Penélope Cruz plays the impassioned, intense missionary with a zeal to travel the world and do what she can to improve an imperfect world – both spiritually and philosophically. There is both a dedication and a mystery about her:
“At the beginning of the story we don’t know much about Pilar,” acknowledges Cruz. “Just that she seems very religious, because she walks around with her bible and her cross, and she loves talking to people about God and about the reasons why this is so important in her life. But she only shares some of her reasons. She has a scar, and skin that has been damaged from who knows what. The scar represents her biggest trauma, and has made her become a different person. When the trauma happened, she changed her lifestyle in many ways. She’s a very damaged person, and she’s finding relief and a reason to live by helping other people and becoming a missionary.”
Often cited as one of the most beautiful women in the world, in this film, Cruz plays a character who seems bent on hiding her beauty. The look and feel of her character is austere and solemn.
Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne was able to demonstrate Pilar’s character through her costume, as she explains: “She is a woman who wants to deny any femininity, so her clothes have to have a practicality about them. I pulled pieces from a costume house in Canada where they had these amazing robust travelling culottes, and it seemed perfect, as for a woman in the 1930’s to wear trousers was actually quite a fashion statement, but these culottes seemed like a perfect balance of practicality and a non-sexual item of clothing.”
THE PROFESSOR (Gerhard Hardman – Willem Dafoe)
The arrogant Professor Gerhard Hardman annoys his fellow travelers almost immediately. His political views, as they are revealed, seem odious to the passengers, but he is impervious to their feelings. Instead, Gerhard is very particular about where he sleeps, what he eats, what he does.
“Gerhard has a favorite subject to talk about, which is himself,” jokes Branagh. “He’s a provocateur and a dangerous individual, because he’s a catalyst to make other people argue, and sometimes bring them into conflict.”
To play this complicated character, Branagh turned to Oscar-nominated actor, Willem Dafoe. “Willem has a knack for making unlikeable people likeable,” says Branagh. “He’s unafraid to get caught in the trap. There is a joy in watching him squirm out of situations, once he is caught.”
“When we meet Hardman, he’s an Austrian Engineering professor who is on his way to Turin to give a speech on the military uses of Bakelite,” said Dafoe. “He’s a man that expresses opinions that are often offensive to some of the other passengers, because he’s very aware of place and hierarchy and race. Given that it’s 1934, in Europe, he’s quite buttoned-down, quite a serious guy, and someone to watch.”
Poirot seems to catch on that there’s a game that Hardman is playing, but the question is, why is he playing it? One of the earliest suspects, Poirot seems to track every syllable of Hardman’s bluster.
“A key point in the story is that the characters are not who they appear to be, and Hardman is no exception,” said Dafoe.
THE COUNTESS (Countess Andrenyi – Lucy Boynton)
The Countess Andrenyi is married to the Count Andrenyi, and they are both ballet dancers. He is Hungarian, and her background is not exactly clear. What is clear, is that she is subject to some kind of addiction or disturbance that keeps her out of sight of the travelers on board the Orient Express. She makes few appearances, and when she does, they are dramatic and telling.
“Lucy, who is a very beautiful and talented actress, really found a way to inhabit this character’s loneliness and isolation, and intrigued us as to what the reason for that was,” says Branagh. “We see her early on, and we are keen to know more about her, and then we’re denied that access, by the story, and by Agatha Christie, only heightening our desire to know more. It intensifies the shock when we do see her. And Lucy manages to, even inside a very, very dark part of the story, have a kind of a playfulness with the character, and particularly with Poirot, whom she finds absolutely ridiculous.”
“The Count and Countess are both illustrious ballet dancers, although in the last few years the Countess has taken to consuming copious amounts of barbitols, so she’s a slightly woozy ballet dancer,” jokes Boynton. “She has a beautiful relationship with her husband, who is played by Sergei Polunin.”
THE COUNT (“Count Andrenyi” – Sergei Polunin)
The Count Andrenyi is a renowned dancer, and Branagh contends “we were very fortunate” to have cast Sergei Polunin, who is a “magnificent” dancer. Polunin’s capacity for movement of a certain kind, especially through a violence that we see expressed in this character, makes him very distinct.
“Andrenyi is very protective of his wife and he feels every step she takes,” says Polunin. “They are on the verge of splitting up because she has a problem that he must resolve – he just wants things to get better for her. She is a source of light in his life and he doesn’t want her to go into the darkness.”
“You really get a sense of the performer that he is,” says Branagh. “There is a grace and a danger and a deftness about the way that he moves that is very electrifying, very unsettling.”
With his background as a ballet dancer, the role of Andrenyi marked Polunin’s first foray into acting. Polunin enjoyed finding his character with director Branagh and his co-star Lucy Boynton.
Polunin explains: “Kenneth is really precise with what he wants and asks interesting questions to achieve this, such as ‘What did Andrenyi dream?’ ‘What was his past?’ ‘What are his feelings towards his wife?’ It was really interesting for me to develop the character in such a way and it gave us artistic freedom.”
“Sergei brings a fine acting talent, and a really memorable physical presence to the role, along with an intrigue, and a dark and deeply romantic quality,” offers Branagh. “He has this Slavic kind of soulfulness that makes you feel strongly that were you to go anywhere near his woman, there would be trouble afoot. And trouble is afoot because Poirot investigates them.”
Adds Lucy Boynton: “I would never have guessed that this was Sergei’s first acting job, because he’s so beautifully composed, has such great self-possession and all the discipline that comes with being a dancer. He’s a brilliant partner to bounce off and play with.”
Boynton continues, “You can tell that their relationship is very passionate and that they’re very much in love, and rely on each other a lot. Since she has delved into this slightly sleepy state of drug addiction, she has become very dependent on him, and he handles her so gently. It’s sad to see her withdrawing from herself and her world, but there is constant love and reliance that shines through.”
Boynton was keen to immerse herself in preparation for the role: “I started taking ballet lessons, because they’re both ballet dancers – although you don’t see her dance because she’s very woozy and unstable by the time we meet her. I just wanted that foundation in posture and gait, and so I could stand next to Sergei without feeling terribly embarrassed. It was really informative and helped bring her to life and to build her character.”
Boynton’s costumes for the Countess were made up of beautiful vintage fabrics, although it isn’t always clear what type of garment she is wearing and why:
“Because the Countess is also nocturnal, as a result of her drug taking, the outfits that she is dressed in are both day and night – so you can’t quite work out whether she’s in pajamas or a gorgeous satin two piece,” said Boynton. “It’s been a lot of fun putting it all together, and a total dream to wear.”
THE PRINCESS (Princess Natalia Dragomiroff – Judi Dench)
When we meet Princess Dragomiroff, we are introduced to Russian royalty who seems to have a hard time coming on to the Calais coach, because it is somehow feels beneath her standards. In such a role, we find legendary actress, Judi Dench.
“I think Judi Dench had a whale of a time playing Dragomiroff’s imperious, contemptuous, superior arrogance and disgust at most of what went on around her, which was never as she liked it,” offers Branagh. “Never quick enough. Never soon enough. Never hot enough. Never nice enough. And when she wasn’t complaining about what wasn’t right, she was demanding that her dogs be looked after. It allows for a chance to see a character who is very stern, and very forbidding, to also be naughty and funny. Judi Dench is somebody who can play all of those things with great delight. At the same time as formidable as she is funny, she can also be very secret and hidden.”
Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne was honored to create costumes for Judi Dench. “The great thing about Judi is that she has these amazing twinkly eyes, and playing a Princess, she would have a lot of jewelry, that she had managed to get out of Russia during the revolution and had maybe repurposed,” says Byrne. “I took quite a simple line on her clothes so that the jewelry and her eyes could really sparkle.”
THE MAID (Hildegarde Schmidt – Olivia Colman)
One of the many personal dynamics at play in the film is the servant/master relationship. We see it with Ratchett and MacQueen, and as well with Princess Dragomiroff and her maid, Hildegarde. Agatha Christie, and in turn Poirot, is constantly exploring the complexities of these relationships.
Hildegarde Schmidt works for the Princess Dragomiroff as her lady’s maid. She cooks for her, manages her wardrobe, and her sharp personality, which is constantly to complain, it would seem. She has a thick skin, so thick, as Branagh describes “so as to not be broken and squashed by what would probably traduce most other people.”
Hildegarde is polite and clearly intelligent, but she’s quiet. She’s discreet to the point of making you wonder whether she has a lot to hide. Poirot wonders, “Does she know something we don’t?”
“Hildegard has a sort of secret and hidden strength, or, dare I say it, does she have something over the princess?” says Branagh.
To bring the role to life, Branagh turned to acclaimed actress, Olivia Colman. “Still waters run deep,” notes Branagh. “And with Olivia Colman, of course, just in repose, you see this woman listening, and you are intrigued and compelled.”
THE GOVERNESS (Mary Debenham – Daisy Ridley)
Daisy Ridley joins the illustrious ensemble as Mary Debenham, a governess with a penchant for photography.
“Agatha Christie seems to me a very modern woman,” says Branagh. “Everything about her own biography is trailblazing really, and Daisy is a very sharp, intelligent, funny, engaged, interested and curious person. I feel that appetite for interest in other people and things is something she really had. Daisy brings that to it, and bring that energy to Mary Debenham, creating a very forward looking and thinking, and rather new and daring individual.”
Adds Daisy Ridley: “When we first meet Mary she is a free-spirited young woman, who is travelling, seemingly alone, a governess, and she likes taking pictures. She has a wonderful exchange with Poirot at the beginning of the film and it sets off a really nice dynamic between them, that drives through to the end.”
“I think the character of Mary Debenham is maybe closest to a version of Agatha Christie,” suggests Branagh. “She’s about the age that Agatha Christie was when she did one of her world tours, with her first husband – the tour on which she learnt to surf in Hawaii – the first English woman to do so, I’m led to believe. It gave her the sort of pluckiness and the intrepid pioneering spirit that she imbues Mary Debenham with. And Daisy Ridley brought a terrific modernity.”
THE DOCTOR (Dr. Arbuthnot – Leslie Odom, Jr.)
On an ordinary journey, Leslie Odom, Jr.’s turn as Dr. Arbuthnot would be a kind of stalwart or an anchor on the train, as doctors often are. In difficult situations, they are brought in to be the professional voice of reason, and a compassionate and counselling voice. But this journey is far from ordinary.
“Arbuthnot is a former soldier, and he’s a doctor,” said Odom, Jr. “We worked really hard to be as specific about that as we could, about who this black man might have been in order to achieve what he’d achieved, what he would have had to go through to get to where he was and what the circumstances of his life might have been in order to have a last name like Arbuthnot.”
“Leslie Odom, Jr. has this wonderful intimacy and warmth and compassion and plays the character with great tenderness and sensitivity, bringing to Dr. Arbuthnot both what you might expect from a doctor, but, also more of the soul of a romantic,” offers Branagh. “That romantic disposition is something that may be at work, and in the service of one of the other characters on the train, and to that extent, he has to hide it. His ethnicity at that time is something that the story explores, and Arbuthnot has to display the courage to be different in a difficult situation, and defend himself, both literally, and philosophically. He becomes a fascinatingly complex character, who is pivotal to the action.”
The rich backstory offered Odom, Jr. the opportunity to collaborate on his character’s past with Branagh, Hair and Make-up Designer Carol Hemming and Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne.
“Alexandra was great in her research in finding pictures and information that we could glean from a bunch of people’s lives to make Arbuthnot’s life as specific and rich as we possibly could,” says Odom, Jr. “He’s an ex-military man,” adds Byrne, “with English tailoring, but a man who’s not had a lot of money at his disposal, and I think being black and being a doctor he would be very correct, and wouldn’t want to break any rules or step out of line. The most important thing about the English style of dressing of the period was that you did not overstep your class.”
THE MANAGER (Bouc – Tom Bateman)
Tom Bateman had worked with The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company at the Garrick season, where he performed in The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade and was honored to have the chance to play Bouc, who has been reinterpreted from his original incarnation in Christie’s novel, as Bateman explains: “In the book, he is a contemporary of Poirot’s. He’s supposed to be the same age, French, and they are these two older men talking and laughing about the world. We’ve flipped that and given it an interesting dynamic where an older Belgian man and a younger Englishman have this sweet fondness for each other. In my mind, they have a common view of the world – they both see the good and bad in things – and they match each other in that way.”
Branagh also acknowledges the friendship between Poirot and Bouc: “Monsieur Bouc is the director of business on the Orient Express, and when we meet him, he’s very much not involved with business. He’s involved in leisure, with a young lady who he’s spending brief but quality time with in the kitchen of the Kiraz Restaurant, just before they board the Orient Express. However, he is thrilled to find his old friend Poirot, an unlikely pal, but the two of them seem to respect each other. Poirot has great, great affection for him. Bouc is the life and soul of the party. During the course of the film, his innocence is taken away, by suddenly becoming responsible for a train where a terribly violent crime has occurred, and which is stuck in the mountains. It’s a crisis for him, he may lose his job, and if this murderer stays on the loose, he may lose his life.”
“Bouc is a bon vivant, a lover of life and has a wonderful job,” observes Bateman. “He has no qualifications, but he can charm people and make them feel comfortable and excited, until the murder happens on the train and then suddenly we see a different side to him.”
From the lightness and frivolity of the opening scenes of passengers boarding the Orient Express to the graveness of the murder, Bouc goes through a character arc that is heavily influenced by Poirot. He begins to care about things that he perhaps wouldn’t have seemed likely to care about at the beginning of the story.
“Tom Bateman’s performance has a wonderful, easy, light, debonair charm, and then a gravitas that is born out of having to face a very dark situation, and see it for what it’s worth,” says Branagh. “It’s a lovely performance, and the scenes we share are very natural and instinctive.”
THE TRAIN CONDUCTOR (Pierre Michel – Marwan Kenzari)
Pierre Michel of Avignon is the train conductor, and unwittingly, thrown into the role of a suspect, even though he feels fooled at having been on duty all of the night in which the murder could have taken place, and in which he should surely have seen it.
“Pierre Michel carries heartbreak and pain, as his mother, and not long before, his sister, have passed away. He is a character with a great sort of sadness, trying to do a job under pressure,” says Dutch actor, Marwan Kenzari.
“Marwan brought that sort of tenderness to bear, and could be sensitive without feeling weak,” said Branagh. “He also gave the impression of having great pride in his job as a conductor of the Orient Express, and therefore, tremendous professional shock and horror at being potentially accused of being involved in a crime.”
Adds Kenzari: “Pierre Michel is the conductor on the train who takes care of the first-class customers on the Calais coach, where much of the film takes place. He has been part of the company for quite a while and takes his job seriously. In my imagination, I would see him spend most of his time at work. He’s an important piece of this chain of extraordinary events, because he has access to all of the compartments and that makes him a valuable commodity.
THE RED HERRING (Biniamino Marquez – Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)
Biniamino Marquez played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is another new character who helps throw the audience off the scent, especially those who may feel they know this story.
Marquez seems to harbor a secret. He isn’t entirely straightforward and that becomes clear early on, quickly making him a target of Poirot’s watchful eye.
“We’ve had a chance to tickle a few things, to just do what Agatha Christie always wanted to do, which was to keep people guessing until the very end,” said Branagh. “And Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a terrific actor, who has a wonderful warmth and kindness. And he delivers a lovely performance, of keeping the audience, and keeping Poirot, constantly guessing as to whether he’s the genuine and compassionate man we think, or whether there may be far more to him than meets the eye