Early Chicago visit ‘a great memory’ for ‘Murder’ star Kenneth Branagh

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“Murder on the Orient Express” stars Derek Jacobi (from left), Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh and Michelle Pfeiffer attend the film’s world premiere in London on Nov. 2, 2017. | Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

LONDON — Even after almost three decades, at the mere mention of Chicago, Kenneth Branagh immediately flashes back to his first visit to the city in 1990 — with Emma Thompson, then his wife — to participate in the Chicago International Theatre Festival created by Jane Sahlins.

“It is such a great memory,” said the actor and filmmaker, sitting down to chat about directing and starring as uber-detective Hercule Poirot in the new film based on Agatha Christie’s legendary novel “Murder on the Orient Express” (opening Friday). “That first visit exposed us to such a great group of dedicated people, with such a passionate commitment to the arts in various forms.

“Chicago has such a fierce civic pride. Your town is full of makers. They are makers of things, makers of stuff, yes, but also people who are so proud of the city’s artistic accomplishments.

“On top of all that, I’ve never met a Chicagoan who doesn’t have a twinkle in their eye about that often ferocious climate that blows in off that magnificent lake!”

Though the 1974 film of “Murder on the Orient Express” has held up quite well, Branagh explained, “I felt it was the right time to seize the opportunity. When I reread the novel, I saw in my mind this cinematic embracing of the Golden Age of Travel — a chance to put these people on the train and take them from Istanbul onward. I wanted to show the mystery slowly unfolding, then move to this darker psychological drama, but underneath it all realized there was a story that was more available to us in 2017 than it was so many years ago — both in the original novel and the original film.”

Among the high-profile cast members in “Murder” is Michelle Pfeiffer, who portrays the American socialite Mrs. Caroline Hubbard. “She was very much of an extrovert, which I am not! But sometimes, as an actor, it’s good to play something that really is actually a fear of yours. You have to do it,” Pfeiffer said. “For example, when I did ‘What Lies Beneath,’ I had to overcome the fact I’m deathly afraid of the water — and I had to go underwater in that movie. It’s all about confronting your fears and overcoming them. ”

The process of starring in “Orient Express” brought Pfeiffer to tears, but it had nothing to do with creating her character. It was all about meeting a co-star, Judi Dench. “She is so amazing. I met her in the makeup trailer and just got overwhelmed thinking, ‘I’m making a movie with Judi Dench!’

“She is so warm and beautiful and has such grace. Talk about a wonderful privilege!”

Josh Gad — who plays the sidekick to gangster and murder victim Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) — had a much more humorous first meeting with Dame Judi. When he learned she was in the makeup trailer on one of the first days of filming, Gad immediately made a beeline for it, despite warnings from a production staffer to leave her alone.

Approaching Dench from behind, he caught her eye in the mirror and quipped, “Dame Judi Dench? … More like DAMN Judi Dench!”

Not surprisingly, she and Gad immediately clicked and became great pals while making the film.

Two of the other “Murder” stars had comments of interest to Chicagoans:

• “Being from Appleton [Wisconsin], Chicago was our big city in my mind while I was growing up,” said Willem Dafoe (who portrays Gerhard Hardman). “We went there a lot. … It obviously wasn’t anything as elegant as the Orient Express, but I do remember taking a train trip to New York from Chicago when I was a kid — never realizing that not many years afterward, I’d be living and working as an actor in New York. Yet, it all started with that departure from Union Station in Chicago.”

• As for Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot), the actor-singer loved “performing at Ravinia this past summer, and knowing that I’m coming back to Chicago very soon. I’ll be there [at the Chicago Theatre on Dec. 11] as part of [former vice president] Joe Biden’s book tour. I’m going to do a Q&A with him in Chicago!”

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