One by one, the principle actors of "Thor" will tell you director Kenneth Branagh gave them something to study. "We got lots of Thor comics and Ken gave me a lot of books on female scientists and their experiences," Natalie Portman told CBR News during the press junket at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Following the successful Hall H presentation of footage from the film, Portman, fellow actors Chris Hemsworth, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Tom Hiddleston, director Kenneth Branagh, and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige spoke with reporters about the film.
As for Thor himself, Hemsworth was given Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha." According to the actor, the book is about "a man trying to find his place in life and going through all the temptations." He then related it back to his character. "Thor, in effect, is a human being trying to find his purpose. That's the same thing," the actor explained. Recalling when the director gave him the book, Hemsworth told us, "Ken said, 'Look, this was just a great book that I love. It might give you something for the film, or might just give you something personally.'"
Branagh expounded on his suggestions to the actors. "It's just to make sure that you start off saying, 'it's not going to be the usual thing.' Look for information anywhere…so you can [read books], you can do a TV show, it can be picture, you can be in an art gallery, whatever. Let's make it our own, let's make it special. You find you put your arms around the part that way," he said before revealing that one of the books Portman read was about Rosalind Franklin. "She was the one who didn't get the Nobel Prize; [a] brilliant mid-century British physicist," the director explained. His hope was to inform Portman's performance and make Jane Foster less of a generic superhero girlfriend. "Now, you may see none of that in Jane Foster, but [Natalie] read this book and she had a couple of great ideas that might be half a line in the movie, but it just smacks like a peg into ground of a different kind of reality," the director told us, illustrating that while "Thor" might be a bigger than life movie, Branagh wants his performers to bring a certain truth to it.
Hiddleston, on the other hand, was given a different type of homework assignment. "[Ken] said to have a look at Peter O'Toole in two specific films, 'The Lion in Winter' and 'Lawrence of Arabia'; two magnificent performances." The actor focused in on O'Toole's role in "The Lion in Winter" in relationship to his role as Loki. "[O'Toole] played King Henry, and what's beautiful about his performance is that you see how damaged he is. There's a rawness, almost as though he's living with a layer of skin peeled away. He's grandiose and teary, and in a moment, by turns, hilarious and then terrifying," he continued. "What we wanted was that kind of emotional volatility."
True to Branagh's philosophy, Hiddleston's study of Peter O'Toole may not appear overtly in the final film. "On set, we do different takes for a scene. The first would be 'one for free,' the second take would be the 'Peter O'Toole' take, the third take would be the 'Clint Eastwood' take and the fourth would be the 'Jack Nicholson,'" the actor recalled. Drawing on certain qualities of each actor, Hiddleston would pitch the level of intensity in each given take. In the end, Branagh would end up going with the "Clint" take the majority of the time. "The 'Clint' would be, 'Whatever you're feeling, put that away in a drawer somewhere at the bottom of you and throw away the key,'" he explained.
While Kat Dennings - who plays the new character of Darcy - did not mention a Branagh homework assignment, she still shared with us her experiences of the same level care from the director. "There wasn't one moment that wasn't explained thoroughly. At least for me, there wasn't a moment where I didn't completely understand what was going on, because he tells you everything and makes sure you're not feeling lost."
Clark Gregg, reprising his "Iron Man" role as Agent Phil Coulson, noted a similarity between "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau and Branagh. "Like Favreau, [Branagh is] an actor who directs, funny as hell [and] gives you notes in a way that you can't wait do them, because the way he put them to you was so sarcastic and hilarious." Gregg, who also happens to be an actor/director, finds he is fascinated by the challenge of directing the Marvel movies. "I watch what Jon or Ken do in terms of the stuff that they marshal in terms of effects and the sets, and I'm intrigued by it. I would like to figure that out. I don't know if they'd let me, but I'm going to try." Asked if he might take on "Iron Fist," a character he loved as a young reader, Gregg responded, "There [has to be] something that's kind of between what I do and that, where it's a little more character driven," he suggested, before smiling and adding, "A Coulson movie, I feel like a Coulson movie."
Gregg then encapsulated the challenge of a Marvel director: "They've got to make those [character] scenes work and at the same time make some giant epic battle happen, and they've also got to visualize what it's going to be like when they layer in the effects. That's a whole skill that I'm kind of in awe of."
It was Branagh's ease with actors and experience with theatrical themes and even battle scenes that led Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige to consider him in the first place. "What I didn't know was that he was a fan of 'Thor' and what a fan he is of this genre," Feige revealed. While developing the film, the two would talk about every new big genre release.
"I'm a movie geek. I'm there every week totally and utterly for pleasure," the director cheerfully admitted.
But will Branagh the actor ever appear as a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? "I don't know, I haven't been asked. If we do another, I'll audition," he quipped.
"Thor" opens May 5th, 2010