In the first episode of the new Wallander series, Kenneth Branagh made sure he wrote the word "smile" on his script. "I figured it was the one opportunity in three films that I get to do it, so I better remember how to move my muscles upwards," the actor says with a laugh as he mugs a strained smile.
For anyone familiar with the Swedish noir detective from Henning Mankell's moody and contemplative crime thrillers, the central character Kurt Wallander does very little smiling. A solitary figure with a dogged and singular determination, the seemingly perennially depressed small-town cop solves grisly crimes in a grimly beautiful Swedish countryside. Through nine books, he has become a beloved figure, and while there have been Swedish film and TV interpretations of Mankell's books, it's British actor Branagh who has memorably imprinted the character worldwide through a limited television series, the third of which premiers Sept. 9 as part of Masterpiece Mystery on PBS stations.
"There is great affection towards the character," says Branagh as he sips a cup of hot English breakfast tea on a balcony overlooking the pool at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles after a long day of interviews. "There is no machismo swagger about him. He has this open-wound quality, and he takes all of these crimes personally. He has a sense of quiet but intense moral outrage. He's appalled and surprised when people commit these terrible acts of cruelty, and he has an empathy for the victim that is almost dangerous to him."
In the opening episode of Wallander III, "An Event in Autumn," based on Mankell's little-known short story "The Grave," it seems the taciturn inspector has found peace and contentment with a new relationship and a new house by the sea. That is, until his dog digs up the remains of a human jaw in the back yard, and he becomes obsessed with solving the mystery, risking not only his relationship but putting his partner recklessly in danger. "It's an interesting turn," Branagh says. "There is no forgiving him for it and in a way "The Dogs of Riga" and "Before the Frost." The question is, if you do something like that, in a catastrophic misjudgment that causes such tragic consequences for someone else, do you deserve happiness after that?"
"I think he has done some of the best acting he has ever done in this Wallander," says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS Masterpiece Series, who also help produce Wallander. "Kurt goes through a big change. It's a dark emotional journey, but because it's Kenneth who is so accessible as a warm, smart man, you want to stay with him as he goes through it."
The much-lauded thespian, looking fresh, fit and compact in a neat blue suit, admits it was a character that nearly consumed him. "It's a role that is quite naked and you can't help but have it seep into your being," Branagh says. "For the first couple of series, I was pretty isolated and living in a cottage by the sea and seemed to be cold all the time, feeling upset and close to tears, but this third time I have been much better at dealing with it and I was much healthier in myself."
Branagh also credits meditation, which he now does twice a day, with helping him balance his obsessive work ethic. "That was quite a significant moment of change for me," he says. "I didn't quite feel the pressure to be with the part all the time, or I could learn to resist it if it was happening."
"He takes full responsibility for what he is doing, and that is one of the many things I admire about him," says author Henning Mankell, speaking by phone from his home on the Swedish coast. "He has showed me many new things about this character. It's not that I have found that I can't write about Wallander anymore because Kenneth has taken it over, but he gives me a lot of ideas. It's more in the rhythm of how he portrays him -- the way he is thinking, how he is laughing, more subtle things."
Mankell's final Wallander novel, "The Troubled Man" was published in English last year (and will be filmed in two parts for the final Wallander series), but Branagh hinted that the novelist may be tempted to write more.
"I would prefer not to say anything at this point," Mankell says hesitantly. "I stopped because I did not want to write out of routine. It was out of respect for the reader and for myself, but I do feel very inspired by what Kenneth gives to the character."
The author won't be drawn into a discussion of the "nordic noir" trend following the recent explosion of popularity of the Stieg Larsson novels and adaptations of TV series like "The Killing." "You could always find a clever answer, but I think it's a coincidence and I refuse to make a story of this without any real arguments," he says curtly.
"I think there's something about the severity of the weather that is very gripping and isolating and gives a dangerous feeling aside from the human violence," Branagh says. "I don't know why particularly at this time it's so gripped us, but as long as the novels or the television adaptations or films are good, I'm sure it will continue."
Branagh who recently received the honor of a British knighthood, has at age 51, become an adept chameleon, easily moving from theater to film to television in front and behind the camera. Nominated last year for an Academy Award for his deft portrayal of Sir Laurence Olivier in "My Week With Marilyn," he will next direct a reboot of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan franchise, this time starring Chris Pine. "I have never done an action-spy thriller, so this feels like a nice departure for me," he says. "This one is quite different to the previous four films that featured the character. It's an origin story not based on any of Clancy's books. It's about what brought Jack Ryan into the CIA."
For the working-class Belfast lad, who stripped his Irish brogue early in life to avoid bullying in an English school, he admits that the idea of becoming an actor was more like a revolution than an evolution. But when he burst onto the world stage in 1989 with his gritty film adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V," which won an Academy Award and was nominated for two other Oscars, he came under fire, particularly in the British press for his brashness. "My youthfulness was equated with being egomaniacal and it really became annoying to a lot of people, but I was really just a grateful young actor who couldn't believe that all this was happening beyond my wildest dreams," he says.
"Somebody said to me the other day, 'You used to be that Mr. Shakespeare and now you are Mr. Swedish misery,' " he laughs. "Maybe I will do a sitcom sometime in the future and then I will be Mr. Smiley."