Kenneth Branagh Didn’t Need An Audition To Know He Wanted Ray Stevenson In Thor

Kenneth Branagh's 2011 film "Thor" is one of the more unusually situated blockbusters in recent memory. It was the fourth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but only the second after Disney's purchase of Marvel Comics in late 2009. It was also only the second MCU film after Disney had announced that it would be making a series of superhero movies that would culminate in a massive Avengers crossover event, a novelty at the time. As such, a film made by a notably iconoclastic and theatrical director became a commercial experiment, a test to see if audiences would see a really weird-ass movie about extraterrestrial deities and unusual, ineffable other realms, provided it linked to a film they wanted to see in the future. 

As a preview for things to come, or perhaps the beginning part of a larger puzzle, "Thor" functions well enough. As a standalone picture, it's odd, cheap-looking, and difficult to understand. At the very least, Branagh — a wiz with actors — populated his film with charismatic performers who managed to bring a great deal of heft and personality to the screen in what limited time they had. Tom Hiddleston outshines the film's fallow script, and Thor's trio of warrior friends — the Warriors Three — are exciting enough to warrant their own film. 

Of the Three, the late Ray Stevenson played Volstagg, a massive, long-bearded, red-haired bruiser who looks like a cross between Gimli the dwarf from "Lord of the Rings" and Obelix from "Asterix" comics. 

As it so happens, Branagh and Stevenson had worked together in the past, and the director was familiar with Stevenson's talents. According to a 2013 interview with Collider, Stevenson merely received a call and immediately said yes. 

'I've Got Ken Branagh On The Phone.'

One of Stevenson's very first film jobs was a bit part in the 1998 Paul Greengrass drama "The Theory of Flight." In that film, Kenneth Branagh played a shiftless artist named Richard who builds non-working flying machines and occasionally causes property damage. For community service, Richard has to tend to Jane (Helena Bonham Carter) a spiky young woman with ALS. After some time together, Jane reveals that she has no sexual experience, and tasks Richard with setting her up with someone. In one scene, Richard thinks to hire a handsome sex worker at a bar. The sex worker is played by Ray Stevenson. 

Stevenson remembered acting with Branagh in that one scene, and was, of course, familiar with his body of work as a director. The actor had no hesitation when the phone rang. Stevenson said: 

"I was in Sicily at a friend's birthday party. In the middle of the night, I got a phone call from my agent who said, 'I've got Ken Branagh on the phone.' And I had worked with Ken, many years ago, on a small film called 'The Theory of Flight,' where I played this gigolo for Helena Bonham Carter. So, Ken got on the phone and said, 'I've got this job and I was wondering if you'd be interested.' I said, 'Are you directing, Ken?' He said, 'Yes, I am.' And I said, 'I'll do it! I don't care what it is, Ken. I'd love to work with you again.'"

It was as easy as that. Although Branagh did come back with a warning. In playing the role of Volstagg, most of Stevenson's face would be covered. He would also, by Branagh's estimation, be padded up on a massive body suit. Stevenson just said, "Right."

The River Of Ham

Stevenson didn't mind. He was an Irish actor who was devoted to the role, not to his ego. The idea of having his face covered or not looking "like himself" didn't bother him in the slightest. He also knew that Branagh was confident in his acting abilities enough to merely ask him to appear in "Thor" out of the blue. Stevenson addressed concerns about his ego by saying:

"The weird thing is, in America, people were saying, 'You're not going to get recognized because all you're going to see is basically your forehead and eyes.' Rather than hiring a large actor, what Ken wanted was the forehead and the eyes. It must have been a stretch for him to pitch me in the room because even Ken said, 'I know you're a big, strapping lad, Ray.' But, it was such exhausting, exhilarating fun." 

When directing "Thor," however, Branagh wanted to add some of his trademark theatricality, and assured Stevenson that there was no way to play Volstagg "too large." Whenever Stevenson felt like he was overacting, though, Branagh merely pushed him further. As an actor, Branagh can be over-the-top as well and used his experience to encourage a much bigger, sillier performance. Stevenson recalled a fun piece of sympathy from his director, saying: 

"I felt so hammy in the rehearsals, but Ken said, 'You can't go too large with this. He's got a heart the size of a planet and he wears it on his sleeve.' It was hilarious. I said, 'Ken, if I dip my toes in the river of ham, then I'm relying on you.' And he said, 'Darling, you're speaking to one who's swam in that river, many times.'"

May we all swim in the river of ham. R.I.P. Ray Stevenson.

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The post Kenneth Branagh Didn't Need An Audition To Know He Wanted Ray Stevenson In Thor appeared first on /Film.

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