Through the magic of Zoom, Kenneth Branagh's face appears on my computer screen. He turns 60 in December but retains his boyish looks, and seems in chipper form as he promotes his and Disney's adaptation of Artemis Fowl. Ken is at home, of course, like the rest of us, and just behind him I can see tasteful mementoes of a glittering stage and film career, as well as a Tottenham Hotspur scarf proclaiming his enduring love for the north London side.
Born in Belfast, raised in Reading, Branagh sailed through Rada before being acclaimed as the new Olivier after setting up his own Shakespeare company and mounting large-scale movies of Hamlet and Henry V. Since then, his sublime and subtle acting has continued to shine in films and TV dramas such as My Week With Marilyn, Valkyrie, Wallander and Dunkirk. He's also become a jobbing Hollywood director, overseeing big-budget productions including Thor and Cinderella with conviction and calm.
Disney were impressed with his work on their live-action remake of Cinderella, but Artemis Fowl represented a challenge of a different sort, as the project had been in cinematic purgatory for almost 20 years. The film rights to Eoin Colfer's first Fowl book were optioned almost as soon as it was published, and there were ambitious plans to turn it rapidly into a major feature film.
Instead, it lurched from start date to start date under the wavering stewardship of Miramax, the Weinstein brothers' production company. It wasn't until 2013 that things got serious: Disney announced that it would be producing, and within a couple of years had installed Branagh as director, playwright Conor McPherson as screenwriter and removed Harvey Weinstein from the equation altogether.
Branagh had long been familiar with Colfer's books. "I remember I was on a holiday with my nephews, who were then 11 and nine, and they were reading Artemis Fowl, and they said you've got to read this, you should make a film of this. So, I read it, and I really enjoyed it. I liked the fact that it was set in Ireland, that it was in the kind of territory Harry Potter had gone into but it didn't have any of that Gothic world."
Why does he think it took so long to adapt? "When I came on board, they'd had the rights for probably 15 years, and I think people found it difficult to handle in terms of the Potter phenomenon, in the sense that how did you find a way to be distinct from those films and not have it feel like you were copying them. No one had ever spoken to Eoin before; that to me was an amazing omission. And then no one had suggested using an Irish writer, so Conor McPherson joined at that point."
With its interplay between a precociously intelligent kid who's part of a dashing criminal dynasty and an underworld dominated by technologically sophisticated fairies, Artemis Fowl was always going to be a tough book to adapt. "In the book, when we meet Artemis, he's already a junior Bond villain, as Eoin puts it, and in this film we took the same view as I guess we took with Thor, in that for those who hadn't been familiar with the books, it was important to get a sense of who this person was before he becomes the fully fledged Artemis Fowl - it became a kind of origin story."
In the film, Artemis is played by young Irish actor Ferdia Shaw, who embodies the boy's cocksure arrogance with great conviction. Lara McDonnell is Holly Short, a spy from the subterranean fairy city of Haven, and Colin Farrell is Artemis Fowl Snr, a mysterious figure who has yet to share the secrets of the family business.
"It's obvious that Colin could easily be the Action Man figure, the James Bond running the family business," Branagh says. "But what I love about him is his maturity as an actor: he seems to bring a great deal of depth, he's able to achieve terrific tenderness and reality and connection with Ferdia who plays his son. So, he brings a kind of gravity, an emotional truth to it for free; he's such an honest actor. And yes, he did play all these cocksure characters when he was younger, but he's now got a terrifically soulful quality that is very particular and very Irish, I think. He was a joy to work with."
A journalist from Italy with whom we're sharing the call wonders if the young Ken ever believed in fairies.
"Well, my parents both had many siblings, so our entertainment pre-television was family gatherings. People would perform, they'd sing songs or they'd dance, but often they'd just tell stories. My father did that a lot, he'd tell a lot of stories, including stories about the little people, as they called them.
"I remember we used to go down to the south of Ireland, to Butlin's in Mosney, and always on the way down there my father would have a ton of stories about places that we were passing. And then for me, there was also the Giant's Causeway - and we shot very near it on this movie - which was a place that somehow really did make you believe there were fairies in Ireland. So, we grew up with it, and I suppose it opens up your imagination to be brought up in that culture."
How did it feel, I ask, to return to Northern Ireland for the shoot? "It was amazing. We were up on the north Antrim coast, it was a big operation, we came in with five separate units; there was an aerial unit and a marine unit and a unit for the cars. We had this massive storm in the middle of it, Hurricane Hector, which gave us some nice, strong bad weather, and then a ton of the actors there as well, horses and animals.
"So, it was a big, big operation, and what was very impressive to me was that in Ireland, they were completely unfazed by all of this, they were incredible hosts.
"For a part of the world that has hosted all six, seven seasons of Game Of Thrones and much more besides, they're just absolutely un-thrown by scale. People were excited we were there, but never overawed, and so that's a nice atmosphere to come into. We had an amazing support and service there, and we had a great time."
Was it difficult, I wonder, to remain cool and collected when surrounded by a production on that scale? "Well, there was a lot going on, but I've been inspired by working with Christopher Nolan on Dunkirk and his new film, Tenet. You can imagine what it was like on Dunkirk, with a million things going on everywhere, but sitting there in the middle of the chaos was Chris, who seemed to remain totally calm. So, I aim for that."
Under normal circumstances, Artemis Fowl would be released on several screens at your local multiplex next weekend, but instead it will make its entrance on Disney's new streaming service, Disney+.
"We're thrilled it's being released on Disney+," Kenneth says, "because it's a family movie and maybe families will enjoy it in a way that is very particular at this moment in time, when they can't get out for what would have been, I hope, a really strong summer film. Maybe it'll be a strong summer film even though you see it in your own home.
"There are other movies, you know, our Death On The Nile" - in which he directs, and stars as Hercule Poirot - "and certainly Christopher Nolan's Tenet, that I hope find their natural home where they were destined to be seen - and that's the big screen. When we come back to all that, I don't know," he adds, "but those films deserve to be seen there."
Artemis Fowl will be shown on Disney+ from June 12