Kenneth Branagh: Beyond the Bard
As the 1990’s started, Kenneth Branagh was flying high. He was nominated for Best Actor and Best director for his directorial, an adaptation of Henry V. Two years later, he was set up in Hollywood directing and starring in the thriller, Dead Again. It’s been twenty-five years since Jeffrey Lantos interviewed Branagh for the September ’91 issue of Movieline magazine and a lot has changed. Branagh is divorced from his then-wife-and-costar, Emma Thompson. His movie career was derailed for a while although he has had some recent hits with Thor and Cinderella. This article contains hints of what was to come as the theater sensation went Hollywood. Lantos makes the odd choice to have Branagh direct him in a scene mid-interview.
Kenneth Branagh made such a splash with his Henry V that Hollywood imported him not only to direct the thriller Dead Again, but star in both leading roles.
Offhand, I can’t think of too many 28-year-olds these days whose autobiographies might demand my attention. Magic Johnson maybe–but he had four championship rings by that age. A memoir from anyone under 30 who doesn’t have four rings seems a little untoward, doesn’t it? Which brings us to the curious case of Irish-born British sensation Kenneth Branagh, who did, in fact, pen his first-person yelp at 28. And mind you, this was before the actor-director-producer-writer-impresario-wunderkind had conquered the critical world on both sides of the Atlantic with his passionate, melancholy, anti-jingoistic film of Henry V (an accomplishment all the more startling for being a nervy repeat of Laurence Olivier’s grand coup of 1945). And, needless to say, it was before he came to Hollywood, to direct and star in a major motion picture–Paramount’s Dead Again.
It should be said out front, in defense of Branagh, that he had the only tenable excuse one could have for agreeing to pen one’s autobiography at such a tender age–money. He was madly running his upstart Renaissance Theatre Company out of his own flat, and he took the book advance to finance bigger lodgings. The question that remains, then, is: what did the publisher think he was buying?
Very simply, Branagh was a Phenomenon of British theater. In a blazing display of need, drive, ambition and energy, backed up by an undeniable and charismatic talent, he had set London talking and sent fans (Shakespeare fans, remember) into the kind of frenzy usually engendered by soap opera stars. Rising out of working class obscurity, Branagh had set his sights on the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, eschewing all other offers of acceptance, fought his way in, and eventually carried off its highest honor, the Bancroft Gold Medal. He’d immediately won a role opposite Rupert Everett in Julian Mitchell’s play “Another Country”, for which he received the Society of West End Theatres’ award for most promising newcomer. He’d joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, starred as Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon at 23 and sent up a critical roar of approval. And then he’d had the temerity to split from the RSC, take the money he’d earned from two movies (A Month in the Country and High Season) and join with a partner to create the Renaissance Theatre Company.
This is when the London masses began to go nuts over him. However elevated his purposes–he had great actors like Dame Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi directing the plays, he paid everyone in the company equally, he poured all his own money into the productions–he had turned into a popular sensation. At this point, he began to go at everything with a vengeance, managing, producing, acting, directing, writing. If candles had a third end, he’d have burned that one too.
Naturally, with all this activity and adulation came a certain backlash. Branagh’s doubters saw him as over-reaching, arrogant and so on. And he was accused of being a media manipulator, expertly fueling his own publicity machine. His talent as an actor was called into question–the British tabloids had a field day after one woman stormed out of his revival of “Look Back in Anger” after noisily proclaiming his rendering of Jimmy Porter “Dreadful! Dreadful! The most terrible performance I have seen.” Branagh had weathered these slings and arrows and proceeded to adapt Henry V for a film he would star in and direct (his film directorial debut), to assemble England’s finest actors for the supporting cast, and most miraculous of all, to gather financing that even David Puttnam advised him he’d never get–all while playing a particularly anxiety-ridden Hamlet.
So, all that’s in Branagh’s autobiography, modestly and hopefully titled Beginning. And now, having accomplished what Olivier accomplished before him–bringing Shakespeare successfully to the screen–Branagh went about doing what Olivier never did–directing a film in Hollywood.
Lindsay Doran, once a VP of production at Paramount and now head of Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises, had had the script for Dead Again for a few years. A romantic thriller about a cynical detective who specializes in missing persons and heirs, it had been turned down by some of the directors Doran talked to about it; some of the directors who wanted it, she turned down. When she saw Henry V, she saw the director she wanted–“someone who could be visually dazzling and deliver strong emotions,” she says. And soon after, when Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company was in L.A., she approached him. Branagh wanted Hollywood. And he liked the script. But he didn’t want to deal with movie stars. So, he explained, in addition to directing, he wanted to star in the two leading roles (one with an American accent, the other German) with Emma Thompson, his leading lady in Henry V and his wife in real life, in the other two leading parts. Kevin Costner‘s success with Dances With Wolves notwithstanding, these demands would not necessarily be music to most Hollywood producers’ ears. Branagh convinced everyone he could bring this off.
Now that’s confidence. But it’s not surprising. Branagh is not used to losing, not in life and not in love. I met his real-life love before meeting him. We met for tea.
“What’s it like sleeping with your director?” I ask Thompson. I’m kidding her. I expect a whimsical answer. She gives me a dry, earnest reply. “Well… the advantages are, you have a kind of shorthand–if we’re playing married people, the audience will feel we really do know each other. If we’re playing strangers, it’s harder, because you have to rediscover that sense of the unknown. You have to find the corners that have been rubbed off over the years. If he was not my husband, I might be more difficult. I don’t want to hurt his feelings so I hold back.”
Emma Thompson is 32. She’s the only actress I’ve met who has used the word “propinquity” during the course of an interview. She met Branagh on the set of “Fortunes of War,” a BBC miniseries that required nine months’ work in Yugoslavia, Greece and Egypt, and they fell in love. She no doubt knew that Branagh had a certain reputation for romancing his leading ladies. “It’s a tricky situation,” she says, “because on a set, you become close to people very quickly. You’re required to do that. And these people are usually attractive in some way. You have to be careful, because it’s easy to think you’re in love when in fact you’re not. It’s an occupational hazard.”
“So how careful were you with Kenneth-”
“It was a slow burn. We waited two years.”
I wonder if living with one’s co-star and director might present some ticklish situations. What happens, for instance, when there’s a spat at home about who cooks dinner, and then there’s an argument to be filmed the next day? Are there echoes from the real-life dustup? “So far,” she explains, “we’ve never used the set as a place to work out personal differences.” But as long as we’re on the subject of cooking dinner, Thompson would like me to know that in their two years of marriage, Branagh has cooked only one meal, which consisted of two courses–cream of mushroom soup and chicken casserole. For the soup, Branagh simply sliced mushrooms into hot cream. “I don’t know what he did with the chicken,” she adds. “I didn’t ask for the recipe.”
Thompson has gone off and done films on her own. She was terrific in The Tall Guy with Jeff Goldblum, but nobody saw that. She was hilarious in the more recent Impromptu, for which she was widely praised. But she likes working with her husband.
“What makes him a good director?” I ask.
“He’s got tremendous patience,” she says. “Whereas I would spit in people’s eyes and bite their ankles, Ken is very contained. I think he’s temperamentally suited for the job of directing.”
He may be temperamentally suited, but when I catch up with Branagh, he looks…well… concerned.
He’s in post-production on Dead Again and, as he eloquently explains, he’s feeling the pressure. “I think of the money, and I don’t see a corporation. I see people who’ve hired me, and I have a dread of letting them down. Part of the creative process is having these dark nights of the soul. I’m seized by various forms of fear. I get it on the weekends and in the evenings, after a day of shooting. It’s a feeling of physical sickness that comes from the pressure of having to maintain a vision and to be open to suggestions, which, if I took them, might cost more or take too much time. That fear that I can’t keep all the balls spinning is very powerful.”
I’m chatting with Branagh in his office on the Paramount lot. It’s 6 o’clock on a hot, bronchial, spring afternoon, and he’s just trudged over from the sound stage. He seems older than 30, which is what he is now. He doesn’t really look older. He seems older. He doesn’t show the raw self-involvement you expect from someone just out of his twenties. You can’t help knowing from his resume that he’s driven and ambitious, but in person there’s a calm about him that one associates with someone older. He’s come so far, and been so many places, perhaps his maturation process has speeded up.
There is a strong desire in me to be doing something useful,” he tells me. “Something that contributes to something. Henry V is full of debate about war, and therefore it’s a good play to try to do well. It’s a play full of illumination, and it offers me spiritual comfort. I like to remind people that that’s possible. There’s a spiritual impoverishment at this end of the century. There are a lot of lost people. Religion is not doing it for them. And neither is art. I think the role of the performing arts, those arts that act on the soul and defy rationality, are important things to be a part of.”
Then again, I’m thinking as Branagh continues, maybe he seems older because nobody I know under 30–and few over-thinks and speaks in complete paragraphs.
“Today, there is literally a lack of words–of a vocabulary– for people to explain why they feel depressed or why they feel listless or how they feel about the Gulf War. Good writing, good plays, can fill that void, and I feel a kind of missionary zeal to put that in front of people. Not to say this will necessarily be good, but to say, here, have these things–words, ideas, images–at your disposal…as well as psychiatrists, medicine.”
Soon I get Branagh around to the topic of directing. And it’s just about at the point where he’s saying, “It’s shocking to know what, as a director, you can do for an actor–you can make a bad performance good, and a good performance great, and if you’re a bastard, you can really fuck ’em up,” that I decide to lob him a real humdinger. I ask him if he’d like to make a bad performance a little better right here in the confines of his office. He’s not sure what I have in mind until I whip out my copy of Henry V and say, “I want you to direct me.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah.” I figure he’s lived with this bloody play for years now. He must have some keen insights. Also, I want to experience for myself the Branagh touch. I want to find out what it is about this guy that’s so special.
“Well, if you want to do that, I’m happy to do it.” I tell him the speech I’d like to recite, and then I stand up and begin to pace.
“You don’t mind if I stop you whenever?”
I launch into my speech in which an angry Henry responds to a skeptic who, just prior to battle, says that if the soldiers going into the fray do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it.
“So,” I say, as I gesture, “if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule [and here I punch the word ‘your’ and point to Branagh], should be impos’d upon his father that sent him; or if a servant under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, be assail’d by robbers and die in many irreconcil’d iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation.”
“All right, all right, okay. I’ll stop you there.” He’s perking up now. The sun is sinking, and he has said he slept little the night before, but now he’s on the edge of the sofa. The fatigue seems to have vanished. There’s a sparkle in the eyes.
“Lay out that argument more strongly,” he says. “If you want to play it that he’s very concerned about that, then convince me more by how you do that. ‘So,’ “he says, reciting the first word of the speech. “Use the punctuation there [referring to the comma]. ‘So,’ if this happens that way, surely it must lead to such and such. So,’–I have a sense of you building it more, to get to the point about the iniquities–so that…you know…kind of…and…and…and (his ideas seem to be out-stripping his verbal capacity–his hands are flying every which way) let me know what your salient points are. Where you really want…you know… the…the…the…so you have to make a decision about what’s important. Do you like the image of the merchandising? I don’t think so. But lay it out a bit more. You know what I mean?”
He’s running on all cylinders now. I’m feeding off the energy as I’m sure all his actors must. He can hardly string a subject and verb together before he’s off to his next thought. I recite the speech again. Branagh isn’t sure he’s getting his point across so he resorts to visual aides. He puts his sunglasses and his tea cup on the desk. Then he moves the sunglasses.
“So, if I move that there, okay, then it’s next to the cup. But if I move it over there, it’s much further away. You’re saying if it’s further away it doesn’t mean as much. Rubbish! You know what I mean. So…that…so…use…use the way the grammar is structured there to BITE into that argument. To…kind of…CUT in more. Try it again.” I get seven words into the speech.
“Yeah,…So,’…start again” I say two words and he cuts me off.
“Assume you’re talking to somebody very thick who’s really annoyed you. Therefore you’re going to be very precise.. .[he reads the line his way]…you know, so you’re really using every–single–one–of–those–words.” He sits back and waits for me to start again. I get to the word “sinfully.”
He says, “Important that…’do sinfully miscarry.’ He hasn’t done it by accident. He’s done it sinfully. So…get this point. He’s done this, but he’s done it very badly. So he’s in trouble. Do you see what I mean?”
“Yes,” I say. I’m beginning to see–and feel–what it is about Branagh. There is his passion for the text that inspires you. You suddenly care about breathing life into every word, every COMMA! And there’s an energy radiating from him, an energy that keeps you jiving through the tenth take. If he weren’t directing, he’d be a great evangelist or haranguer in the House of Commons.
I begin again. “So,”…and here I look up and say to Branagh, “I feel like I want to ad lib, ‘What you’re saying is…’ ” He pops up, and in a voice fizzing with excitement says, “But that’s exactly what it needs through it. You gotta stop yourself saying that, but you have to put that into it.”
I go again. I get up to the bit about the servant.
“Yeah,” says Branagh. “You can do even more than that. … ‘Upon his father that sent him.'[sarcastically] Great argument. Oh, terrific. So anybody who does bad things, we’ll blame someone who knows them. YES! You know, so it’s sinful and he’s wicked, but it should be somebody else’s fault. Stress those words which deal with the fuckin’ ridiculousness of the argument. Try it once more from the top.”
I get to “irreconcil’d iniquities.”
‘Yeah, exactly. Just give a little parentheses right there.” “What do you mean parentheses?”
“Well, it’s like…just give it a little space. Irreconcil’d iniquities refers to the fact that there won’t have been a chance to have been absolved. You know, so…so what I’m talking about is this underlying seriousness of…you’re talking about things and yet let me give you something even more serious…a man who hasn’t had confession is caught suddenly,. the moment of that…irreconciled iniquities…is a big deal. I’m talking about a MAN WHO DIDN’T FUCKIN’ GET A CHANCE. So the whole conversation is laced with this thing that you’ll die…you better be ready when you go out there. Sometimes when you give a note like that it doesn’t mean you have to PUNCH IT and say IRRECONCILED INIQUITIES, it’s just that you need to let the thought of the weight of that inform how it comes out. Think about that as you go into the next thing. That was going well. The prose in this bit is great. Very sinewy, very tough. It’s good fun to practice. It’s very chewy. It has a kind of…it has more than just a literal sense, doesn’t it? It has a music to it. A texture. An audio texture, if you like.”
By this time, I figure my performance has gotten as improved as it’s ever going to get from the Branagh touch. He’s been pretty gentle with me so far, but it’s a good thing I don’t have any ego-investment in my acting ability. Branagh himself knows the sting that can set you up for: After auditioning a number of times for the film version of Amadeus, after his agent was told the part was 90 percent his, and after being kept in limbo for six months, Branagh was turned down when the producers decided they wanted to cast an American. His agent talked him out of sending the following telegram to Amadeus director Milos Forman: “Thanks for the wait STOP Good luck with the film STOP Why don’t you stick it up your ass and don’t STOP.”
I can’t help but wonder if Dead Again has any of the “music, the audio texture” of Shakespeare. Can Branagh possibly get as rapturous about it as he did over Henry V?
“Absolutely,” he says. That’s hard for me to believe. Branagh senses my doubt, and so he lays out his argument, which he’s obviously thought about for some time.
“We can’t continue to canonize Shakespeare at the expense of living writers. Some people see this as a Branagh sellout. I see it as doing another piece of popular entertainment. And you know, I’ve always thought of myself as someone whose basic roots and instincts are comedic. I long for the moment when I emerge from the shadow of the serious young man and simply entertain people.”
There’s a slight pause here as I sip my bubbly water. I’m ready to move on to another question, but Branagh uses the moment to reload and then scatters shot in every direction. He’s determined to wipe out my lingering skepticism. “I don’t like to make a distinction between comedy and tragedy. There’s plenty of comedy in Henry V. The darkest character in Dead Again is also the funniest. “Much Ado About Nothing” is a He Said, She Said for the Elizabethans. And we all know a Malvolio–pompous and vain but entirely understandable. He’s a security guard at the studio gate–being officious and yet touching. Those comedies make me cry much more than the tragedies.”
Branagh’s friends told him he was nuts to take a job in Hollywood. They warned him he’d get eaten alive. “But I told them I had an 800 pound gorilla sitting behind me–Sydney Pollack,” says Branagh. Pollack is the director of such movies as Tootsie and Out of Africa, as well as last year’s megaton bomb, Havana. Branagh’s comment about Havana convinces me that, however brash he might be thought in London, he’s plenty diplomatic for Hollywood: “Clearly the wound [from Havana] is very deep, and I felt sorry for him. I told him he’s got a right to make the odd film that doesn’t work for everyone. He’s incapable of making a bad film. He just made one that not many people want to see.”
Anyway, Branagh fared pretty well with Pollack behind him. Things did get a little edgy during the casting, though, Branagh says: “The system is so panic-ridden. There can be a very casual dismissiveness of people who I think are marvelous actors.”
Turns out Gene Hackman is an example. Branagh wanted to cast him, but some executives felt Hackman had been in too many movies. In the end, Pollack helped Branagh get most of the people he wanted. These included Derek Jacobi and Hanna Schygulla, neither of whose names would thrill a studio head, but for a demonstration of sheer clout, the casting of Obba Babatunde takes the cake. The studio did insist on one American movie actor, and Branagh agreed that Andy Garcia would be a fine addition. It so happens they have the same agent.
I ask Branagh to evaluate himself as a movie director. “It’s very up and down,” he says. ‘There are occasional moments of blistering clarity where I know where to put the camera and what size the shot should be. Then there are moments when I realize how fucking difficult it is.”
American audiences will now get the chance to evaluate this imported talent. We’ll see if Branagh has the ability to win over a multiplex crowd that likes its story lines linear, its resolutions unambiguous, and its soundtracks raucous. Certainly, audiences will be seeing him for the first time–not even the hoopla that surrounded Henry V could get the vast majority of moviegoers into a cineplex for Shakespeare. But if they like him once they see him, we could be in for some interesting work in the future.
I mention to Branagh that Jack Nicholson stands to make $50 million from Batman. “You know what I’d do with $50 million?” he asks. “I’d pay for a film myself. I wouldn’t get investors. Everybody else could fuck off. I’d do it my way, and I wouldn’t have to fuckin’ explain or rationalize anything.”
Jeffrey Lantos wrote about Cathy Moriarty in our June issue.