I’m Starting Anew with Harry Potter
After a brilliant debut - the fall, with pretentious films which enjoyed little success. But Kenneth Branagh is being talked about again. In the theatre, as the protagonist in Richard III. And in the cinema, as the director of the third episode of the story of the little magicianAmica (Italy), June 2002
From London: Emily Stefania Coscione
** Thanks, Jude (translated by Renata)
"I’ll start over" Kenneth Branagh told himself. He admits this himself, with a disarming sincerity which one wouldn’t expect from a film star. Actor and director, in great demand on the stages of London and in Hollywood studios, a few years ago Branagh seemed to have the world at his feet, capable of realising his every dream and ambition. After his first film as actor and director, ‘Henry V’, made in 1989, which launched him on the international scene at just 28, everyone hailed him as the new Laurence Olivier, ready to forgive any failing as the result of a lack of experience, hynotised by his youthful enthusiasm and stage charisma. His career seemed destined to gather success after success. His marriage to Emma Thompson - another rising star of the English cinema - seemed to favour his ascent. Then, the tumble. Who expected this? Certainly not the American producers who had handed out millions of dollars without batting an eyelash for his ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ in 1993, sure of eliminating any competition at the Oscars the following year. The film didn’t convince the critics and ended the marriage to Thompson: Branagh fell in love with his co-star, Helena Bonham Carter, and decided to concentrate on his only true artistic love, William Shakespeare, throwing himself into a number of cinematographic projects. The first ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, was appreciated for its originality and pleasant atmosphere, but the filmed ‘Hamlet’ of 1996, followed by the musical version of ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, 1999, were less convincing and forced Branagh to change course. All the more so because his appearance in Hollywood films such as Robert Altman’s ‘The Gingerbread Man’, Woody Alan’s ‘Celebrity’ and the notorious ‘Wild Wild West’ with Will Smith, risked exasperating the critics, who were starting to call him a has-been. And for once he decided to listen to them. Almost three years later (the romance with Bonham Carter ended a while ago), Kenneth Branagh is being talked about again, winning awards and selling out the box office. A comedy, ‘The Play That [sic] I Wrote’, directed by him, and still playing in London after months of performances; ‘Richard III’, by Shakespeare, staged at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, with Branagh himself in the protagonist’s role; two television projects, one for the BBC (‘Conspiracy’) and the other for Channel Four (‘Shackleton’), for which he won an Emmy in the United States and a Golden Globe nomination; two hotly-awaited films coming out on screen by the autumn and the direction of the third episode of the Harry Potter series. Ken - as his friends call him - seems to have learned his lesson, and doesn’t get carried away by facile enthusiasm. "I’ve become a bit sceptical, more wary. I don’t trust so easily anymore, not only others, but myself. Before I say "I’m satisfied with this" I have to be sure of what I am doing and of the results I can obtain."
Were you hurt by the lack of success of your recent films?
No, because when I make a film I never expect that it will turn into a resounding success. I like quality products, which appeal to a wide audience, which educate and entertain. I’m not interested in following a fashion just to satisfy the demands of the financiers. For this reason, from now on I plan to work only with people who are willing to finance my projects because they believe in them, not because they expect to realise a great economic return.
The fact that you have decided to return to the theatre after an interval which lasted 10 years signals a return to your origins. And this return seems to have pleased everyone, the public and the critics. Is the theatre perhaps the most congenial place for you?
I find the theatre more natural, more immediate, even though the preparation of each play takes a very long time and is at times very difficult. The cinema has huge potential, thanks to the possibility of rehearsing, filming and re-filming scenes until they are perfect, something which is missing in the theatre, which aims instead for spontaneity. They are two different means of production which I love equally. But what ruins cinema is bureaucracy, greed and a lack of ideas.
In the summer you will be back on the big screen in the independent Australian film ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines, Auiber Octavius Neville’ [sic], shown at Cannes last year. And in the autumn it will be as Gilderoy Lockhart, the vain magician in the new Harry Potter film, ‘Chamber of Secrets’. Two different roles: the first which served to win back the critics; the second, more entertaining, a sure success which could re-establish your status in Hollywood...
It’s wrong to think an actor would only choose work based on what it could bring him in terms of success, prestige or social status. These two films are excellent examples of how you can manage a career by accepting a part only for pleasure. I don’t know any actor who, having avidly read the books of Joanne Kathleen Rowling, would not feel almost obliged to accept a role, however minor, in one of the films based on the series. In cases like this you almost end up blessing the day you decided to become an actor.
Is your renewed assurance perhaps due to the fact that you have decided to chose roles and productions based on your own preferences?
Probably. Now more than ever I feel I can choose at my pleasure, that I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I’m very far from having achieved my every dream and I expect to work for many more years, but I feel the satisfaction of having embarked upon the right road and being able to follow it through to the end, certain that I won’t have any qualms of conscience.
Is it true that if you could, you would always work with the same people?
No, it’s not true. I like to surround myself with people that I can count on, that I know well and whom I consider share my way of thinking. But the great thing about this profession is that it brings you into contact with different realities and people. You get on with some and not with others, and in the meantime your circle of acquaintances continues to grow.
You also earned yourself a reputation as a great ladies man, but you’re very protective of your privacy, to such an extent that for years the English tabloids tried to find out things about your private life, coming up with little or nothing. Was this the reason that you went to live in Hollywood for a while?
Yes, going from the frying pan into the fire! The American tabloids are no joke either. But I only stayed there for a very short time because I didn’t like it. I prefer the air in London, its rhythms, my habits, my friends. I have moved into a house in Surrey, I’ve kept on seeing the same people, and when I’m not working I prefer solitude. But I think that the Hollywood experience is very important, even essential, for an actor, and especially for a director. Because it teaches you what you should never do.
Is there a Kenneth Branagh that we haven’t seen yet?
I hope so. Otherwise it would mean that I’d already shown all I can do. Instead I like to think that I’m still capable of surprising people, of showing a side of myself that maybe no one knows yet.