Ken Goes Way Down South
Birmingham Evening Mail, July
by Russell Rhodes
Unusually for John Grisham adaptations,
The Gingerbread Man isn't lifted from one of his best-sellers.
Rather it's an early screenplay
written before any of the novels were published. Unusually too,
it's not served up by some hack director running through the
formula (even Francis Ford Coppola played straight hired hand
on The Rainmaker) but gets a personal investment and distinctive
edge from the legendary Robert Altman.
And, to complete the trilogy
of unusual attributes, the role of the self-serving somewhat
sleazy Southern lawyer (another Grisham departure) is being played
not by any high rolling Hollywood star but by Kenneth Branagh.
"I think I was four millionth
choice," he says with due modesty.
"They asked me and I said
I'd be interested if they had a director who could take it by
the scruff of the neck and do something that was not what you'd
expect from Grisham.
"I'd taken to heart something
Julie Christie told me on Hamlet, to be led in my choices by
who was directing it. A great script and a bad director will
end up a poor film. So when Altman said yes, so did I.
"He didn't want to make
the standard straight up and down thriller. He wanted something
far more sinister and weird. Don't forget that before he got
into features, he'd done Alfred Hitchcock Presents on TV, so
he knew where he was going.
"Also, I like this kind
of genre, the whodunnit with a bit of a chase. Mind you I lived
to regret ten nights of being completely soaked to the skin on
a boat in the middle of a storm."
Aside from being so wet he thought
he'd never dry out, Branagh also had to accustom himself to the
Savannah accent required of his character, Rick Magruder. He's
done American before, but Southern's a bit different. And especially
hard to manage when you're working the Altman way.
"The real problem was that
Altman likes to improvise a lot and that's really hard when you're
working with an accent and trying to remember how they talk.
"At one point you'll hear
me say 'I gotta go to hospital'. Now they would never say that,
they'd say 'to the hospital'. Altman left it in just to annoy
me. Then there was the scene with the car where I think my children
are in the back. I was improvising away and getting a bit full
of mysel banging on about 'they're in the boot, they're in the
boot'. And Altman's saying 'trunk, trunk!' Still, I said boot
like a Southerner though."
Although there were times when,
soaked to the skin and being tossed up and down on a stormy sea,
he might have been happy to swap roles with Altman, Branagh says
he's not yet got any huge desires to get back behind, as well
as in front of the camera himself again.
"I will direct again when
my guts tell me the time is right, but I don't have a particular
timetable. Right now I'm following my nose in terms of following
good scripts and working with other directors."
In following the director, Branagh's
not just limiting himself to the big screen. He's recently completed
The Theory Of Flight, a film for the BBC about motor neurone
disease, directed by Peter Greengrass and co-starring the new
woman in his life, Helena Bonham Carter.
"I play a small time crook,
a little crazy but with slightly more appealing qualities than
Magruder. Helena plays the one with motor neurone disease and
she's terrific in it.
"It's an extraordinarily
devastating disease and I hope the film will help people understand
it more. We've shown it to sufferers and they all feel the depiction
And after that he's to be seen
alongside Will Smith and Kevin Kline in Barry Sonnenfeld's big
screen version of cult comic cowboy TV series The Wild Wild West.
"I play the brilliantly
diabolical Dr Loveless. I can't give too much away, but suffice
to say I have a secret lair and a lot of equipment and I'm surrounded
by lots of glamorous people. You'll see that horses don't play
a huge part in my life for a very specific reason, but I'm saying
But while TV and movies continue
to keep him busy, the theatre it seems remains at arm's length.
"I've no plans to go back
to the stage yet. I enjoy working with films and the access people
have to them. The theatre is so expensive and still relatively
exclusive. As and when I do return I would like to make it more
affordable for people, but I have to say I do feel more at home
with films. It's what I was brought up on."
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