Just two years ago, Kenneth Branagh (pronounced BRAN-och) was in pre-preproduction in London on his film version of Shakespeare's ``Henry V'' -- his debut as a film director -- and hardly anyone on this side of the Atlantic knew his name.
By contrast, fellow Best Director nominee Peter Weir was in between major-studio productions (``The Mosquito Coast'' and ``Dead Poets Society''), former Oscar winner Oliver Stone was hard at work in pre-production on ``Born on the Fourth of July'' and Woody Allen -- another Best Director winner -- had wrapped his 18th feature, ``Another Woman.''
Only fellow Irishman Jim Sheridan was as unknown as Branagh, but he'd been making films for some time.
Branagh, however, got introduced to some fancy company in a hurry when ``Henry V'' became an unexpected success and garnered three Oscar nominations.
But the 28-year-old Belfast, Northern Ireland, native was having a strange reaction to instant fame stateside.
It didn't fluster him one bit.
``I try to keep working all the time; it keeps your head down, as it were,'' said Branagh recently. ``If you keep working, and doing as well as you're able, you win things as you go along.''
So far, in a short but extremely condensed professional career that began, fittingly, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Branagh has managed to win quite a few things.
At RADA, Branagh won the coveted Bancroft Gold Medal for his turn as Hamlet; as soon as he left the academy he won showy roles in many a West End production and on British TV, eventually moving to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Yet through all the success that has attended Branagh like a guardian angel since his RADA matriculation there was never the sense that some idea, some practice might not fly.
In his discussion of directing, of acting and of the conjunction of those two arts, there is Branagh's fascination with how things are made to happen, but not much mention about what effects were, or are, intended.
``I began thinking of the move into film because, well, it's what you see when you're a child; one doesn't get much theatrical exposure in the single digits (of age),'' said Branagh. ``And I wanted, early on, to be involved in the original conception of things; not just as an actor, but as a creator, too.
``So after I learned what moves the camera basically makes, and could map them out in my head, turn them around some, I thought I should give it a go,'' continued Branagh. ``Terror informed my earliest efforts, and terror informs them now as well. It has become an awesome responsibility, though it really didn't begin that way for film directors.''
Branagh has learned well, choosing such veteran professionals as Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench, Glenda Jackson and Geraldine McEwan to work with and to invite to direct his Renaissance Theatre Company, which he founded in 1987.
He watched actors directing, and decided, as he said, that he should give it a shot.
``In a sense, directing yourself in film is easier than on the stage, because you can physically divorce yourself from your work, and see, moments or at most hours later, what you've done and what you'd like to do next,'' said Branagh. ``In the theater, you don't have that. You have to depend on others' opinions, or just feel yourself so perfectly in a physical way on the stage that you know everything you've done out there ... and also, of course, there are no `takes.'''
Branagh is well-equipped to deal with criticisms of his relative fresh-facedness when dealing with such daunting tasks: ``Well, maybe a younger man is better off tackling such a problem ... there's the energy reserve you need for 20-hour days. Orson Welles, after all, was 25 when he was working on `Citizen Kane.'''
The actor-director-manager also pointed out his painstaking production schedule on ``Henry V,'' which -- although it cost a fraction of most studio product -- allowed a theatrical pacing to enter the proceedings.
``We rehearsed a great deal; that was very important to me,'' said Branagh. ``Camera trickery and technological enhancements come a definite second; that's why I even resisted storyboarding the film too much, though I prefer to do that in general. Since I had done it on the stage (for the RSC), I wanted some of that roughness, that darkness to just come on in.
``Some of the scenes (mostly the battle scenes) were planned out months ahead of time; they had to be. But luckily I was blessed with actors that trusted me; oftentimes these days most actors aren't willing to spend that much time at one thing.''
In the wake of Branagh's Oscar noms -- and the riotous reception given to the Renaissance Company's recent American tour -- he was the recipient of the full brunt of show business interest, including the courtship of the studios and of several major talent agencies.
Branagh has no American representation as yet, and no production deals anywhere outside of Britain.
Still, Branagh has planned his next film -- a Hitchcockian thriller along the general lines of ``Strangers on a Train.''
``I haven't thought as to whether I'll cast myself in it,'' said Branagh with a chuckle. ``Most likely if I do, it'll be in a Hitchcockian role, in a newspaper ad or something. Leave thriller acting to the professionals.''