His Gilderoy Lockhart Character Steals Harry Potter Film

Canadian Press, 19 November 2002
by Matt Wolf
** Thanks, Alexandra

LONDON (AP) -- It's not easy being called "a recluse," as several British tabloids have taken to characterizing Kenneth Branagh, especially when you're stealing what looks guaranteed to be one of this year's biggest films.

Reclusive, moi? "I've just been getting on with what I've been doing, basically," says Branagh, whose giddily self-absorbed Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets represents the kind of delicious supporting turn that sometimes leads to Academy Awards.

"I do work quite hard, but it's true to say my time away from work is very, very valuable. 'Reclusive' for me has meant being able to do things in the garden."

And anyway, the actor says, it's hardly as if the second film in a clearly lengthy franchise is solely about Branagh's presence in it.

"With the greatest respect to the people involved," he says, on this day a far chattier and more expansive presence than an actual recluse would ever be, "Harry Potter is such a self-sustaining thing; if ever there were a film that needed less help than others, it's Harry Potter."

That explains why Branagh has been slower to beat the drum for this movie than he has been on the string of Shakespeare stage-to-screen adaptations -- Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost -- on which the theatre-spawned British actor-director has largely staked his movie career.

What's more, his mother, Frances, has been ailing, and so, he says, "It reached the point where I think that kind of thing inevitably and naturally takes priority."

If family matters explained Branagh's absence from the press junkets for Harry Potter, his vanishing act from local gossip columns is an inevitable function of age (he turns 42 on Dec. 10) -- not to mention domestic circumstances.

Branagh is no longer the British wunderkind who had written his memoirs by the time he was 30 and whose erstwhile marriage to two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson once dominated British celebrity dish. (The couple divorced in 1997 after eight years.)

A starry liaison with Helena Bonham Carter now also yesterday's news, Branagh can afford to meet the press on more practical, and pleasurable, terms.

"Much as I am grateful for the privilege of my position," says Branagh, "I wouldn't wish to encourage any more celebrity and fame than that which I currently enjoy."

"I'd rather just get on with it," he says. "I like creating things. It's not about money and fame."

That makes him the exact opposite of the vainglorious Gilderoy, the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who lives for the very spotlight that Branagh disdains.

"Gilderoy would obviously sell his mother for a few column inches," says Branagh. "That's his oxygen."

Nonetheless, he continues: "The character on the page struck me as someone who must come across as just having a great time; there was no point in approaching Gilderoy in any way other than a full-blooded spirit of complete daftness."

How did Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, respond to the performance?

"She said, 'You were absolutely wonderful; you were absolutely loathsome.'"

That, to Branagh, was the supreme compliment: "Gilderoy is entertaining and completely irritating at the same time."

Branagh, whose roles include the celebrity-obsessed writer in Woody Allen's 1998 film Celebrity, knows that many will regard the performance as an exercise in self-parody. After all, not everyone has penned his own life story, Beginning, by 29.

"I just enjoyed the idea of sort of sending up the idea of what, God knows, I'd like to think is not the case with me -- though I would be dishonest if I told you I wasn't aware that, obviously, across the years the idea of me as an egomaniac has been something the popular press has been keen to promote."

He laughs and says: "I kind of enjoyed that some people would somehow think, with Gilderoy, that they were seeing the real guy."

Those who look carefully can see Branagh in various guises all over the place. As the small-scale antithesis to the mega-movie Harry Potter, the actor appears as a Depression-era bureaucrat in Western Australia in Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence.

"That was very much guerrilla filmmaking," Branagh says of the film, based on a true story about three aboriginal girls who were sent on a 1,900-kilometre trek across rural Australia.

Rabbit-Proof Fence was the yin, he says, to the Harry Potter yang -- "from a crew of 60 or 70 to a crew of 1,500." And a shooting schedule of two-to-three weeks to what on Harry Potter stretched across nine months.

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