Not A Quiet Actor's Life For Kenneth Branagh
The Christian Science Monitor,
February 28, 1996
by Sharon Basco
Taking a breather from big
films, he directs a comedy close to his heart - about actors
trying to do Shakespeare
The following is excerpted from
a Monitor Radio interview by Sharon Basco that aired Feb. 9.
When Kenneth Branagh made the
film version of ''Henry V,'' he was hailed as the next Orson
Welles or Laurence Olivier. It was his first film, and it earned
him an Oscar nomination and the New York Critics' Circle Best
Director Award. More praise followed for the 1991 film noir ''Dead
Again'' and for his lusty, all-star-cast version of ''Much Ado
About Nothing'' in 1993.
''Much Ado'' was the third film
Mr. Branagh made with his wife, actress Emma Thompson. Their
highly publicized separation last autumn capped off what Branagh
himself called ''an awful year'' - awful, too, because of the
critical and box-office failure of ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,''
the $40-million film he had directed and co-starred in with Robert
After ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,''
Branagh left the high-budget film world, at least temporarily,
and retreated to more familiar territory. He financed his own
film, ''A Midwinter's Tale,'' about actors staging a threadbare
production of ''Hamlet'' in a dilapidated village church.
Monitor Radio: Do you think
Americans connect with a story about eccentric regional British
Branagh: Well, I hope that the
film will get across to people regardless. In the states, I've
already come across a lot of people who have experiences of college
productions. Somebody said to me, ''You were in Minnesota. You
saw our production of 'Death of a Salesman.' This was it. This
was our nightmare.'' And other people who know nothing about
such things were just interested from the outside in, you know,
the lives of actors from a reasonably authentic viewpoint. Having
had some experience with this now, what's in the film is very
personal and nothing is exaggerated, from the mad-audition sequences
to the various nightmares associated with putting on a play with
Seeing this film, it is frightening
to think that it's close to reality.
Certainly I've had [crazy] women
come in and tap dance Shakespeare at me because they felt that,
in a couple of minutes, that would be the way to impress and
get the job. Or people doing it with glove puppets or just being
bad. And I've certainly been [on the other] side of the desk,
being bad as well, with nerves getting the better of one.
The opening of your film is
reminiscent of ''A Chorus Line'' with the actors introducing
I hadn't thought about that actually,
but it's certainly influenced by a lot of backstage stories.
I remember ''42nd Street'' and being struck and haunted by Warner
Baxter yelling at Ruby Keele, ''You're going out there a kid.
You're going to come back a star.'' It can change a life. And
that sort of dream in actors, and I guess in people who watch
actors, is ... that there'll be the [one] part or play that will
transform things ... and give you a great career.
You use a song by Noel Coward.
Well, there's something old-fashioned
about what the characters in the film want to do. They want to
somehow be back in a world where actors weren't quite so ridiculed
... and where anything was possible. Where a happy ending is
possible and where their natural disposition to be sentimental,
which is very true of actors, can be indulged.
Why didn't you use ''Don't
Put Your Daughter on the Stage''?
At one point, I had about a dozen
Noel Coward songs and you're right to pick up on it. All the
characters in the film are named from Noel Coward songs. [The
film] was going to be riddled with Noel Coward songs but in the
end we stuck with one which seemed to be a kind of keynote: ''Why
Must the Show Go On?''
Your hero ends up being so
unrealistically heroic. Why doesn't he take that tacky three-film
contract that he's offered and fly off to Hollywood?
Because every actor in that situation
would, and every actor would wish in their dream that they didn't,
that they were able to stay here, keep their souls pure and clean
and not run away.
Yeah, and stay poor. Stay happy
maybe, you know. Given that even actors who aspire to all that,
know that it doesn't necessarily contain the seeds of happiness.
[The film's] being in black-and-white, and in the slightly fairy
tale setting, led me to want a kind of happy ending that people
could feel was a little bit cheesy, but it was what I fancied
You haven't stayed poor. You
haven't taken any tacky three-film Hollywood contracts either,
but how happy do you stay being at the top?
Well, you said, ''stay poor.''
I said, ''stay happy.'' I've been in situations where I have
had the luxury of using my own money in these situations. Large
checks have been waved in my direction, and I occasionally have
happily accepted them if I thought that they also were connected
to good bits of work and where the money might finance something
Do you think there's a difference
in the way Americans approach the filmmaking process and the
way Brits do?
There's inevitably a cultural
difference. Since the birth of cinema, for 100 years, people
around the world have wanted to watch American movies more than
they've wanted to watch movies from their own countries. So that
means in our country often there's a chippy kind of resistance
to being mainstream in what might be thought of as an American
way, which means that at our worst we just do terrible kind of
pale imitations of what we think might be a successful American
That's where I notice a difference,
but the theatrical tradition does have a big influence. It has
a big influence on acting.... Sometimes, practically it helps
us and sometimes it gets in the way of being very good at acting.
We're not necessarily as free, we're more concerned about turning
up on time, being civilized, being polite with people. Ain't
necessarily the best way to get a good performance.
Britain has a history of patronage.
Didn't you have some sort of support from the Prince of Wales?
The Prince of Wales, way back
when I was playing Henry V in the theater, in the Royal Shakespeare
Company and then later on, became patron of our theater company,
which ran for about seven years, called the Renaissance Theatre
He's very interested in the arts,
he's been a good supporter to the company. You don't get many
experiences where you're playing Shakespearean characters who
are often kings and queens and princes - people who experience
a kind of isolation that as an actor it's harder to have direct
experience of - to meet someone like that.
It is interesting to see how
people deal with [royalty], to have a sense of the inevitable
melancholy that it produces - to be treated, however privileged
they are, as a kind of creature from outer space. To see the
loneliness that it involves, however many private planes you
get on. There's no plane to take you away from yourself. In some
strange way, I think that informed the playing of the role for
me, and he was very open and honest about talking about it.
Where do you come down in
the debate over violence in films?
To put it in highfalutin' terms
- if it's good art, then it's good enough. Shakespeare wrote
plays like ''Titus Andronicus'' where people had hands chopped
off, tongues cut out, where people are baked in pies. They put
eyes out in ''King Lear,'' so you know sex and violence have
been part of everybodys' lives. If it's appropriate for the story,
if it's presented with integrity, I think it's right. Maybe it's
copping out to not worry about the social ramifications of that,
but there seem to be about 19 different double standards that
If it's good art, it's good.
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