Doing It For Woody
Daily Express, November 20 1998
by Neal Watson
Branagh takes up the challenge
NEW YORK -- He's played Hamlet
and Henry V, but Kenneth Branagh's most outrageous fortune was
to find himself cast in the role of Woody Allen.
OK, Branagh's not actually
playing Woody Allen in the filmmaker's latest, Celebrity, opening
Friday. But as any fan knows, the male lead in an Allen film
is almost always the Woody role - even if Woody isn't in the
film. And Allen and Branagh are polar opposites as actors - like
trying to imagine Dennis Franz as the gay friend in My Best Friend's
Wedding and Rupert Everett as NYPD Blue's Det. Sipowicz.
So it is a surprise, even
a bit disconcerting, to see the classically trained Branagh reducing
his awe-inspiring voice to a Woody-ish whine for Celebrity.
But Branagh cheerfuly admits
that playing his character, Lee Simon, the way Woody would have
was part of the deal.
"I made the radical
step of suggesting that my character wear jeans - which is something
rather extraordinary in a world of corduroy - and there was a
lot of discussion," said the amiable, entertaining Branagh,
casual in jeans and a blue T-shirt, but speaking in long, well-formed
sentences. "This was very big, a couple of day's drama,
and when I was getting changed into the very pair of jeans that
found their way into the movie, on the other side of the screen,
I heard Woody say to the costume designer, 'But I would never
wear jeans.' So in that sense the line between him, the character,
and me was blurred."
Branagh refers to a scene
with Leonardo DiCaprio, in which Branagh's character, a celebrity
journalist, is trying to sell a script idea to DiCaprio, playing
a young movie star.
"It seemed the whole
comic energy of that scene depended on my re-creating the nervous,
neurotic, twitchy, physically agitated, dignity-out-the-window
"He directed me a
lot in that scene and it was basically direction all getting
me up to Woody-speed. When it was slower, (the scene) it didn't
work. It wasn't as funny. It was exposed for what was kind of
a farcical set piece in what appeared to be a naturalistic sequence.
Any slower and you expose it. It only worked when it's so quick
that you can accept all that silliness.
"I felt that side
of the character overtook me rather than a deliberate attempt
to do it. He seemed to want to cast me more for what I might
bring to the more melancholic aspects of the latter part of the
picture ... where the character is maybe more exposed and real.
I got the impression that Woody felt he found it harder to accept
himself in those sequences."
Branagh, who showed up
for a round of Celebrity interviews wearing a modified handlebar
moustache for his next film, Wild Wild West, simply accepted
that the lines Allen had written required the particular rhythms
of Allen's own delivery.
So, he got up to Woody-speed
- like so many of the big names who take pay cuts and do what
they are told to be in a Woody film.
"I was ready to do
exactly what he wanted me to do," admits Branagh. "I
just wanted to get it right for him.
"I'm in awe of him
as an artist. I think his track record is extraordinary and the
films are never less than interesting."
Celebrity, believes Branagh,
fits very comfortably with the Allen canon.
"This is another exploration
of that Woody-alter ego that in his search for some form of happiness
bumps up against all the humourous conditions that illuminate
our experience in funny ways and sad ways and this, I think,
is both funny and melancholic."
Unlikely as it may have
seemed, Branagh is now part of that exploration.
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