Branagh in the Works
After years of toxic press, Kenneth Branagh has made a triumphant return. He talks exclusively about remarriage, depression and the horror of playing Mamet's anti-hero
Kenneth Branagh has a way of pointing at you to make a point, rather in the manner of that Lord Kitchener First World War recruitment poster: 'Your Country Needs You'. It is nice to be able to return the compliment. Now playing the title role in David Mamet's Edmond at the National, following more than a decade away, he has had stunning reviews and his country seems at last (it has not always been like this) to be on his side.
I walk into the National Theatre to find Jane Bown peering delightedly at Ken who is leaning back on a sofa - she has not quite finished her pictures. Good - this gives me permission to stare. Ken tells me he has already gone through a whole repertoire of expressions for the camera. But I am struck - and continue to be throughout our interview - by the sameness of his face: thoughtfully benign seems to be the norm.
The forehead, you can see, has done quite a bit of frowning in its time and the hair is working hard at self-expression - blond and spiky. He is unshaven but only partially succeeds in creating an unsmooth impression. His clothes are neutral: navy shirt, black shoes - almost a uniform. 'I don't have an image,' he tells me later.
We retire into a huge, deserted room with several long, upturned tables, as though the National had cancelled all future conferences. It is quiet - although the windows are open and, if you stood up, you would see the Thames. From the moment I meet Ken, I am in the grip of a peculiar delusion (not - I swear - routine when meeting actors) that I know him well, that he is my old friend, that this is one of many conversations between us (only that I can't, oddly, recall the others). It is his doing - brought on by his relaxed manner. He behaves as if he knew me.
I'd guess that Ken must have this effect on everyone, if I didn't know better. You'd think that no sane person could say that he was not nice or could not act but - Nothing Fails like Success. His press coverage has been toxic throughout his career. Even when his life did go wrong - the 1994 Frankenstein film was a critical disaster and his marriage to Emma Thompson broke up after six years - he didn't get the sympathy vote. Instead, there was much questioning of his talent and snooping into his affair with Helena Bonham Carter. No wonder he seldom gives interviews.
Privacy, he tells me now, is a state of mind. What matters he says - pointing at me - is 'whether you feel you have it'. He tries to protect himself by not looking at papers. He reads reviews but only at the end of a run when the press officer gives them to him in a fat folder, like end-of-term reports. But it is not easy.
People tell him what they have read. When one of the tabloids described him, in a particularly vicious piece, as a commitment-phobic, chronic womaniser, he found support from even the most 'unworldy people' who expressed 'tremendous cynicism' about a piece filled with quotes from 'friends on the set who were never named'. Ken laughs. You have to have a tough skin, he says, to protect yourself from the 'daftness of the media'. He has learnt not to let it get to him - or to show that it does; 'daftness' sets the tone.
He fiddles with the thin paper tube that holds the sugar for his coffee - a substitute for a cigarette (Ken is a dedicated smoker; the National's a no-smoking zone). I tell him he sounds admirably level - almost too good to be true.
What rocks his boat? Without hesitation, he replies: 'Laziness in other people. Lack of effort. In the business we do, we are so unbelievably privileged. I know people who'd give their right arm to be in our places. One should give of one's best.'
He does occasionally go royal on you and slip into statements-from-the-palace - a tendency that can't have helped him when, in his twenties, he was pilloried for daring to be the new Sir Laurence Olivier. But at that time, Branagh had reason for hubris - he had been, at 23, the youngest Henry V ever cast by the RSC; he went on to set up the Renaissance theatre company with his friend David Parfitt and persuaded Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to join him. He was a brilliant actor, manager and director but sneered at for having the temerity to produce, at only 28, an autobiography, Beginning.
No surprise then that Middle is not about to hit our shelves. Yet his middle period - he is 42 - looks set to trump beginning. He has done outstanding work in the past couple of years - and seen off the old idea of 'civilised' Ken - only capable of playing Mr Nice Guys. His chilling portrait of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi general, in the film Conspiracy won him an Emmy, his Ernest Shackleton, the Arctic explorer, for which he got a Bafta nomination was superb and Edmond is a tour de force. But my personal favourite is his cameo performance as Gilderoy Lockhart - the charlatan in the second Harry Potter film - a small, smarmy masterpiece.
Ken's middle period has also seen the blossoming of his private life and a renewed determination to keep it private. His second marriage to art director Lindsay Brunnock - let's hope they don't double-barrel their surnames - took place in secret, last June, in New York. It was a small affair - with only seven people present - held in the flat of some of the actors in The Play What I Wrote, the hit comedy Ken directed here and on Broadway. The ceremony was in contrast to - and perhaps reaction against - the pomp and circumstance of his first marriage at Cliveden in 1989.
Weeks ago, a parcel arrived for me in the post - a DVD of a 23-minute film called Listening which Ken had written and directed himself. Accompanying it, was a card upon which he had written in runaway black ink: 'You may find out something about me from this perhaps...'
The film was not, at first, encouraging for a prospective interviewer - it is set in a silent retreat. Possible clues: a wish to get away from it all, not to have to perform? 'From now on, no more words,' Nanette Newman, a worker at the retreat, announces. I made a mental note to tease Ken about having 'written' a play with (almost) no words. The story is about falling in love and acquiring peace. It does not have a happy ending. I found it funny, moving - and pretentious.
I thanked him for the film. Had he ever been on a retreat himself? He hasn't - but he thinks words often work too hard, that we are all 'enslaved' by the wish to demystify what should stay mysterious. He says: 'It is important for anyone, anywhere to find peace.' He has this tendency to turn himself into 'anybody, anywhere' which is not as far-fetched as it might be with another actor. For Ken is a sort of Everyman: an ordinary bloke who extraordinarily transforms himself.
'He refuses to 'perform' as himself though: 'I hate to be "on" all the time,' he says. 'I've seen actors who start to talk about themselves in the third person.' He is nobody's mouthpiece either. Asked what his greatest fault is, he says: 'I've taken less of the larger responsibilities that people have wished to put my way. I am not a committee man. I don't work for the great and the good.'
Ken's happiness in his new life is transparent. He loves living in England - prefers it to the US. Why? 'The seasons,' he begins simply. (Richard Briers once affectionately described Branagh as talking 'in primary colours' - and it is true). He sees England as home, even though he was born in Belfast, the son of a joiner and has, at times, liked to make something of his Irishness. He was nine when he moved to Reading and now lives, not far from his parents, in Berkshire, in a house decorated by his friend Tim Harvey, the production designer on many of his films. The house, he tells me, is filled with books. Someone once lent him the Penguin Classics - 'all 400 of them' - and has never asked for them back. Ken, who went straight from school to Rada, is reading his way through them - he has just finished Goethe's Elective Affinities, which he thinks might make a film. But his days of uninterrupted reading may be numbered - he hopes to become a father. 'I love kids,' he says. But he does not want to tempt providence, he knows it might not happen. He thinks of friends of his who have not been lucky.
Towards the end of the interview, I politely wonder if he is playing Edmond that night. This gets more of a reaction than any question I have yet asked. 'NO!' he explodes, 'We wouldn't be talking if I was'. On a morning when Ken knows he has to descend into Edmond (the play is a hellish Rake's Progress - or Regress) he wakes with a feeling of dread, knowing there is no way out. It was a part he felt 'compelled' to take on 'which is not quite the same as wanting to do it'.
Psyching himself up takes a long time. He arrives at the National at about 6pm. He can't eat anything (he will make sure to have had something at breakfast time - and to have swallowed a handful of vitamins). He has half an hour meditating during which he tries to empty his mind. Once on stage, Edmond sometimes plays him: 'Part of the anxiety is that you know where you start but you do not know where you are going.' Stripping on stage is 'not an issue' for him - nothing to the other challenges involved in the part. Once the performance is over, he is on a high. When the run is over, he hopes to work for Nick (Hytner) and 'with Ed' (Edward Hall) again.
Ken once said in an interview that he suffered from depression and has not been allowed to forget it. But is it true? He goes for the Everyman answer: the find-me-one-creative-person-who-doesn't-suffer-from-depression. But he doesn't deny it. 'It does not dominate the way I function,' he explains. He refers, at one point, to Churchill's 'black dog'. But when the dog of depression snaps at Ken's ankles, he responds by taking his own dog, a merry little terrier crossbreed called Susie (acquired at Battersea Dogs Home) for a walk. Susie, he says, rules his and Lindsay's lives at home. He unwisely starts to tell me: 'You can learn a lot from being around animals because they live in the moment.' He repeats this as if to drum the wisdom of it into his head. 'And dogs also bound out in the morning.'
Steady on, I think. And Ken - his own pretentiousness detector perhaps starting to flash red - changes tack to tell a joke about a man who goes to see a shrink because he thinks he is a dog. The shrink invites him to lie down on the couch, but the man says he can't because he's not allowed on it.
Ken can be a wag (if the word may be permitted in this context). But seriously, what else can he do to overcome depression? And it is then that he surprises me. He lets me know he can control his own moods. He even gestures as if in charge of a swing - giving it a firm push. 'My response is simple. I tell myself, "Be cheerful."' He smiles broadly - and all I can say to him is the method seems to be working.