Kenneth Branagh on Brexit, Battling the Blues, the Last Time He Cried - and His Biggest Film Flop (That Cost Hollywood $45 million)
Workaholic. Talented. Smug. Precious. Dedicated. Difficult. Charming… Kenneth Branagh has many labels but no one doubts his commitment to his role as Britain’s greatest actor-director. Here he discusses those comparisons with Laurence Olivier and life from Shakespeare to Thor.
The Telegraph, 16 August 2016
As an actor, director, theatre manager, you might argue that Kenneth Branagh is in the business of emotionally moving people. But what, you might wonder, moves Branagh himself?
In the offices of the rehearsal studio where he is preparing for a new production of John Osborne’s play 'The Entertainer, Branagh gives the question some thought.
‘Two nights ago, I was watching 'Long Lost Family' with Nicky Campbell and Davina McCall – that kind of thing I find very moving. I have a little Jack Russell dog who I just adore; he makes me cry, because he’s just so there and loves life. And I love the month of May.
I love it when that light hits this country and you see all that growth, all that possibility. I get that Seasonal Disorder thing, where I get very sad come mid-October when the nights draw in and I want to use every moment of the light that one can. So the arrival of May. That moves me a great deal...’
At the age of 55, having for more than 30 years been regarded as one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors, having run his own theatre company, won Oscar nominations and Baftas, seen his reputation soar, plummet and soar again, Branagh has latterly been back on what many regard as his natural home, the stage.
For the past nine months, the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company has been in residence at the Garrick Theatre in London, presenting a season of plays, produced, co-directed (with his associate director, Rob Ashford) and in some cases featuring Branagh himself.
Next week sees the opening of the sixth and last play in the season, John Osborne’s 1957 state-of-England drama 'The Entertainer', in which Branagh plays the role of the fading music-hall performer, Archie Rice. ‘An interesting critter…’ as he puts it.
'The Entertainer' is set in 1956, against the background of the Suez crisis, when Britain invaded Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal and depose Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but was forced into a humiliating withdrawal after demands from America and the USSR. Like Britain, Archie Rice is in decline; once-popular, now reduced to appearing twice-nightly in a shabby nude revue.
The play is largely set in the Rice family home, where Archie holds forth with his downtrodden wife Phoebe and his father Billy – himself an old music-hall trouper grumbling about the good old days. One son, Mick, is a soldier, away fighting in Suez; another son, Frank, has been in jail for refusing conscription.
In this claustrophobic milieu it is daughter Jean who offers a glimmer of a more hopeful future, returning home from a rally in Trafalgar Square, and questioning whether the future might offer more than marriage to her dependable fiancé.
This domestic mise en scène is interpolated with Archie performing his act – a soft-shoe shuffle, jokes that die the moment he tells them (‘I’ve taken my glasses off; I don’t want to see you suffering’) – and maudlin songs about soldiering on and ‘good old England, you’re my cup of tea’: a singing and dancing metaphor for Imperial Britain on its uppers.
In his introduction to the play, John Osborne sounded an elegiac note. ‘The music hall is dying, and, with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once be-longed to everyone, for this was truly folk art.’
‘You could see it as a lament for England,’ Branagh says, ‘a minor key, dying-fall piece of music that was regretful and backward-looking. But the thing to remember is that Osborne was 26 when he wrote it, and at its centre is this passionate, vituperative exploration.’
It’s impossible not to feel that we’re living through another moment of historical import politically (Branagh knew Osborne towards the end of the playwright’s life when he took the role of Jimmy Porter in a 1989 production of 'Look Back in Anger', directed by Judi Dench.
‘He was somebody who was dazzlingly sweet and benign and kind,’ Branagh remembers, ‘and also, in his cups, terrifyingly waspish. So he felt like a beautifully dangerous friend.’) ‘With Suez there was this sense of the world mocking us,’ Branagh goes on, ‘and this once great Empire shrinking to this tiny little island.
So if it’s the end, who are we now? Can we live with being small players in the world, and how does that permeate into society – you can really feel all that ferment in this play. ‘And it also has what I describe as an angry young woman, in Archie’s daughter Jean [played by Sophie McShera].
She’s the one that has this feeling that something should or must be done. As the Buddhists say, the greatest possibility for advancement occurs at the greatest point of negativity. So Suez is a national disaster, but at the same time you feel the play really captures this moment of possibility and change.’
A political parallel
Post the Brexit vote, Branagh believes, it also has a distinctly contemporary resonance. ‘It’s impossible not to feel that we’re living through another moment of historical import politically. And it will be interesting to see how that plays with the audience.’
The role of Archie Rice was made famous, first on stage and later on film, by Sir Laurence Olivier. At the time it was seen as a major departure for Olivier, who rejoiced in his standing as England’s finest classical actor, and whom audiences were more accustomed to seeing performing Shakespearean roles on the West End stage than playing a washed-up failure in the tiny Royal Court theatre.
For Olivier, Archie Rice was a major risk, but it proved a triumph. The eminent Sunday Times theatre critic Harold Hobson wrote: ‘You will not see more magnificent acting than this anywhere in the world.’ And Olivier’s performance has been seen as the yardstick for the role ever since.
In this regard, the character carries a particular charge for Branagh, whose career seems almost to have marched in lockstep with Olivier’s. When, in the late 1980s, Branagh first made his name on the British stage, he was described as ‘the new Olivier’.
He made his debut as a film director in 1989 starring in 'Henry V' – which Olivier had directed and starred in in 1944. In 1996, he remade Olivier’s Oscar winner, 'Hamlet' – and came away with an Oscar nomination himself for his (four-hour) adaptation.
And in 2011, he actually played the role of Olivier in 'My Week with Marilyn', Simon Curtis’s film about the difficult relationship between Olivier and Marilyn Monroe when the pair were filming 'The Prince and the Showgirl' in 1956. Branagh was nominated for both a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Golden Globe for the role.
And now here is Branagh, once again, in the role that Olivier made his own. What’s going on? Shakespearean actors, of whatever generation, he says, all tend to play the same roles.
Following in his footsteps
Of his contemporaries, Mark Rylance, Daniel Day-Lewis, Simon Russell Beale, Ralph Fiennes – all have followed in Olivier’s footsteps. ‘And if you look back to the next generation after his ascendancy – Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney – you’ll find a lot of those people also being called “the next Olivier” if they were prominent in any of the parts he’d played.
'I think it’s very hard for us to understand what a dominant figure Olivier was in the second half of the 20th century, by way of defining what an actor was, because he was a great movie star, he was a great-looking fella, he was in a glamorous marriage… marriages.
He was somebody against whom all others were judged, including me. ‘The actor-manager thing, I suppose, is where I’m a little closer to the kinds of things Olivier did than others might be. But frankly, in any kind of comparison, I’ll be the first to say, hats off to Sir Laurence, you win.’
As to following Olivier in 'The Entertainer', it was director Rob Ashford who three years ago suggested that Branagh should do the play. ‘The play, and the prospect of the part, were much more overpoweringly enticing than any concerns about whether it might seem that one was once again trying to lay out some sort of career path with Olivier.
And the play, I suspect, will make an impact that has little to do with who is playing Archie. The play is the star.’ Some who have worked with Branagh describe him as private, difficult to know. But he is genial company – a man with no ‘side’; quick to laugh, happy to answer any questions you might throw at him.
Rob Ashford observes of Archie Rice that he is ‘more comfortable on stage than in his own lounge’. Such is Branagh’s appetite for work that one is tempted to make the same observation of him. ‘Well, I don’t know if that’s true,’ he says. ‘But I do know that I have often found myself feeling very, very, very at home on a stage.
I remember when I went to Stratford in 1984, and was playing 'Henry V', I’d always like to arrive early. I was on stage doing a bit of a warm-up and Antony Sher, who’s an actor I love and admire, came in and asked what I was up to. And I said, “I just love it! Love it!
When you think of all the people who have been here, stretching all the way back to Garrick...” I was 23. I was in a place I’d started reading about when I was 15, that I’d hitch-hiked to when I was 17.
It’s hard to describe how once I understood what it could be like to be an actor, how utterly myself I felt. It was nothing to do with ambitions to be famous or earn lots of money, but simply living this life of the theatre.’
Branagh was born and brought up, one of three children, in a working-class Protestant family in Belfast (any accent long-since effaced). His father was a carpenter, his mother a housewife. The family moved to England when Branagh was nine, and the Troubles were growing more intense.
Settled in Reading, Branagh took up acting at school, going on to study at Rada. Hugh Cruttwell, who was the school’s principal during the time Branagh studied there, described him as ‘born to act’. At 23, Branagh joined the RSC, becoming the youngest actor ever to play the crowning role of Henry V at Stratford.
His rise was meteoric. By the age of 27 he was actor-manager of his own company, the Renaissance Theatre Company. At 28 he was starring in and directing his own film of 'Henry V'. At the same time he published his autobiography, Beginning.
Critics took it as the ultimate conceit – although anybody who had bothered to read as far as the introduction would have discovered that Branagh had been approached by publishers to write the book and used the advance to put Renaissance on a firm footing.
Success seemed to just give more people more reasons to disdain Branagh. In 1989 he married Emma Thompson, in a lavish wedding at Cliveden, with the guest list including Stephen Fry, Ben Elton and Judi Dench – a union that gave observers yet another reason to invoke the name of Olivier, and his marriage to Vivien Leigh.
In 1991 he directed a US box-office number one with 'Dead Again' (1991), starring Thompson and himself. (Branagh and Thompson divorced in 1995, following Branagh’s affair with Helena Bonham Carter.)
To many, Branagh seemed a man, as one journalist described him, ‘who’s perpetually finding new ways to be precocious.’ Is that a description he would have recognised? ‘Well, I’m not the person to say...’ Oh yes you are.
He laughs. ‘I’m sure there must have been plenty of times when one might have seemed overbearing or whatever. But I would say that I carried a sense, particularly through that early period, of joy about what was being done. And I think sometimes that annoyed a few people.
‘I remember once a director of a certain age, it was in a social situation and I was laughing and having a bit of a joke with somebody, and he looked at me very cynically and he said “Oh I see, that’s what it is with you.
You’re always happy aren’t you?” I said, no not always, but I’m happy right now…And it was like he’d analysed the trick I was performing; that I appeared to be enjoying myself. And he felt this was pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes; I should be something more tortured. I think people wanted that.
‘And if you get some prominence early on people think, well that’s one story, so we’d better have another part of the story, and that ought to be the massive catastrophic collapse.
He needs to have a big, big failure, and then the comeback is interesting, and then we can start to like him because he’s less of a threat; he’s been beaten up. We need to know he’s taken the worst. We don’t want a smooth passage for anybody.’
As it happens, Branagh did have his big, big failure. In 1994, he directed and starred in 'Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein', his first big-budget film for Hollywood, at a cost of $45m. It was a horrendous flop. Critics rejoiced.
He shrugs. ‘I could have quoted many other times when I’d had terrible notices, but certainly bigger scale, bigger money… yes, in certain quarters there was glee, but there’s nothing unusual about that.
‘And then afterwards, when you’re able to put it in perspective – the fact is a movie, a piece of work, hasn’t worked in a very spectacular way; but that’s all it is. Nobody died. I was making another picture two months after we opened – 'In the Bleak Midwinter' – and went on to do 'Othello' and 'Hamlet'.
So within 18 months I’d done a lot of other work I was proud of. I’d survived.’ The film that restored Branagh’s reputation as a director in Hollywood was one that nobody might have expected him to make – the Marvel comics popcorn hit, 'Thor', made in 2011.
Accustomed to dictating his own terms as a director, Branagh found himself in the unusual position of having to pitch for the film.
‘One thing that does keep you honest in this game is that things do shift,’ he says. ‘I see this while directing sometimes - big actors who’ve had lulls in their careers come after you really pushing to be in parts, when you’d only expect them to be in receiving mode.
‘People are less interested in your best film - they’re interested in your last film and how did it do. And you’ve got to get out and hustle a bit, whether you like it or not. Nobody’s walking in saying "Oh Kenneth, we’re so honoured to be having this meeting with you."
They’re saying, "so how would you do 'Thor' if you were doing it?" So you have to have a point of view of that and not get the hump about being in an audition position.’
'Working for Marvel,’ says one close associate of Branagh, ‘you’re basically part of the machine; they call the shots on everything. But Ken just decided that what he had to do was suppress all his natural controlling instincts and just do it.
His job was to direct something fantastic, bring it in on time and on budget and make it a big success, which he absolutely did, and completely revived his career.’
Made on a budget of $150m, Thor grossed $450m worldwide, elevating Branagh to the status of what in Hollywood is known as ‘full freight’, and affording him the opportunity to make 'Cinderella' (2015) on a budget of $95m, which grossed $544m worldwide.
'He galvanises people'
Those who have worked with Branagh talk of him as an actor and director who shows great loyalty and inspires it. ‘He loves what he does, and that’s very infectious,’ Judi Dench says.
She recalls that working on 'Henry V' (in which she played Mistress Quickly), Branagh ‘knew the name of every single person on the film – and I don’t just mean the cast. He galvanises people, and you want to do your best for him.’
‘One reason people like working with him so much is that he’s very exacting; he pushes himself very hard,’ says Andy Harries, who produced the 'Wallander' television series, in which Branagh played the title role of the obsessively driven Scandanavian detective.
Between 2008 and 2015 Branagh made 12 episodes of 'Wallander', each 90 minutes long. It was, he says, ‘a game changer’ for him: the series was a critical success, put him firmly back in the public eye and won him a Best Actor Bafta in 2010.
Harries recalls that at one period shooting coincided with Branagh preparing to make 'Thor'. ‘He would be prepping in the evenings, doing conference calls after performing all day. And Wallander was a really big part, and a demanding part. I think he found it a very dark part to inhabit.’
Lily James, who starred in 'Cinderella', and, most recently, 'Romeo and Juliet' offers a more lighthearted account of Branagh’s capacity for multi-tasking. When both Richard Madden, and his understudy were forced to pull out of the role of Romeo due to injuries, Freddie Fox was hastily drafted in.
‘As Ken was waiting to go on stage to explain to the audience what was going on he was practicing his tap-dancing steps for The Entertainer. He was really good!’
A word that frequently recurs among those who have worked with Branagh to describe him is ‘workaholic’. ‘I would describe myself as an artist...’ Not quite the same thing, surely.
‘I would say that it’s vocational. I do what’s necessary to enable projects. If your ambition is to do creative work, and for it to be the best it can possibly be, then you have to work to create that.
And if you want to do a great film or play, or have the possibility, like this season, of working with a group of people who might produce something magical, then you’re probably going to have to work a bit in the day and make some calls in the evening. It’s a price to pay.
A fresh start
But I feel I do switch off in my own way.’ Branagh is now married to Lindsay Brunnock, an art director whom he met in 2001 while both were working on the TV drama 'Shackleton', about the polar explorer. They married in 2003. In stark contrast to his first wedding, the ceremony was held in the apartment of a friend in New York, with only a few people in attendance.
They have no children. Branagh is a man of moderate habits. He took up smoking at the age of 34, at a time when his career was in the doldrums – ‘a daft late start on that one’ – but gave up 10 years ago following the death of both his parents from smoking-related illnesses.
Death, he says, ‘got closer. And I made certain determinations.’ He drinks ‘less than I used to. I’ve got too much to do to drink too much.’ He practices yoga and is a keen meditator – 30 minutes, twice a day.
This, he says, has helped him to maintain an even emotional keel. ‘I wouldn’t say I was prone to extensive periods of depression – I’ve known people who have been, including my mother.
But I’ve certainly known dark moments, and I think work on the meditation was definitely part of overcoming moments like that. He pauses.
‘I do think that at 55 one is just more sensitive to the wonder of being alive. I’ve been so lucky. Here I am, dancing around as Archie Rice and the machine seems to be working. At this stage, everything is a bonus.’
The Entertainer plays at the Garrick Theatre, London, from August 20 to November 12 (branaghtheatre.com), and is broadcast live to cinemas on October 27 (branaghtheatrelive.com)