Entertainment Weekly, September
by Margot Dougherty
WITH HIS THRILLER 'DEAD AGAIN'
A SURPRISE HIT, KENNETH BRANAGH IS CUTTING AN ELEGANT SWATH THROUGH
The short blond man with two
shiny brown shoes is tired, and no wonder. Kenneth Branagh, the
wunderBrit who directed, stars, and costars in Dead Again, the
paranormal potboiler that breathed last-minute life into an otherwise
disappointing late- summer moviescape, has just capped off more
than a year of work on the film with a promotional campaign that
had him zigzagging from London to Dallas, Chicago, Seattle, New
York, and L.A. in the past few weeks. Now, back in his stripped-down
office on the Paramount lot, Branagh's baby blues are rimmed
with pink and as lusterless as the faded couch across from them.
But the 30-year-old actor-director can't complain. Already an
acclaimed Shakespearean-his 1989 film, Henry V, garnered him
Oscar nominations for acting and directing-he is clearly making
the most of his Hollywood success. "In a big country like
this, when people don't know who you are," says Branagh,
wearing a slouchy Ralph Lauren Polo shirt and Hollywood regulation
black jeans with his polished wing tips, "you've got to
go banging the drum a bit, like actors used to do in the village
It's not so much Branagh's drum
roll as his directing and acting that have made Dead Again an
unexpected hit. The stylish mystery, written by Scott Frank,
combines Hitchcock with Shirley MacLaine, black and white with
color, and '40s film noir with modern romance, but Branagh wasn't
first in line for the job. "We offered the script to all
the usual suspects," says Bill Horberg, Paramount's senior
vice president for production. "But the Larry Kasdans and
Peter Weirs either weren't interested or weren't available."
Branagh was both- to the extreme. "In our first meeting,"
remembers coproducer Lindsay Doran, "he said, 'You have
me at white-heat enthusiasm.'" Not exactly a good bargaining
stance-nor an easy sell for his backers. "It was an uphill
battle," Horberg recalls, "to convince some people
at the studio that Mr. British Shakespeare Art Film was a good
The suits can relax. Aside from
winning critical praise, Dead Again climbed to No. 1 at the box
office, earning nearly $20 million (it cost about $15 million
to make) in its first three weeks, which gives Mr. Art Film "an
overwhelming sense of relief. After 18 months of work,"
Branagh says, "you just want someone to like your film."
The thriller, which elicits gasps,
shudders, and screams from audiences without a single car chase
or mutable cyborg, is driven by parallel love stories. Composer
Roman Strauss (Branagh) and his wife, Margaret (Branagh's real-life
wife, Emma Thompson), led a charmed life until Margaret's brutal
stabbing-with a pair of elegant antique scissors-in 1949. Zip
to the present. Detective Mike Church and a fetching amnesia
victim he names Grace (Branagh and Thompson again) work with
a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) to unravel Grace's history.
With a cast that also included
Andy Garcia, German actress Hanna Schygulla, Campbell Scott,
and, in a surprise cameo, Robin Williams, Branagh had no shortage
of talent at his disposal. But he himself has been the center
of attention. He's continually shadowed by the comparison to
Orson Welles-another stage-trained Shakespearean who mastered
the Hollywood idiom on his very first try-but Branagh expertly
sidesteps the compliment. "I've been the beneficiary of
very good writing," he says. "I mean, Henry V has been
around for 400 years." As for Dead Again, he notes, "the
timing of the release (just as the summer movies were fading
at the box office) was crucial. And the fact that Dead Again
is so different has, I suspect, made the audience's reaction
There are conflicting opinions
on whether such statements represent false or real modesty. The
British press, which built Branagh up as the theater's savior,
has subsequently trashed him as an egomaniac, but others contest
the charge. "He originally wanted to have the opening credits
read Dead Again: A Scott Frank Film," reports producer Doran,
"but it was against union rules." Says Frank, "People
call him this arrogant enfant terrible. He's just not. He's got
a wonderful sense of humor about himself." Branagh claims
he's unfazed by the criticism: "You're exposed and some
people will like you and some people won't. Once people meet
me, they get disabused of the idea that I've got some ermine
Modest or not, Branagh likes
to take charge. "Ken is a true leader of folk," says
Emma Thompson. "He loves holding the reins." Branagh
says he's not as collected as he appears. "People wish to
see you cool when you're directing," he says. "They
need an anchor. The fact is, I'm just as frightened as anyone
One of the studio's fears with
Dead Again was that audiences might see through the American
accent Branagh developed for his detective role. Long before
shooting began, he put his verbal disguise to the test by visiting
a Hollywood book store. "I was f---in' terrified,"
he recalls. "I waited for someone to say (perfect John Wayne
drawl), 'Hey, you're not an Amerricun. How dare you come here
with your fancy British ways!' But I got away with it-then went
home and threw myself on the bed with the effort."
Branagh and Thompson's retreat
during the 10-week shoot was a rented house in the Hollywood
hills with a pool, a garden, and, he says, "a great view
of the city-if you could see through the smog." He spent
weekends learning his lines and brought home models of the set
"to practice my little shots." While shooting Henry
V, Branagh warmed up by directing a few scenes before he had
to step before the camera. "This time, right from the start,
it was goatees and hair gel and playing the piano," he says.
"His schedule was incredible,"
says Patrick Doyle, a Scottish friend who composed the film's
music. "He'd have a fitting, a dancing lesson, a voice lesson,
and a piano lesson and then he'd direct." Frank adds, "Ken's
like a shark. If he's not busy, he'll die."
Branagh got busy early. Born
the son of a carpenter in Belfast in 1960, he and his family
moved to Reading, England, when he was 9. There he had his first
lesson in the uses of artifice, quickly learning to substitute
the "suburban twang" of his schoolmates for his unfashionable
Irish brogue. At 16 he was plucked from the soccer team (he was
captain) to act in a play, and when the drama teacher suggested
he consider making acting a living, he gave up his planned career
in journalism. While attending the prestigious Royal Academy
of Dramatic Art, Branagh turned down a lucrative TV-movie offer
in order to play Hamlet instead. After graduating, he joined
the Royal Shakespeare Company, becoming the youngest member ever
to play Henry V. To prepare for the role, he met with Prince
Charles (who has since become a patron of Branagh's 4-year-old
acting troupe, the Renaissance Theatre Company). "He's a
very witty bloke," Branagh says. "Talking to him genuinely
affected the way I played Henry V." By the age of 28, he
had re-created that role in his acclaimed film version and, wasting
no time, written his autobiography, Beginning.
During this whirlwind of professional
activity, Branagh also managed to squeeze in a personal life:
Five years ago, while shooting Fortunes of War, a BBC miniseries
that later aired on Masterpiece Theatre, he met Thompson. They've
collaborated ever since: He made guest appearances on her popular
British TV comedy show Thompson; she played Princess Katharine
in his Henry V. "Emma is a uniquely gifted actress whom
I admire, but we don't make a point of working together,"
says Branagh. "And if it ever, ever, ever got problematic,
I wouldn't even dream of it." Still, there are advantages.
"If we didn't work together," says Thompson, "we'd
never see each other."
Branagh has no shortage of future
plans: He'd love to play Iago to Gerard Depardieu's Othello,
and says he'd jump at the chance to be directed by Coppola, Allen,
or Scorsese. But in the meantime, "I'd like to eat, drink,
and be merry," he says. "And maybe watch a few movies."
So before he plunges into his next project, Branagh plans another
career breakthrough: a vacation.
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium