by Cary M. Mazer
**thanks to Toni Slaven
Seven years ago, Kenneth Branagh
was cinema's (and Shakespeare's) newest wunderkind. Now he's
a big-time movie star taking on the biggest challenge of all
-- directing himself in the title role of Hamlet.
I admit that I was a bit frightened
about interviewing actor-director Kenneth Branagh.
I had interviewed him for City
Paper back in 1989, when he came through Philadelphia promoting
his first film, Henry V. He was then virtually unknown to Americans,
except through a few supporting roles in British films (notably
A Month in the Country) and television (the serialized Fortunes
of War, where he met his wife Emma Thompson; and does anyone,
other than me, remember him as Glenda Jackson's son in Act 9
of an endless British TV adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Strange
But I already knew his work in
England on stage, from his debut season with the Royal Shakespeare
Company in 1984 (playing Henry V, Laertes and the King of Navarre
in Love's Labour's Lost), and from some of his work with the
Renaissance Theatre, the stage company that he had brashly co-founded
in the late '80s, for which he played Hamlet (directed by Derek
Jacobi) and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (directed by Judi
Dench). He was a star on the rise -- certainly stellar enough
for me, a stagestruck, starstruck Shakespearean, to hold in awe.
But he was also (I was assured
by my friend Russell Jackson, a professor at the Shakespeare
Institute in Stratford who works with Branagh as his literary
advisor) a down-to-earth worker in the theatrical trenches.
And so he was.
The American reception of Henry
V, along with its Academy Award nominations, changed all that.
The Renaissance company toured the United States, first playing
in -- you guessed it -- Los Angeles. Other film directing projects
followed (Dead Again, Peter's Friends, Much Ado About Nothing,
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for Francis Ford Coppola and A Midwinter's
Tale), as did other film roles (including Iago in Oliver Parker's
Othello), and a Hollywood-style separation and divorce.
So this time, when Branagh was
in town for an invitational screening of his new four-hour Hamlet
film, I was interviewing, not a laborer, not a self-made star-in-the-making,
but a certifiable star.
Meeting him in his suite at the
Four Seasons, I was soon set at ease. He was relaxed, smoking.
His face was somewhat more creased (he turned 36 in December),
with a trim goatee which he had grown for a day of shooting in
Boston the day before, playing a priest opposite Madeleine Stowe.
(Needless to say he no longer had that Annie Lennox early-Eurythmics
hairdo nor the little brown soul patch under the lip that he
had worn for Hamlet.) And, as before, he was eager to talk about
filmmaking, acting, actors, and above all Shakespeare.
Cary M. Mazer: I last had
the chance to interview you when you had just directed your first
film, Henry V , and people were comparing you to Laurence Olivier
(who had made his film-directing debut directing himself in that
same role) and to the young Orson Welles. Seven years later,
you've directed seven films, three of them adaptations of Shakespeare.
Now when you want to make a movie you get major studio backing;
you make a four-hour film in 70 mm; and instead of scouting out
a villa in Tuscany as you did for Much Ado About Nothing , you
get to build a million-dollar set of a baroque throne room on
two sound stages. Has all this changed you as an artist?
Kenneth Branagh: It sounds rather
extraordinary when you put it in a potted version like that.
Thank God it happened over a period in which, project to project,
one was unaware of the extraordinary way in which one's path
hasbeen paved. Every venture, every Shakespeare film has been
difficult to finance, and every one of the other films has had
its dramas and anxieties. I've taken nothing for granted -- at
least I tell myself that I'm taking nothing for granted. So I
just kind of get on with it, head down. And I have the real luxury
of being able to pursue those things that really passionately
We had no concept of the success
and the kind of acclaim that Henry V would receive, and the sort
of faintly invidious position it puts you in internally: you
realize that with one film you are not suddenly a man who knows
how to make films, or any form of expert about Shakespeare, but
simply someone who has produced this piece of work that had an
extraordinary reaction. A lot of that time in between has been
spent practicing as hard as I can to begin to understand a little
more of this thing that I hadn't exactly fallen into, but that
I certainly fell into an accelerated version of... and that can
and probably has been rather throwing.
Coming back to Hamlet, which
in a way is a kind of full circular thing: I felt that when we
started this, I had a much greater right to be making the film;
that if I didn't know exactly what I was doing, I at least had
much more information, much more knowledge, and a deal more experience,
about playing the role, about Shakespeare, and about doing what
I was still interested in doing.
CMM: Do you still feel daunted
when you start a project, or when you arrive on the set for the
first day of shooting?
KB: Getting sleep is a tough
thing to do. It's a constant anxiety, and I'll go through various
things: I'll take some sleeping pills, I'll take some herbal
pills, I'll try to have a massage, or anything that will trick
me into getting the sleep that is necessary. That's a crucial
thing; it's a very Shakespearean thing. Shakespeare always denies
sleep to his tragic heroes in moments of crisis, a spectacular
example being Macbeth. In Macbeth he calls it "nature's
balm... the cure for hurt minds." You don't get sleep because
you are anxious.
CMM: As an actor or as a director?
KB: In both cases. As an actor
because you are aware of a greater amount of expectation, particularly
from yourself, in playing a role that is so open to interpretation,
which relies so heavily on the personality of the actor. Whether
it's Shakespeare or anything else, your try to find, in the current
state of knowledge, what you think to be the sort of appropriate
state of preparation to act well.
This is a constant mystery to
me, because it changes all the time. It changes as you get older,
you work with different people, it's a different project, you're
having a bad day, you're having a good day, it worked yesterday
when you had drank a cup of coffee before the take, but then
a cup of coffee makes you forget your lines... You get anxious
as an actor; and as a director, you're anxious for other people.
CMM: You've done this role
several times on stage, for different directors, and you've done
a radio version. Was there a sense here, because this is a big-budget
film, or because of your age, that this was going to be your
last crack at it, that this is the version that's going to fix
KB: Absolutely. "Time's
winged chariot" was hurrying very near. What I tried to
do was to convince myself, with many years of preparation, direct
and indirect, experience in playing the part, with my own relationship
with the part, with all the homework in the world done, that,
in a way that couldn't really happen when I did Henry V, my obligation
as Hamlet was, once that camera turned, to be as real and as
natural and as truthful as possible in the moment, within the
style of what we were doing, and to forget about all that information,
forget about what you prepared. Julie Christie used to say to
me, "You do it different every time, don't you?" I
said, "If you say it different to me, I'll say it different
to you." It's just however it comes out.
We've got to trust the work we've
done. I don't believe in trying, on film, to repeat some loved
moment from the theater, recreating something, repeating things
--"I was terribly effective when I did the line like that."
I like to try to give it away, and just, in that moment, to have
worked up to the point where you might be able to leap off into
some inspirational percentage, that you and the other actors
might just catch something so that your scene and the performance
sings a bit in that kind of mysterious way.
CMM: Can you give me an example
from the film?
KB: The closet scene was different
with Julie Christie than any time I had played it before. There's
one specific scene -- it's a scene I like very much -- the "recorder"
scene, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, after the play. We
were in this tight space in this little theater we created, and
the camera crew and everybody was saying, "You should break
this up -- this shot here, this shot there -- let's block it
so that we can cover it from six or seven different angles."
And I said, "No, I feel that we should do this in one."
I've always wanted that scene in the theater to go like some
whippet; Hamlet is in a way at his least attractive, but he's
also at his wittiest, with his extraordinary aggression against
these two lads. We had everybody kind of cooking at the right
time, and I thought the scene was funny and vicious.
We did a number of things in
the film where we shot things in one, which puts some real flame
under the actors. They get kind of nervous; it creates a kind
of theatrical effect. It actually helped to create conditions,
as I thought, that were conducive to bringing out that sort of
extra under-the-skin kind of tingle that the audience can feel,
I'm sure, when it's happening right in front of you, and you
don't know what's going to happen next.
CMM: Are stage actors or film
actors more receptive to that kind of approach?
KB: I find my best experiences
are with people who do a combination of the two. What you do
have from stage actors is an ability to learn three or four pages
of dialogue, and to be able to come up with it zippily, and not
need to do it line by line. If you've got actors who can remember
it and are really on the tips of their toes about it, and they're
also good film actors, then I think you get the best of both
worlds. I sometimes feel frustrated when I want to do things
with the camera and with the scene, which, I believe, essentially,
gives the scene to the actors, and an actor can't sustain it
for over a minute or so. But, what these [film] actors do have
often is, in the moments they produce, an absolute, laser-beam
radio-signal connection with the truth.
CMM: Do you consider yourself
at this point to be an actor or a director?
KB: You know, I have absolutely
no idea. I'd like to say just an actor, but I've gotten more
and more interested in directing because it's a way of looking
at the acting process which I find very interesting. I like talking
to actors, I like to actually see how different people arrive
at trying to be truthful.
CMM: In the last two Shakespeare
films, you've made a point of casting internationally -- casting
both British and American actors, using their own accents, in
principal roles. Has the response to this been different in Britain
and in America?
KB: Yes it has. I think sometimes
in America that people assume that we believe we have a kind
of divine right to this material, and forget that we are, as
a nation of cinemagoers, incredibly starstruck by American film
acting. There's far less surprise back home than there is over
here with the notion that some of these actors would be in it.
For us, Jack Lemmon doesn't carry
the same baggage as he may do here. His ultimate kind of quality
is being an Honest Joe, an Everyman kind of creature -- exactly
what I wanted for Marcellus, who I think is a nervous ordinary
soldier who cannot explain why they're arming in the middle of
the night, why this thing is coming to visit them, and he needs
a scholar like Horatio to interpret it. And yet I think, for
some people over here, that's been a difficult thing to accept,
just to hear that man say those things.
CMM: Are you still starstruck?
KB: Oh, yeah. But once you start
having something do with people, it all goes. You're doing something
and I'm not sitting and thinking "Oh, that's John Gielgud."
It was a joy to work with these
people. I like the mix of them. I was excited to have such people
in scenes with each other, the differences of approach. It keeps
it fresh for me.
As I mentioned, this felt like
it was a circular thing, that I was arriving back at something.
I don't know what it was T.S. Eliot said about it: "The
end of all our exploring is to return to the place from which
we started and know it for the first time." I feel I know
it a bit better. Essentially it's still a work in progress. I
don't have a fixed way of doing Shakespeare, a fixed way of making
a film, or a fixed way an actor works. Each time you try different
CMM: When you founded the
Renaissance Theatre Company, when you did your first radio version
of Shakespeare play, when you filmed Henry V, there was talk
about your doing all the Shakespeare plays. Is that still a goal?
KB: What I learned from the experience
of doing is that you cannot have a goal of just doing them all
for their own sake. You have to have a passionate desire to tell
a specific story. My name is not on every one of those plays.
I think you have to do the plays, be involved in the plays, you
feel strongly about --powerfully strongly about.
For us, Jack Lemmon doesn't carry
the same baggage as he may do here. His ultimate kind of quality
is being an Honest Joe -- exactly what I wanted for Marcellus.
Yet I think, for some people over here, that's been a difficult
thing to accept, just to hear that man say those things."
CMM: What's still out there
that you want to do?
KB: In the not so distant future,
if I have the chance to do them, Love's Labour's Lost and Macbeth.
I want to do Love's Labour's Lost as a musical. I've always liked
the play. It's very funny, very melancholy, very unusual, and
has this peculiar Shakespearean magic in there, it really breaks
your heart at the end, and it's also silly -- very, very silly.
I find that I get an idea about
the world in which it's set, the period if you like (though I
try to make all our periods pretty loose), and then you just
keep putting every scene and every character up against that
idea to see whether it's going to limit it or work for that character.
For Macbeth, it's witchcraft -- you really have to find a world
in which you believe that witchcraft is in the air, that it's
real. I want get a world going for the characters where the witchcraft
really sends shivers down your spine, so that you know, when
Macbeth knows, when he makes this pact with the devil's representatives,
how very serious it is; so religion has to be very important.
Then the marriage between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth -- that marriage
has to be very carefully set. She says, "I have given suck,"
and yet they don't have children; is she older, is she younger?
And it's Scotland. You get an idea, you get pictures. And these
I find are "anchor pictures."
With each of those plays now,
in terms of the development of a film, I've got several scenes
in each (many more in Love's Labour's than in Macbeth) where
I can see the film and hear it. I can see the dance routine in
Love's Labour's Lost: I can see a fantastic library, a fantastic
circular library, and a dance routine on skateboards (but it's
not a set now; a version of skateboards), and with them going
all the way around the ceiling. I can see the women on punts
on a river.
So I'm currently bashing away
at those two plays. I carry copies of the plays with me (I've
got them in my bag), and I'll sit and study a scene for a bit,
and make notes, and work up some storyboarded images.
CMM: What were the pictures
that got you into Hamlet?
KB: For Hamlet, the key pictures
were Hamlet out on the plain with Fortinbras, with the army behind
them; the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, taking the
king and queen all the way down that corridor into a room full
of fencers; "To be or not to be" in a mirror -- an
early image of a two-way mirror; and then Claudius being overheard
by Hamlet when he's at his most intimate and revealing -- we
chose to make it a confessional scene; the fight; and the attack
on the palace at the end. These anchor things. And then you start
filling in the dots.
CMM: Twenty years from now,
30 years from now, when people look back on your career, what
would you want them to say: that he was the great popularizer,
the great filmmaker, the great actor, the great classical actor?
KB: I'd want them to look back
and say, "He's funny."
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