Kenneth Branagh Unplugged
The Glasgow Herald Magazine, 25 September 2004
Once he could do no wrong. Then the golden boy of British film got cocky and the sniping started. Now, after years of retreating from the limelight, the actor is coming back in from the cold.
You know exactly what to expect with Kenneth Branagh. At least, you think you do. Waiting for the actor to emerge from his trailer at Shepperton studios, itís easy to conjure up an image of how he is going to look Ė a crop of golden hair, a wry smile and a kind of shabby chic. Itís a look thatís carried him through the good years and the bad Ė from his early days as one of the English brat pack, through his years as one of Britainís most successful actors and directors, and even to the time when he finally fell prey to a fickle press weary of his ubiquitous presence on their pages. Latterly he has been surfacing every now and again, in select projects, careful to avoid the glaring limelight: but now he is back with a vengeance. At least, he will be when heís ready to throw open the trailer door.
When it happens, Branagh is an arresting sight. But itís not the natty tartan trousers, the bow tie or the black waistcoat (which comes complete with a pocket-watch-chain stretched across a well-fed stomach) that catches the eye. This is Kenneth Branagh as youíve never seen him. Bald. What was that about knowing what to expect?
The new, smooth look turns out not to be the result of tearing his hair out after years of abuse from the media, but to be part of the elaborate make-up for his forthcoming role. The actor is up to his neck filming his role as the eccentric Uncle Albert in Five Children and It, a charming adaptation of the classic childrenís tale by Edith Nesbit. He welcomes me into his modest Winnebago Ė where the only star-accessory appears to be a new script, casually left on the floor Ė and settles back down to his seat. His cheeks are rosy-pink, caused by a mixture of the heat and the steaming cup of tea heís been sipping on. Pointing to his head, his hair carefully tamed by a latex cap, he tells me it "gets pretty toasty" in there and proceeds to regale me with an anecdote to prove it. "I donít sweat that much, but even I was pouring with it the other day. The latex started to pop and bubble. It was like my head was disintegrating."
While these wrinkles may be the shape of things to come, Branagh Ė and his career Ė have yet to succumb to the ravages of time. His last major film directing job, four years ago Ė the breezy 1930s-set movie adaptation of the Shakespeare play Loveís Labourís Lost Ė attracted poor reviews and an underwhelming box-office return, but Branagh is made of sterner stuff than to let that finish him. He has survived worse: the inevitable backlash after being compared to a "young Olivier" in his late twenties; the media frenzy surrounding his six-year marriage to fellow thespian Emma Thompson that ended in divorce in 1995; and the occasional confessionals in the press concerning bouts of depression during which "everything is grey".
Either side of his marriage to Thompson were high-profile romances, first with Joely Richardson and then with Helena Bonham Carter (whom he met on the set of Frankenstein, while still married to Thompson). He loathes talking about these relationships, but that doesnít stop everyone from asking. Even more annoying, though, has been his stop-start Hollywood career, which has included the lamentable Wild Wild West, the flop Disney musical Swing Kids (in which he played a Gestapo officer) and the dire Robert Altman adaptation of John Grishamís The Gingerbread Man. Bonham Carter and double-Oscar-winner Thompson, meanwhile, have gone on to great success across the Atlantic.
But if he was once competitive with his former partners in the career stakes, Branagh is no longer interested in playing that game. Fame, he says, can affect your state of mind. "You can get worked up about that stuff and it makes it worse," he says, hinting that he has made that mistake in the past. These days, his profile is lower and more comfortable than it once was, allowing him a measure of ordinary life that even stretches to using public transportation. "Maybe thereís a bit of recognition Ė I donít wear the ubiquitous baseball cap," he says. "But most people are blas* - or, quite frankly, theyíve got more things to get excited about than the prospect of seeing me. Itís never been an issue, and Iím glad thatís the case."
These are not the words of the ridiculously talented, self-obsessed actor I was anticipating; more of a man whose experience has given him some insight into how both he and his business work. The Belfast-born son of a joiner and a lifelong Spurs fan, Branagh comes across as desperately down-to-earth. In his autobiography, precociously written when he was 28 and tantalizingly titled Beginning, he describes himself as a "short-assed, fat-faced Irishman". The description is harsh, but then Branagh could hardly be noted for boasting the matinee-idol looks that the real Olivier possessed in his youth. Woody Allen, who hired him to play a journalist in Celebrity, did so because he "wanted a regular man who wasnít so good-looking".
Lacking movie-star glamour, Branagh is also defiantly middle-of-the-road. During his training at RADA in London, when punk was in its prime, his favourite band was Paul McCartneyís Wings. And unlike his peers, he doesnít lean to the left. "I have no beef with Mrs Thatcherís politics," he says defiantly when we stray on the topic of the former PMís late husband. Denis Thatcher, it transpires, was an inspiration for Branaghís performance in Five Children and It.
These days, the actor says heís happy sitting on the sofa with a Chinese takeaway watching soaps and reality TV with his second wife. Lindsay Brunnock, an art director. The couple married last May in a ceremony so exclusive only his publicist and driver-cum-right-handman attended it: a stark contrast with his wedding to Thompson, which took place at a luxury hotel, cost *30,000 and included a guest list of some 130 celebrity friends.
Indeed, everything about life with Brunnock, who is ten years his junior, seems low-key in comparison to what went before. Branaghís life with Thompson was subject to intense scrutiny Ė but it was hardly as if the couple avoided the limelight, working on films together and, for a time in the late eighties, seemingly cropped up wherever there was a camera. These days Branagh is happy to live quietly with Brunnock in their *2m home in Berkshire, and wonít even give away the barest of details about their life. While he is a generous, genial interviewee, his smile drops the moment past relationships are broached. When I ask him if burying himself in his work helped after his split from Thompson, he stiffens visibly. "I donít think I subscribe to the theory that work is an anaesthetic," he says. "But these things affect it, no question about it."
Officially, Branagh and Thompson blamed work commitments for their split: "As a result," read their official statement, "we have drifted apart." But it didnít take long for the rumours to start flying that Branagh has become friendly with Bonham Carter on the set of Frankenstein. The pair soon became an official item and were together for three years: Bonham Carter called it "the most grown-up" relationship of her life. But in 1999 they parted ways; as you might expect, no reason was given.
Branagh freely admits to having suffered bouts of depression in the past Ė but, as he approaches his 44th birthday this December, the clouds seem to have parted. He rarely talks about the dark times, but admitted recently: "So many people I know are prone to it. I try not to let it torture me. The only way out, Iíve found, is to get up and exercise. Getting the old endorphins busy seems to help. Hopefully itís gone away for a while: I certainly havenít had it since working on Loveís Labourís Lost."
Of course, his mood is bound to be lifted by the simple fact that he is back in demand. The past two years have seen him receive plaudits for his work in television, cinema and theatre: after a fine run as Richard III at the Crucible in Sheffield last July, he made his first appearance on the London stage in 11 years, taking the title role of a businessman in meltdown in David Mametís play Edmond. Standing ovations Ė particularly from female members of the audience Ė proved he still had what it took to draw a crowd. He was back as director, too with The Play What I Wrote, a rambunctious tribute to his childhood heroes Morecambe and Wise. He steered it successfully through its West End and Broadway runs.
On the small screen, meanwhile, he was Emmy and Bafta nominated for his performances as the eponymous explorer in Shackleton, Channel 4ís more expensive drama to date. His professional success was matched with a personal one Ė he met Brunnock on set. Then he starred in the mesmerizing Conspiracy, bringing an icy sense of detachment to the role of SS general Reinhard Heydrich; now he has signed to play his third real-life figure for television in as many years, starring as the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the HBO-backed biopic Warm Springs.
His film work has started to look better too: he delivered faultless performances in Rabbit-Proof Fence and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in which he played smug teacher Gilderoy Lockhart. Understandably, this role propelled him into an unexplored area of stardom. "Itís a funny thing," he explains. "Once youíve been in a Harry Potter film, thereís suddenly this vast audience that you never had before. I was in Grand Central Station in New York, just having a hamburger, and a little lad of 11 from somewhere in the Deep South almost fell over. He eventually came up and asked me for my autograph. You find that happens all over the place, reminding you how extraordinary the impact of that is." He pauses. "Not that they know who I am, of course."
Branagh won two Oscar nominations for his celebrated 1989 directorial debut, a stirring adaptation of Shakespeareís Henry V, and in many ciriticsí eyes he never quite fulfilled his early film-making promise. Perhaps this is because, rather than bedding down in Britain, he went straight to Hollywood to make his preposterous thriller Dead Again. Rather unfairly, critics despised his can-do attitude; as Loveís Labourís Lost star Nathan Lane notes, heís the true Renaissance man Ė "he does everything but the catering".
There were successes Ė his sunny version of Much Ado About Nothing; the modest back-stager In the Bleak Midwinter- but he became the actor we love to mock. In 1996, critics objected to his full-text, big-screen version of Hamlet for its sheer arrogance of demanding four hourís time from prospective audiences. Likewise, he was hauled over the coals two years earlier for creating a monster with his $45m version of Frankenstein, in which he played the idealistic scientist by stripping to his waist to reveal a well-oiled torso. As for the universally reviled Peterís Friends Ė his country-house comedy featuring Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie Ė well, it automatically cast him as the self-styled luvvie-leader, a tag heís found nigh-on impossible to shake-off. So fierce were the British media, it led one Hollywood executive to note: "Not even OJ Simpson gets that bad a press."
But outside the British media, itís hard to find anyone who will bash Branagh. The general impression is of a man who is well-liked by his friends and colleagues. "Heís a friend Iím very proud to have," says the actor John Sessions, who met him at RADA in 1979 and went on to feature in Henry V and In the Bleak Midwinter. "I canít speak highly enough of him, as a man and as an actor." Alicia Silverstone Ė who was rumoured to have enjoyed an on-set dalliance with Branagh during the making of Loveís Labourís Lost, although both parties denied it Ė concurs. "I cannot articulate how incredible a film-maker Ken is. How he runs his ship Ė heís so prepared. He puts so much energy and blood into his work."
John Stephenson, the director of Five Children and It, says he offered Branagh the role on the proviso that he would beef it up. "Heís very workmanlike," he says, "but he can read one line four different ways and eke out a different emotion from that piece of dialogue every single time."
Playing the mad uncle might seem like a shift from the handsome leads he was chasing in Hollywood a few years ago, but Branagh does it deftly and without a shred of vanity. Listen to the subtle pathos he invests in a brief exchange with his five nephews and nieces, as they arrive to spend the summer with him and his oily son Horace. Referring to the childrenís father, who has gone off to fight in the First World War, he simply drops the register of his voice and mumbles what "a brave chap" he is, in a melancholic moment designed to break your heart.
The film is ostensibly a magical adventure tale Ė involving the comical discovery of a grouchy sand fairy (voiced by Eddie Izzard) who begrudgingly grants wishes Ė but Branagh admits was drawn to the "anarchic quality" of the piece and of his character in particular. "He bangs on about rules and being quiet while he write his great mathematical treatise, but you get a sense that a bit of him is enjoying living with the chaos of it all, because he certainly lives a chaotic life himself," he says. "He brings a mad energy to it, which I hope helps to set up a world you believe in. He keeps an excitement in the air- because the kids donít ever know whatís going to happen when heís around."
Would he like to have children? "Of course," he replies. "Iíd love to have a child." You get the impression that, despite all the hubris, there is still one lurking inside Branagh. He refers to himself as "a little Irish boy" at one point Ė which, given his adopted English brogue, does seem rather odd. "But I feel Irish," he protests. "I donít think you can take Belfast out of the boy. I came from the kind of street where everyone knew everyone else. Surrounded by dozens of cousins and friends, it was like living with a large extended family. Maybe thatís why I was drawn to the theatre, as another way of belonging to a large family."
Branagh has always been something a social chameleon, able to fit in with his surroundings. As a child, he joined a local gang and looted a supermarket. After the Troubles began, his parents decided to move to England, relocating to Reading when Branagh was nine. Immediately learning to change the way he spoke at school to avoid bullying, he would nevertheless keep the Irish accent for when he came home, in order to please his Protestant parents. By the time he was 13, he was reviewing childrenís books for the Reading Evening Post; two years later he had joined an amateur theatre group and was spending all his pocket money on tickets to London shows. He even took a tent to Stratford-upon-Avon to camp out and dine on Shakespeare.
It was at school, during his time in the sixth form, that a teacher, impressed by Branaghís efforts in the drama society, told him to try for drama school. His parents couldnít afford to send him, and were concerned that, unlike his older brother William, who had joined the telecom industry, their younger son was making a mistake with his choice of career. "But they didnít try to dissuade me," he remembers. "I think they realized how futile any opposition would be when they saw my determination."
Thanks to a grant from Berkshire County Council, he was able to attend RADA, where he excelled, winning the illustrious Gold Medal. It was to be the beginning of a decade of unadulterated success. Six weeks after leaving RADA, he was on stage in the West End. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was 23, but, finding the company too impersonal, he left to form his own outfit, the Renaissance Theatre Company. At the same time, he ventured on to the small screen, beginning his career by playing a string of complex early-20th-century men including DH Lawrence and Guy Pringle in the BBC mini-series Fortunes of War Ė his first role opposite Emma Thompson. With a work rate like this, itís hardly surprising he landed that pesky "young Olivier" tag.
Yet he was never as confident as he seems, he explains. Calling up classical actors to join his Renaissance Theatre Company was, he says, terrifying. "Itís only recently struck me how reckless, how youthfully optimistic I was. Of course I was shy, but Iím a great believer in taking baby steps first. And so Iíd think: why not call them? They can only turn me down. Those are qualities Iíd like to hold on to: that ability to be trustful, naÔve."
Branaghís next major film role will almost certainly be alongside Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3. He is not permitted to discuss the part, which may or may not be the villain of the piece. Either way, he says he hasnít planned to reinvigorate his career: it just happened. "I donít think Hollywood has any time to think how they view me," he says. "Iím much less a strategist about these kind of things than people thinkÖI certainly donít consciously say Iíll do this or that. Itís not necessarily in my hands. Iím not a movie star, in a commercial sense. Iím a character actor who appears in films, and thank God I have a directing career, which I really enjoy."
He is developing a romantic comedy and a period murder-mystery Ė both adapted from British novels Ė as possible directorial projects, and says he would like to direct another Shakespeare comedy, but after the "perceived" failure of Loveís Labourís Lost (which, he points out, "got its money back, almost exactly, in terms of what it cost") he is aware it might be difficult to convince investors to part with their money.
"These days, raising money for a film, as an actor or director Ė it basically goes into an ad-hoc computer system that says, "You are worth X. You are worth the risk of this much money based on what youíve done." But sometimes that gets broken by people believing you are talented and can do the job. There are no rules. It isnít always about how your last picture did, or how hot or un-hot you are, because people know that can change in a heartbeat."
Yet with Mission Impossible 3 on the cards, the fact remains that Branagh has got the chance to change who he is and adjust his Hollywood profile. "Some people have said to me that Iím seen as an artiste, so the studios get scared of sending me more mainstream stuff," he says, pointing out that while he has acted in America several times, he has only ever made two pictures in Hollywood Ė Dead Again and Wild Wild West.
"But Iím a homebody," he adds. "This is where I live and I always have done, and I suspect I always will do. If I ever lived in America, it wouldnít be primarily for the work. Thereíd have to be another reason why I wanted to stay there. The weather, maybe." He says people still "take my calls" and he regularly gets asked to direct scripts over there, "but Iíve always followed my own nose."
As I leave him to sip his tea and leaf through the script on his floor, his aged appearance seems all the more incongruous given the man Iíve just met. He may no longer be a "young Olivier" Ė if he ever was Ė but thereís something very youthful about Kenneth Branagh.