In the Company of Ken

The Examiner, 2 December 2002
By Jeffrey M. Andersen

Children have been stopping Kenneth Branagh on the street lately.

It's a weird thing for the guy who leapt into the public eye in 1989 with his outrageous, passionate "Henry V," which earned him the title "the next Olivier."

Though critically acclaimed and always fascinating to watch, Branagh didn't chalk up a blockbuster until his recent film, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." These days, kids of all ages recognize him as bad guy Gilderoy Lockhart.

In the film, which has grossed more than $150 million after two weeks' release, Branagh plays the egotistical, cowardly -- and successful -- author who has made a career out of publishing lies and embellishments. Harry's school, Hogwarts, hires him for a year to teach "defense against the dark arts" and he winds up deeper in trouble than he could have imagined.

"I think there's a kind of instant understanding that this guy is an idiot," Branagh says during a recent phone conversation from London. "Only an idiot could have that much confidence and that much lack of awareness. He's in his own impregnable bubble of delicious narcissism."

"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" also marks the first time Branagh has acted with computer-generated images. Many of his scenes, particularly the covers for Lockhart's books (in Harry Potter's world, "still" photographs can move) involve creatures such as pixies that exist only in the finished, edited film.

Even though he recognizes director Chris Columbus' skill in working with the computer images, Branagh admits he was relieved to actually see the pixies on the huge screen at the film's London premiere.

Branagh did get to share a few scenes with real-life actors, notably Alan Rickman, who plays Professor Snape, and Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint who portray Harry and Ron. (Branagh calls them "good company.")

While waiting around on the set, Branagh particularly enjoyed talking with Rickman. He says, "I'm a huge fan of his. Just the sitting and chewing the cud stuff was really exciting. He's so smart and he has a million stories. We had great fun."

In the 9-1/2 months Branagh worked on "Harry Potter," he tooks breaks to do a new version of "Richard III" for the stage.

In a way, Lockhart can be compared with the real-life Branagh, who, at 28, wrote an audacious autobiography, "Beginning," for the sole purpose of raising money for "Henry V."

He says, "Several people mentioned that I was really sending myself up. There's an implicit assumption that I'm an egomaniac. ... I think the hubris of (the book) annoyed the bejeezus out of people. At 28, you're not clever enough to hide things, so it's all there, warts and all. I'll be honest; I'm glad I wrote it. Now I would be embellishing and re-remembering."

Branagh, who read the "Harry Potter" books after his sister gave them to him for Christmas, says he was dying to ask author J.K. Rowling if Lockhart makes a return appearance in any of the upcoming volumes. When he saw her at the film premiere, he resisted. But he says he was pleased when she told him, "You were loathsome. It was brilliant."

Even with this command performance under his belt, Branagh has more exciting projects coming up.

Phillip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence," which likely will be a serious Oscar contender, opens Christmas Day.

In the movie, which is set in Western Australia, Branagh plays a British administrator in charge of separating half-caste Aborigine children from their parents and raising them as white Christians. But the character, who believes he's doing the right thing, cannot understand why anyone would disagree with him.

"I was pleased to see that Phillip wanted that kind of adherence to a sort of code," Branagh says.

Branagh also hopes to return to "Richard III" sometime soon. He'd like to spend more time with the character, to play around more with the role.

Though he hasn't considered doing a movie version yet, he says he would be honored to bring the play to San Francisco: "They're all smart as nuts out there. But a tough crowd -- because they're so smart."

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