Kenneth Branagh: He's Got Talent on Tap

Daily Yomiuri, 9 December 2004
By Katherine Hyde

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Kenneth Branagh doesn't possess a resume that can be flicked through in a minute. His credits form a winding route through Shakespeare--on both stage and screen--Brit-flicks, Hollywood blockbusters, comedies and dramas. All this would seem dizzying if it weren't for the fact that Branagh has handled it all rather seamlessly. In his nearly 25-year career he has juggled acting, writing, producing and directing, and won a clutch of prestigious awards and nominations along the way.

Because his career has been so vast and varied, the name "Branagh" has come to mean many things to many people. To a lot of children and adults, he is the self-loving Gilderoy Lockhart from the popular film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; to students studying Shakespeare, he is their guide to understanding Hamlet or Henry V; and to those keen 1990s film buffs, he is Lee in Woody Allen's Celebrity.

In his latest film, the comedy How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog, Branagh stars as a famous English playwright suffering from writer's block.

"It made me laugh, and I thought that I'd like to see this film," Branagh says of the Michael Kalesniko movie during a recent interview. "I found it unusual, but within a quite heartwarming comedy.

"It was unconventional. I like the fact that the director-writer had made it very personal and quirky. Whilst it does not really obey the logical rules of a romantic comedy, it still makes people laugh. I liked it, and liked the slightly subversive quality about it."

In the film, Branagh plays Peter McGowan, who, as stated above, is suffering from writers block. He is living in Los Angeles with his American wife, Melanie (Robin Wright Penn), a dance instructor, and his senile mother-in-law. Already frustrated by life and his work, Peter sees things go from bad to worse when Melanie, who desperately wants to have a baby, keeps inviting their primary-school-aged neighbor around to the house. Unimpressed and stressed, Peter channels his anger into insomnia-fueled rants about the neighbor's dog, which barks continually into the night. Add to this a night-wandering stalker who is convinced that he is actually the playwright, and it all spells near disaster for the real Peter.

"I thought that there were lots of interesting and truthful observations about relationships amongst a group of people who in various ways were all quite isolated," he says. "I liked the idea of making this particular character in crisis. There is a slight crisis in the marriage and a crisis with his work, and although it did make me laugh, it had other things to say. So, I felt that it was rich and in relative terms sophisticated. All of that appealed to me enormously."

The story is ultimately a comedy based on Peter's characteristics. Yet while the film doesn't strictly follow the happy-ending formula, there are touches of the feel-good factor that thankfully don't go too far. Peter's young neighbor plays a big role in transforming his new play from a flop into a success and helps to prove that Peter does have a softer side. There are even hints of romance characterized by Melanie's ability to be humorous in the face of her husband's obsessive bad temper. The film also has a few touching moments that nearly transgress, but do not cross, the corny line.

So, does Branagh sympathize with Peter?

"I share some of these frustrations about the kind of minutiae of life, but I think other people do as well. Here (in Britain) there is almost a phenomenon whereby people go to ridiculous lengths in disputes with their neighbors about a bush or a piece of land" he says. "I did recognize and have some sympathy with that absurd frustration and did recognize the traits of being agitated and passionate about silly things. But I hope that, like him, I am surrounded by people who tease me and mock me when I am being ridiculously passionate about something completely unimportant."

While Branagh's latest role continues to display his flexibility as an actor, it is not only his range of characters that is exhaustive. He has also shown a rare flair for excelling in the roles of writer, director and producer.

With such a range of skills, the question of identity is perhaps a difficult topic for Branagh to tackle. It is therefore not surprising that when asked which role truly defines him or which "face" is the real Ken, he struggles to find an answer.

"I suppose that I used to feel that that was a question I should be answering, and I suppose I don't feel it quite so much anymore," he says. "The idea of just acting is not the same motivation for me that it was when I was in my 20s. A particular part may be fascinating to play, but to only act isn't quite me. Maybe the real Ken is the guy who pursues, in whichever discipline--acting or directing or writing--that which he feels very passionately about. So I suppose that I just follow that instinct and don't really try to make any larger decision."

But the subject of identity has been a long enduring issue in Branagh's life. Tracing his life back, it is obvious that early influences played major roles in his professional life. Born in Belfast in 1960 ("I have a strong sense of identity with the Irish"), he left at age 9, moving with his parents to England leaving behind a sense of security. The conflicts of identity are still not resolved, and although he claims that he does not completely understand the effects, he does see it as significant and as having had a profound effect on his work.

"I came from parents who had many siblings so our extended family was very large. Even as a child you felt as if you knew everyone. You were related to many people with lots of cousins so there was a very strong sense of belonging or knowing who you were," he says. "If you leave an environment like that, that has such a strong character, one of the things you learn to do in order to survive is to adapt and use lots of faces, lots of ways to belong. Maybe that is something that would naturally lead you into acting. In life you are trying to adjust and find a place where you belong, and maybe you do that by acting a sense of belonging."

Branagh plans to add to his resume with a new project he has planned for Japan.

"The film I want to direct next is another Shakespeare film--the comedy As You Like It--and I have a Japanese setting for it. It came to me about 15 years ago, and I have been working on it ever since," he says. "It's how to make this English comedy work within a Japanese world which has always struck me as a marvelous atmosphere for the play which is, apart from being funny, so much to do with the city life versus the country life, the busy life versus the simple life. There is such a strong contrast of that in Japan. I find Japanese culture and the appreciation of nature, color, texture, garden, water, stone and the elements very attractive."

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