Branagh the Ginger-Brit Goes Down South
The Independent, August 9 1998
by Alison Jones
For any director casting around for the perfect actor to play
a sleazy lawyer from America's deep South, true Brit Kenneth
Branagh is not the obvious choice. The Irish-born, Reading-raised
Branagh is after all more famous for quoting William Shakespeare
than Tennessee Williams.
Yet our Ken adopts an accent
as rich as molasses to star in The Gingerbread Man, the latest
thriller from the pen of ex-lawyer John Grisham, who wrote The
Firm, The Pelican Brief and A Time To Kill.
"I think I was about four-millionth
choice for the part," admitted Ken. "When they asked
me about it I said I'd be interested if a director came along
who wouldtake it by the scruff of the neck and use the pluses,
which were a pretty interesting plot, bu t perhaps give it something
different to what we have been expecting from the filmed Grisham
His mind was made up when Hollywood
maverick Robert Altman, the man behind such mould breaking films
as M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts and Pret-a-Porter, agreed to
"From talking to him it
was clear he didn't want to make a straight up and down thriller
and indeed it would have been faintly pointless with me in it.
So it wasn't going to have the beautiful young man with the perfect
family life in apple pie America. He wanted something more sinister
In the film, which also stars
Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jnr and Daryl Hannah, who went brunette
for the part, Ken plays Rick Magruder, a Savannah lawyer who
is high on charm and low on morals.
After a one-night stand with
a waitress he agrees to help when she claims she is being stalked
by her religious fundamentalist father, he then finds himself
caught up in a web of deceit that threatens his own children's
Following in the film footsteps
of a string of young Americans who have starred in Grisham movies,
including Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey and
Matt Damon, Ken worked hard to get his accent right.
"I didn't know much about
the South. I suppose I had a bit of a cliched idea that it was
all 'ye-haa' Texan kind of thing but there are a lot of subtlties,
a lot of Scottish and Irish influences. People say it's a little
easier for Brits to do. I had a c ouple of weeks to go around
and try and be a Savannan. Altman likes to improvise a lot and
that's when you start using expressions that find you out.
"I did a stupid thing once
while improvising when my kids were locked in the back of a car.
I thought I was being a bit marvellous and got carried away with
mysel banging on the back of the car and going: `They're in the
boot, they're in the boot.' Of co urse he goes `Cut. Cut. Trunk.
They're in the trunk. What on earth is a boot?' Robert Downey
Jnr, who was in that scene, just laughed in my face."
He even dared to try his accent
out on the locals where they were filming in Savannah.
"You feel a bit of a nana
when you try to order a glass of wine in a southern accent and
they say: `Why're you talkin' like that, you're that Shakespeare
His natural accent is pleasant
but undistinguished, bearing little trace of his Irish origins
"lt was a little bit of
self preservation. We moved from Belfast when I was nine, at
a time when the Troubles were pretty intense, to Reading and
people literally couldn't understand us. It got me down after
a while but I felt very ashamed at losingmy a ccent. So for a
while I would be English at school and then come home and be
Irish because I was so afraid of upsetting my mother.
"My brother went to school
the first day and came back speaking in an English accent and
never changed and it caused terrific ructions in the family."
Since he turned to acting he
has fought hard to play down the pre- conception film makers
have of him as a plummy voiced Olivier wannabe walking round
with a book of Shakespearean sonnets tucked under his arm. Instead,
as a football fan and closet Coronat ion Street watcher, the
image he projects is more likeable lad than luvvie.
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