The Independent Interview
Independent on Sunday, June 13
by Lee Marshall
*thanks to Berni Williams
Down to every last gesture,
Kenneth Branagh has turned into Woody Allen. What does he think
he's playing at?
He likes to come across as an
ordinary lad, Kenneth Branagh. He's a Spurs supporter. He's partial
to a drink. And when not penguined out for some gala performance,
he wears jackets and trousers that look slept in. The impression
is reinforced by his laid-back RSC Cockney accent, which gradually
replaced the original Ulster vowels after Branagh's family moved
from Belfast to Reading in 1970. So keen is he to swap Shakespearean
diction for man-in-the-street inarticulateness that our Ken keeps
getting his syntax in a tangle, adding another "so"
or "but" or "cos" and only then realising
that he's let himself in for a whole new dependent clause, just
when the sentence is running out of steam. In a sense, his career's
a bit like that.
Here, in one Joycean passage,
is Branagh on having a private life that, like a stately home,
is unavoidably open to public view: "Given that the lines
of demarcation around celebrity now are very blurred, I think
you have to make your own decision about where it begins and
ends, so while some of it is out of your control - people can
write or say what they want - you don't have to be any more complicit
with it than you choose to be, so you can invite more or less
of it, or you can just decide to draw your own line in the sand
and it doesn't have to be a big dramatic gesture - there are
some things you talk about and some things you don't, and if
people still want to write about them, that's fine, and you understand
the appetite and all the rest of it, but I kind of - my view
is that if I'm not interested in person X's private life, you
know, I don't necessarily feel that I have to share mine ...
except that given the job I do I have to expect that some people
will possibly write about it, accurately or not accurately but,
uh ... I don't uh ... you can't become an actor and worry about
becoming a victim in that way."
Branagh's subject here - the
cult of celebrity - is also the subject of the new Woody Allen
film, Celebrity, in which he takes the role that would normally
be played by the bespectacled one himself. Branagh is Lee Simon,
a journalist who dabbles in celebrity interviews and features
for travel magazines while struggling to finish a novel. Many
colleagues will allow themselves a little shiver of recognition
here. (In my own case, the first-name coincidence caused an extra
frisson.) On the emotional level, though, Lee Simon is like no
one so much as Woody Allen - or rather, the Woody Allen persona
we have come to know and love/hate in successive films. Recently
divorced from the insecure Robin (Judy Davis) because he "needs
more space", Lee is a man who hides his selfishness, especially
in relation to women, under a veneer of endless verbal self-justifications
and appeals to romantic - or sexual - impulse. A witty mess of
complexes, in other words, but still a bastard.
But the character Branagh is
playing is overshadowed by his take on the part. He doesn't just
put on a New York accent, or attempt to method-act his way into
the mind of the successful but frustrated journalist. He becomes
Woody Allen - down to the smallest inflection, the slightest
gesture. For a while, as with any good impersonation, this is
mesmerising, but in the end it detracts from our belief in the
character. Oddly, it was only when I watched the film dubbed
into Italian that I was able to see Lee Simon as anything more
than a take-off.
So why he did he choose to impersonate
Allen? "His comic voice is so specific - unique - that it's
pretty much impossible to play against it." But others have
managed - John Cusack, for example, in Bullets over Broadway,
one of the few Woody Allen comedies in which the director did
not play the lead. Pressed, Branagh suggests it was Allen himself
who insisted on such a close reading: "He directs, sometimes,
very specifically. He'll give you a line reading and he'll do
it and you'll do him, copy him."
Alongside the serious Shakespearean
actor, there has always been a streak of the schoolboy mimic
in Branagh. He loves showing the Americans that he can do their
accents as well as they can. In the John Grisham adaptation The
Gingerbread Man, which was released last year to mixed reviews,
he played a lawyer from deepest Georgia. He has told the story
of walking into a bar in Savannah and asking for a glass of wine
in his on-set southern drawl. "Why're you talking like that?"
the barman rebuked him. "You're that Shakespeare guy, right?"
As his readiness to share this
anecdote shows, there is a strong element of self-deprecation
in Branagh's manner. Which perhaps explains why he has consistently
foiled those critics who expected the Great White Hope of British
cinema to manage his career with De Niro-like discernment. In
the tidal wave of adulation that followed the release of Henry
V in 1989, the 28-year-old Branagh became, briefly, a sort of
up-market (and very British) Leonardo DiCaprio. His picture was
not on quite so many bedroom walls, but his private life - including
that marriage - was just as wide open to public scrutiny. Now,
10 years on, Branagh finds himself playing alongside the Titanic
boy wonder in Celebrity's highlight sequence - a manic afternoon
in the life of a brat-pack star, complete with cocaine, private
jets, roulette wheels and four-in-a-bed sex. Of working with
the 25-year-old DiCaprio - a few weeks before Titanic was released
- Branagh says that "all the people in that group decided
they were being mad and bad, so it was all very larky. I felt
about 400 years old anyway, with these slips of things".
These days, Branagh's own professional
life is more of a steady downpour than a tornado. After his unadventurous
outing in last year's period thriller The Proposition, he came
back briefly to London to make The Theory of Flight, in which
he plays the part of an artist and inventor obsessed with flying
machines. The role of Jane, the young girl in a wheelchair he
is assigned to care for when one of his experiments ends him
up in court, is taken by his current partner, Helena Bonham Carter.
(It's their second film together; they met on the set of Mary
Shelley's Frankenstein.) A BBC production, the film has so far
been seen almost everywhere except on home ground. Ostensibly
this is to do with the summer log-jam of Branagh features: next
up, in August, is the comedy western The Wild, Wild West, in
which he stars alongside Kevin Kline and Will Smith. But a lukewarm
reception from both critics and audiences in the States, where
The Theory of Flight was released in January, has done nothing
to move the film further up the UK schedule.
It's easy to knock Branagh for
his career choices. One problem lies not so much in his competent
but hardly earth-moving Hollywood performances as in our (probably
misplaced) expectations of him. After all, if our yardstick were,
say, Keanu Reeves rather than Laurence Olivier, Branagh would
be up there with the greats. The other problem is that, unlike
Reeves, he cannot rely on staring moodily into the middle distance.
So he is forced to act - and, given his apparent inability to
turn in a flat, cinematic, uninflected performance, this generally
means overacting. He is at his best, in fact, when the role requires
overacting - as when he played Iago in Oliver Parker's 1995 film
of Othello. And his self-directed Shakespeares have all seen
him rise to the occasion, even the overly self-conscious Hamlet.
It wasn't just audiences that
were put to the test by this four-and-a- half-hour marathon.
Branagh admits that the job of financing and making Hamlet was
"immensely effortful ... I ran out of energy, anyway - I
was well f---ed by the end of that. And I felt I'd rather not
have that total responsibility for a while".
Hence the undemanding Hollywood
roles - coming to the surface and catching up on the tan between
bouts of full Shakespeare immersion. But there is a risk in taking
such a breezy approach to one's filmography - the risk being
that the general public, encouraged by the sort of "Who's
in, who's out" journalism that Lee Simon embodies in Celebrity,
will see Branagh as someone who has simply lost control of his
career. After all, this is the man who once said "my definition
of success is control".
Being confronted with former
quotes is almost as bad as being confronted with former girlfriends,
and Branagh now considers this to be "a stupid remark".
So what would be Branagh's current definition of success? "It's
some sense of creative freedom when it comes to directing,"
he says. "The freedom to pursue those projects you care
very passionately about, and then the freedom to do them in a
way that you believe in, and not be confined by, these days,
the incredible pressures put on film-making, from casting to
budget to the marketing to the preview process and all the rest
of it ... you somehow find a way to have your voice in that.
That's success for me, really".
The project he cares very passionately
about at the moment is Love's Labour's Lost, his first stab at
Shakespeare in the three years since Hamlet. Couched in the form
of a 1930s musical, with songs courtesy of Cole Porter and Irving
Berlin, it will be released in the autumn.
Every actor, they say, ends up
in a Woody Allen film sooner or later. Plenty of actors have
also queued up to do Shakespeare with Ken. Now Branagh is in
a Woody Allen film. Surely the logical next step would be ...
but this, it seems, has already been tried. "I once had
the idea of asking Woody Allen to appear in one of my films.
After a while I got a very politely worded letter back from him
asking me what I'd been smoking when I made the request."
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