Ken Goes Hollywood
Sunday Telegraph, June 7, 1998
by Michele Manelis
**thanks to Sarah
The making of Kenneth Branagh's
latest movie would make a great movie. Power, politics, scandal
- all before the opening credits. Michele Manelis talks to Britain's
Shakespearean specialist about his life, loves and blockbuster
Kenneth Branagh's latest movie,
The Gingerbread Man, a noirish thriller written by courtroom
king John Grisham, is an unusual choice for one of Britain's
most prolific thespians. Better known for leaping about in tights
spouting Shakespearean odes and for writing highbrow comedies
and artsy period dramas, Branagh seems just as complex playing
this womanising Georgian lawyer with a taste for Jack Daniels.
It wasn't until director Robert
Altman - known for his edgy, improvisational style seen in The
Player, short Cuts and Pret-A-Porter - came on board that Branagh's
enthusiasm was sparked.
Signing for a reported $5.5 million
in this $32 million film, Branagh is moving into potential blockbuster
terrain, somewhere neither he nor Altman have ventured.
Branagh agrees a southern American
generic courtroom drama, the backdrop for almost all of Grisham's
stories, seems a curious choice.
"After doing a four-and-a-half
hour epic like Hamlet (in which he starred and directed), it
wasn't a stupid idea to do the kind of movie people didn't need
to be sedated to see," he says, laughing self-deprecatingly.
"And I wanted to do something
that was more in line with the kinds of movies I go to see. I
really like thrillers, I like ingenious plotting and I enjoy
Leaning forward and pouring a
glass of mineral water, Branagh adds: "But I must tell you,
there were a lot of fingerprints on this script before it got
Through his movie and theatrical
adaptations - which include Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Henry
V, Twelfth Night, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing - Branagh
revolutionised the works of Shakespeare and took them to the
Some of his other productions
include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, (although considered a critical
disaster it grossed $130 million worldwide), Dead Again and Peter's
"Doing a movie like The
Gingerbread Man, something a little more overtly commercial than
anything I've ever done, is probably not a bad thing for someone
like me," he says. "And at the moment I prefer working
in the movies, although I'm sure I'll return to theatre at some
point. But to be honest, I'm a bit scared. You have to deal with
all that expectation and you have to expect to be savaged."
It seems the high-flying drama
was plagued behind the scenes with more twists, feuds and betrayals
than the screenplay itself, the fist Grisham has written directly
for the screen. Although the main reason Branagh took the role
was Altman, the unconventional director made Polygram Filmed
The studio wasn't happy with
Altman's changes to the script, they gave the film a gritty quality
in contrast to the predictable lush Grisham style geared for
the mass appeal.
After poor test screenings, Polygram
replaced Altman and, understandably, he did not go quietly. After
a much-publicised feud, the storm died down and Altman agreed
to come back and finish the film.
"It's always a tempestuous
relationship between studio and director, but in this case it
was tempestuous in public," Branagh says. "It was very
unfortunate for Bob, but I made a bet with him at the time that
it would all work out...That's right, he hasn't paid me the $100,
Another element which raised
the studio's blood pressure was Altman's casting of Robert Downey
Jr as Branagh's morally ambiguous detective crony who, ironically,
appears drunk throughout most of the film.
Downey came with his own risks
attached. Fresh out of rehab for his cocaine addiction, mandatory
urine tests were administered weekly.
Although he passed his tests
while filming, he was jailed soon after the movie wrapped because
of a relapse.
Although Branagh's dinner companions
have included Robert de Niro, Barbra Streisand and Andre Agassi
("who were all unexpectedly at my place one the same night
- think of that catering nightmare!"), Branagh is something
of an enigma as far as the Hollywood community is concerned.
"I think I get a lot of
respect coming here as a European and having gone my own way",
"I think I'm regarded as
a kind of curiosity because of Hamlet and the Shakespeare side
of things, but the fact I still have a foot in other sorts of
movies sort of amuses people."
"I enjoy coming to LA, but
I know I've been here too long when I begin reading the (Hollywood)
trade papers every day and I become this kind of encyclopedia
about who's winning at the box office, who's doing what to whom
- it's like information overload which becomes like a drug."
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland,
and raised in Reading, England, Branagh studied at the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Art.
"It wasn't until I was 15
or 16 that I realised I wanted to become a professional actor.
I clearly knew I didn't want to do any of the things that seemed
to be on offer, like working for a insurance company, joining
the army or British Rail."
"Then a teacher suggested
to me that I could do this acting lark as a profession. I didn't
need to hear it twice, I was so happy I had a vocation - it didn't
matter whether I became successful or not."
Taking his "acting lark"
seriously, Branagh went on to form the Renaissance Theatre Company
in 1985 so he could showcase his writing, directing and acting
talents. It was there he met actor Emma Thompson. The couple
married a year later.
What appeared to be a perfect
union - two highly intelligent actors writing, working and living
together - came to an end in 1995 when they announced plans to
Although the couple insisted
the split was amicable, citing their hectic careers as the cause,
there was much speculation about alleged infidelities.
Immediately after the break-up
(some think well before), Branagh became romantically involved
with British actor Helena Bonham Carter.
And Thompson went public with
her affair with Greg Wise, with whom she starred in Sense and
Branagh and Bonham Carter allegedly
became an item when he cast her in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,
and the couple will team up again on several future projects.
Like his relationship with Thompson,
who became his partner in many films and theatre productions,
Bonham Carter has taken over as muse, lover, co-worker and co-subject
matter for the relentless media.
"I read somewhere Helena
and I were moving into a castle in Italy, for Christ's sake!"
Branagh says, sounding astonished. "The celebrity thing
just never ceases to amaze me."
He is characteristically tight-lipped
about his personal life.
"I don't think it's a conscious
decision to work together," he say of his upcoming movie,
Theory of Flight, in which he stars with Bonham Carter. "I
think you just respond to each role differently and sometimes
it's a part that both of you want to do," he adds matter-of-factly.
"I know how it looks but,
honestly, the whole 'celebrity couple thing' is not my cup of
tea at all."
Although he appears "the
reluctant movie star", Branagh was the cause for much ridicule
and jealousy from his peers when he wrote an autobiography at
the age of 29. A prickly subject, Branagh brushes it off.
"Well I don't think I'll
be writing part two about my extraordinary life," he says
sarcastically. "At least not yet anyway."
In a reflective mood, Branagh
once said: "I felt I must be a great disappointment when
people met me in real life. In life I'm duller of spirit and
sort of empty."
Elaborating on his harsh self-description,
he explains: "It's just that people expect this great, vast
intellect and a certain kind of sensibility or way of being or
"Even some actors, who shall
remain nameless, expect me to have this secret about how to do
"I used to be very conscious
of how I was thought of by both audience and my peers, but I
think now I don't care quite as much."
"I have a pretty significant
camaraderie from my peers nowadays. I think once you've been
around for a while people are nicer."
"It also helps when you've
employed a lot of them."
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