With Branagh, From Belfast to Savannah
Los Angeles Times, February 8
By Kristine McKenna
Star of the Robert Altman film
"The Gingerbread Man," Kenneth Branagh has directed
eight films, including three adaptations of Shakespeare, including
a four-hour "Hamlet" released in 1996 that was hailed
as the most faithful adaptation ever released. In tending the
eternal flame of Shakespeare, the 37-year-old actor has been
seen as a guy born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Nothing,
however, could be further from the truth. Born into a working-class
Belfast family, Branagh grew up in the midst of the Troubles
until he was 9, when his family moved to Reading, England.
"The Gingerbread Man,"
based on a story by John Grisham, finds Branagh cast as a slick
Savannah, Ga., lawyer who picks up the wrong girl. Branagh can
also be seen later this year in "The Proposition" and
in "The Theory of Flight," which co-stars Helena Bonham
Carter (his companion since 1995, when his marriage to actress
Emma Thompson ended). Having just completed Woody Allen's next
film, Branagh passed through L.A. recently en route to Japan
to promote "The Gingerbread Man." Over breakfast at
the Beverly Hills Hotel, he ruminated on Altman and Shakespeare.
Question: How did you hook
up with Robert Altman?
Answer: At this point we're all
familiar with legal thrillers, particularly those from the pen
of John Grisham, so when I read the script for "The Gingerbread
Man," I said I'd only do it if an extraordinary director
was involved. When Altman signed on, he immediately made it clear
he wanted the film to have a different look and emphasis. Bob
wasn't interested in the intricacies of the legal system, and
wanted it instead to be a film of moods, moments and atmospheres.
Hearing him discuss the film was like listening to a painter--he
talked about wind, the color red, close-ups of rain. The essence
of Bob's genius is his ability to stick to his original vision,
while simultaneously creating an environment where happy accidents
Q: [Your co-star] Robert Downey
Jr. recently commented, "Bob's so loose on the set that
he'd tell Ken, 'Just walk with your kids and talk to them.' "
And then he talked about a scene involving the aftermath of a
big shootout, and Bob's direction to him was, "Just play
the scene"--when there was nothing scripted. Was that also
your experience of working with Altman?
A: Bob has a funny way of working
with actors. The first day I met Embeth Davidtz, he sat us down
and said, "Let's read through this scene," then as
soon as we began to read, he got up and started to walk out of
the room. We both anxiously looked up, and he said, "You
should do this by yourselves for a while." But you never
feel abandoned with Bob because he's so kind and is so clearly
the boss. There is lots of improvisation on his set, but Bob
only retains what he thinks is helpful for spontaneity.
Q: What is the fatal flaw
in your character in "The Gingerbread Man" that leads
to his undoing?
A: He's an arrogant control freak
who's driven by a certain kind of vanity, which he thinks he
presents in a charming way. He thinks his success allows him
to do anything, including flirting with the sleazy world of lowlife
catering waitresses, and the morning after, he rationalizes this
rampant sexual activity as some kind of Sir Galahad gesture.
Can this man realize how far gone he is in terms of his utter
lack of interest in other people's welfare?
Q: How was Robert Downey Jr.
on the set?
A: He was an absolute delight.
He was under a court order while we were filming, which I'm sure
was something of a strain, but he's one of the nicest guys I've
ever met, and he's certainly one of the most talented actors
I've worked with. In addition to being an excellent actor, he's
an accomplished musician and artist, and he does it all effortlessly--he
never shows off and is really good company. Robert inarguably
has the devil in his eyes and he's a creature of great appetites,
[but] he's also kind and supportive, and has a wonderfully sunny
personality. I hope he learns to look after himself, because
he's too valuable to lose.
Q: Why do you love Shakespeare?
A: It begins with the fact that
he had profound insights into human nature, which he expressed
quite poetically. His sensibility was a complex combination of
extravagant romanticism and savagery, and he was unremittingly
harsh in his view of human folly; and yet, one of the leitmotifs
in his work is hope, which I think he recognized as a necessity
in order for the human spirit to survive. I'm also drawn to the
elusiveness of Shakespeare. We know little about his life, nor
do we know what the plays were in their original form, what his
politics were, or whether he approved of war or religion.
I'm a bit of a romantic, so the
plays that work best for me are the comedies--the situations
are less grand and thus more immediate, and I like the way they
combine bawdy humor with profound melancholy. At the moment,
a film adaptation of "Love's Labour's Lost" is percolating
away in the back of my mind. It's a story of two couples who
get together in a jolly, romantic way, only to be abruptly separated
when the father of one of the foursome dies. This forces them
to examine the question of whether this holiday romance means
anything. The pain and delicacy with which this question is examined
is very true to breakups, and to the way life forces you to be
realistic about relationships which are largely fueled by lust
or romantic projection. Suddenly life knocks at the door with
a loud thump and asks: What do you really feel? Do you want to
be together forever?
Q: Does the love in the play
stand the test of time?
A: The play concludes with a
question mark and leaves you unsettled. "Does it stand the
test of time?" is, of course, a question directors must
ask themselves when working with the classics. With "Love's
Labour's Lost" I want to eliminate things we in the late
20th century have difficulty understanding, and replace them
with lyrics we can understand.
Q: Do you feel you've been
A: People seem to assume that
anyone who'd do a four-hour film of "Hamlet" must be
a heavyweight intellectual, incapable of enjoying life. In fact,
the thing I showed the greatest facility for in drama school
was comedy, and when I left school I felt that unless I made
an effort, I'd spend the rest of my life in sitcoms. This isn't
to suggest I've aspired to be part of some elitist, English intelligentsia,
because I admire many kinds of work. I've known ("Trainspotting"
director) Danny Boyle for 12 years, for instance, and when I
return to England I'm going to be in a short film Danny's directing
that will be part of cinematic trilogy, a la [Martin Scorsese's]
"New York Stories."
Q: Why did you rid yourself
of your Irish accent?
A: The Troubles were very much
present on the street where I lived as a child, so when my dad
had an opportunity to work in England we left. Being an adolescent
boy, I very much wanted to fit in so I learned to speak differently.
I by no means reinvented myself, however, because I still feel
Irish. And my family, of course, are tickled pink with all the
wonderful things I've been able to be involved with as an actor.
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