Los Angeles Times, August 18
by Kent Black
No one in England ever accuses
Henry V's Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson of being shy. No
one in Hollywood will either.
"I felt like a man in a
sketch, this British creature driving a Ford Mustang convertible
through the gates of Paramount. I was actually living the fantasy
I'd had as a boy in Belfast movie theaters," says Kenneth
Branagh, engaging in a bit of wide-eyed mugging. "One day
someone mentioned we were on the same lot where Orson Welles
had filmed parts of 'Citizen Kane.' I felt very romantic about
that, like here I was, truly in 'The Land of Movies.' "
"My Hollywood experience
was similar to Ken's with the exception of a Toyota Corolla to
which I became vastly attached," confides Emma Thompson,
the British actress and writer who is married to Branagh. "Every
day that I drove to work, with the radio on and the breeze playing
in my hair, I thought to myself, 'Good heavens, this is quite
thrilling, like "Ken and Em's Big Adventure." ' "
Branagh and Thompson may be fast
becoming acting's most formidable couple since Alfred Lunt and
Lynn Fontanne, but they're evidently concerned that they not
be confused for the other as they talk about their new film,
"Dead Again." Branagh (who as a Shakespearean actor
has been likened to Laurence Olivier and as a director to Welles)
and Thompson (whose work in Great Britain has ranged from stand-up
comedy to Shakespeare) are receiving members of the press in
It is not difficult to tell them
apart. While both are articulate and smart as whips, Branagh's
salty language is more that of a regular Joe, the kind of guy
you share a pint with. Thompson's vocabulary, on the other hand,
is descriptive and anatomical; upper middle-class in its conscious
naughtiness. Branagh is enthusiastic and earnest in explaining
his craft; Thompson tends more toward the ironic. But they both
admit to having "a ripping time" making their first
"Dead Again," opening
Friday, was directed by Branagh and stars himself, Thompson,
Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi and Hanna Schygulla in a romantic thriller
of love, murder and reincarnation. It concerns a detective hired
to help an amnesiac recover her memory. They are helped by an
antique dealer and hypnotist (Jacobi) who puts the young woman
under and finds that the source of her nightmares and memory
loss lies in her strange connection to a young pianist who was
allegedly murdered by her composer-husband in 1948.
The contemporary detective yarn
and the black-and-white story-within-a-story of the doomed lovers
"reminded me of my first experiences watching black-and-white
American films such as 'Rebecca' and 'Spellbound,' " Branagh
says. "My cinematic vocabulary was established in those
movies and to this day when I direct Shakespeare in the theater,
many of the references I give are to these movies."
It was in the midst of Branagh's
Renaissance Theatre Company presentation of "King Lear"
and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Los Angeles last
year -- and just days after he was nominated for a best director
Oscar for "Henry V" -- that Branagh first read "Dead
Again" and "felt white hot to do it."
"I remember it so clearly,"
says Thompson. "We were living in the Oakwood apartments
in Burbank. Rain was coming in through the ceiling and we had
the four posts of the bed set in water-filled ashtrays to keep
the ants out of the sheets. Ken was up all night on the couch
waiting for news of the nominations. There was a receiver-shaped
dent on the side of his head. It took all morning to get him
off the ceiling. After that, the scripts came in by the truckload."
At first, Branagh and Thompson
saw nothing they liked. "Seriously, I was sent 4,000 lives
of Shakespeare, several lives of Chekhov, and lots of scripts
with battles in them . . . 'Yeah, let's get that Branagh kid,
he's good with battles!' " Branagh says, mimicking the prototypal
thick producer, flicking ash off an imaginary stogie. "I
wanted to do 'Return of the Native,' but I don't think most of
the studios knew quite how to take me. Then I picked up 'Dead
Again' off the script pile and literally could not put it down."
Producer Lindsay Doran had commissioned
the script from Scott Frank (who also wrote the upcoming Jodie
Foster film "Little Man Tate") while at Paramount in
1986. After moving to Sydney Pollack's Mirage Productions, she
and Frank began looking for directors. "We wanted someone
with a committed visual style who was also a humanist and would
not sacrifice the characters for the visual . . . and that is
a difficult commodity to find," she says. Doran grudgingly
went to see "Henry V" as if it were a homework assignment
but after a few minutes, she knew she had found the director
who possessed both the visual and humanist styles she sought.
"I went in with this terrible
negotiating stance," recalls Branagh. "I said, 'You
have me in the white heat of enthusiasm, I'd love to make this
movie, and here are my conditions.' I know that sounds terribly
cocky, but I really think in this business you have a choice
of dealing straight with people or having a nervous breakdown."
Branagh's conditions were that
he come with the coterie of Brits with whom he'd worked on "Henry
V." Included were Thompson, Jacobi and actor Richard Easton,
composer Patrick Doyle, costume designer Phyllis Dalton (who
had won Academy Awards for "Doctor Zhivago" and "Henry
V") and production designer Tim Harvey. Paramount and Doran
were agreeable provided one or two well-known American names
counterbalanced the relative obscurity of their British cousins.
Not so fast. Branagh had just
one or two other minor points to clear up. In addition to directing,
he wanted to play not only the role of the American detective,
but also the '40s flashback story's German composer, Roman Strauss.
And Emma Thompson would not only play Strauss' doomed wife, Margaret,
but her possibly reincarnated amnesiac self.
"I had originally written
it for four people with the idea that there were many more twists
to the plot," says screenwriter Frank. "But Ken said
to me, 'Let me be your Lon Chaney.' I thought of 'Dr. Strangelove'
and I realized this could work."
Doran also overcame her initial
misgivings. "We realized through several meetings that the
idea of these two souls meeting up again in another life is really
more fun with the same two actors," she admits. "And,
after all, 10 minutes with Ken and he can talk you into anything."
"No film means enough to
me to start hiring this actor or that art director because it
equals big box office," says Branagh. "I believe the
baggage that a big star carries with them can be enormously distracting
to the audience and the story. None of the things they could
have offered me were as important as having the conditions under
which I wanted to work. If everyone said no, I'd have thanked
them for their time and left town."
According to David Kirkpatrick,
president of Paramount's motion picture division, the outcome
was never really in doubt. "We all knew very well that when
you buy Ken Branagh, you buy the whole package."
Decidedly not part of anyone's
personal package, Thompson is the 32-year-old daughter of actors,
both of whom, she believes, hoped their daughter "would
either marry Prince Charles or become prime minister, but definitely
not act." A graduate of Cambridge, she wrote and directed
that college's first all-female revue before joining up with
Fringe radicals such as Robbie Coltrane for the variety show,
"Alfresco." A singing and dancing stint in a London
production of "Me and My Girl" was followed by the
TV series "Tutti Frutti." In 1986, she was cast opposite
Branagh in "Fortunes of War," a seven-part BBC series
broadcast here on Masterpiece Theatre, concerning the dissolution
of an English couple's marriage as they traverse the eastern
Mediterranean in the first years of World War II. She has since
created her own television show, "Thompson," played
the Fool in RTC's "King Lear" and starred opposite
Jeff Goldblum in last year's "The Tall Guy." She and
Branagh married in August, 1989.
Branagh is a package unto himself.
Born in Belfast in 1961, he was raised from age 11 onward in
Reading, England, when his parents decided to escape the "troubles."
Ambitious from an early age, he threw over a career in journalism
for theater and was accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic
Art at age 18. While there, his reputation as a workaholic and
walking encyclopedia of theater trivia and lore was firmly established.
Finishing his final year in school by winning the academy's highest
award, he made his professional debut in a West End production
of "Another Country" opposite Rupert Everett. Though
his performance in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production
of "Henry V" was roundly hailed, he quit in a storm
of acrimony over Royal Shakespeare's bureaucracy, believing his
own company would be more responsive to actors. He then started
Renaissance Theatre Company with fellow academy grad David Parfitt.
Since then, there have been productions of "Midsummer,"
"Lear," "As You Like It," "Hamlet,"
"Much Ado About Nothing" and "Look Back In Anger"
among others. His films include "Henry V" and "A
Month in the Country," he has written and produced a play,
"Public Enemy," and written his autobiography.
Some might think it odd, therefore,
that a noted Shakespearean actor-manager and such an unabashedly
"British creature" would choose material that was thoroughly
American. "Fair enough, but I felt the reasons I had for
doing it were the right ones," he says. "I believed
I could bring to this story a heightened quality, sometimes melodramatic,
sometimes comic, but not naturalistic. I wanted to give it the
pace and drive of old B-thrillers that allowed audiences to suspend
their disbelief and just go with the entertainment."
"It never struck me as odd
to have a British director for this," says Frank. "My
favorite films, the ones that inspired me, were all directed
by foreigners: 'Chinatown,' 'Rebecca,' 'Sunset Boulevard.' Hell,
("Casablanca" director) Michael Curtiz could barely
At first, Branagh admits, he
was a bit intimidated by working in Hollywood. "You walk
around the set and hear all these people saying things like,
'Wasn't it great working on that last one with Meryl?' 'Yeah,
I love working with Nichols.' So I try to carry a little of my
own English snobbishness around, so the crew will whisper, 'Yeah,
he's read Shakespeare, he must be a genius.' Of course, that
all goes down the weather the first time you forget to yell 'action.'
To tell you the truth, I used to get physically sick before directing.
I suppose on this picture the element of doing two things (acting
and directing), for those who choose to be impressed by it, is
useful for engendering respect. But I found the real key is to
come prepared and be decisive."
"He is so focused sometimes
he only filmed a scene once or twice," Doran says. "Those
were the shortest dailies I've ever attended."
Actor Andy Garcia said he was
most impressed by Branagh's willingness "to get in the trenches
with you. He is a man of great, great gifts and at the same time,
he works very hard to develop those gifts. After all, it's a
craft and he's the first one to realize it."
Aspects of Branagh's craft that
may seem unusual, even subversive, to many American practitioners
is his faith in the written word and his insistence on extensive
rehearsal. Not only was Frank allowed to attend rehearsals and
filming, he was consulted before any changes were made to the
script. "He comes from the theater, so to him the written
word is everything," Frank says. "In the States, actors
are always 'working' on their characters, which usually means
they are trying to enlarge or enhance the character you wrote.
But you don't do that with Branagh. Everyone -- Derek (Jacobi),
Andy (Garcia) and Robin (Williams, in an uncredited cameo) --
walked on and did their parts word for word."
Branagh believes faith in the
written word comes from adequate preparation. "First of
all, rehearsals break down everyone's nervousness. It is a place
to establish a trust and rhythm with the actors. You can settle
all the arguments over interpretation and character before the
cameras ever start rolling. For me, it is like putting a flame
under things to get them hot, but not quite to the boiling point.
For instance, Andy and I worked extensively on his journalist
character: What did he write like? What about his social life,
his drinking, his smoking, his family life . . . not one inch
of which will ever make it onto the screen, but no matter. The
point is to give an actor every conceivable tool with which to
Thompson found there was more
to playing an American than simply acquiring a neutral North
American accent. "First of all, I realized that European
women tend to speak with a lower register," she says, pointing
mid-diaphragm. "American women speak higher, more breathy.
But the major thing for me was to cut out all the irony. The
way I speak and act is determinedly ironic and most American
women are not that way at all."
Branagh's contemporary detective,
Mike Church, is not strictly of the hard-nosed, wisecracking
L.A. street detective genre and Branagh took pains to instill
him with an Everyman quality. "I didn't want him to be 'Mike
Church, Man of Steel'! I was on a case. Lady lost her memory.
My job: Find it. I wanted him vulnerable, more apt to screw up
. . . because that's the kind of hero I can identify with. I
believe the big heroic, romantic gestures are often accompanied
by tripping through a doorway."
Branagh also worked with three
dialect coaches to get his California accent perfected. "I
screwed my courage to the sticking point once and went to the
movies here to see how I'd do. I went up to the counter and ordered
a Diet Coke and popcorn and prattled on about this and that before
I realized the counter person was from Mexico. I think the next
person I talked to was Chinese. I soon realized it would be a
long time before anyone in this melting pot woke up in a cold
sweat to wonder if Ken Branagh had finally got that accent down."
Branagh dismisses the notion
he tries on too many hats at once. "There is part of me
which pigheadedly is determined to fly in that face of people
who are bamboozled by the idea of this young man doing more than
one thing at a time. I don't understand the perplexity. For 400
years theater has been run by actor-managers. The idea of a specialist
director is a 20th-Century one and has generated a snobbish attitude
toward actors who choose to direct their own work. Complete nonsense."
Of casting Thompson as his co-star,
Branagh said: "In this picture, the chemical thing is paramount
to the love story. Also, I admire her tremendously as an actor
and, like Derek Jacobi, she's been an integral part of the Renaissance
Theatre Company. Just as the personal is important, there is
also an acting repertoire which is essential. It is the same
reason I'd like to act with Andy Garcia again. Emma and I are
not joined at the hip. She and I both possess a certain amount
of actor's selfishness, meaning we're both out for ourselves."
Thompson, while acknowledging
the artistic imperatives, is nothing if not pragmatic. "I
think once the executives at Paramount got a look at me and decided
I wasn't a total dog, it made everyone rest a lot easier,"
she relates with typical Thompson-esque irony. "Also there
is a familiarity with a little edge of sex which exists between
us that really adds to the characters. To Romeo and Juliet, no;
but to Beatrice and Benedict, definitely!"
Thompson also acknowledges that
a sometimes hostile British press have made them cautious. "In
our country we find a certain resentment toward our success.
People don't like you to overreach. I think of it as when you
are walking down a road and you see something in the distance
coming toward you and only at the last minute realize it is a
gigantic boot. The British press had one ax to grind toward me
and another toward Ken, so when we got married they were delighted
to combine it. I suppose they are infuriated to find two people
young, happy, moderately successful who enjoy working together."
Nonetheless, there will not be
another collaboration any time soon. Thompson has just finished
Merchant Ivory's "Howard's End" with Anthony Hopkins,
and Branagh, rather shockingly, plans to take the rest of the
year off before gearing up to direct a movie version of a Shakespeare
comedy. He won't name it, no doubt for fear that a Hollywood
producer may try to rush another version into production with
the cast from "Who's the Boss?"
They both feel no matter how
"Dead Again" is received, their adventure in Hollywood
was well worth doing. "During 'Henry V,' I remember Ken
was so exhausted and stressed out, I had to cradle him in my
arms after the day's filming," Thompson recalls. "But
it has been very different here. It has a lot to do with being
married, settled, having a background. It's made us both feel
bigger, stronger against the knocks. He was only a boy during
'Henry V' and now he is a proper grown-up man."
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