Staking a Claim in the Wild West

The London Times, July 17, 1998
by Lesley O'Toole

Like or loathe it, Kenneth Branagh just can't stay away from Hollywood. Lesley O'Toole found out why

Robert Altman calls Kenneth Branagh "the best actor I've ever worked with", which is some compliment given the coterie of fine American thespians the maverick film-maker has directed. Branagh has evidently heard this before, to judge by the unsurprised tone of his response: "Well, that's very nice of him but he loves actors you know. He sort of has crushes on his actors." Altman is high on Branagh's performance as a Savannah lawyer in The Gingerbread Man, the first John Grisham film which is not based on a book - it's an original Grisham screenplay. The film is Branagh's attempt to heighten his commercial viability in Hollywood. And to judge by the morning TV show he appeared on just hours before sitting down to talk at a Los Angeles hotel, Branagh's American recognition factor is not terribly buoyant. The View is morning TV for American housewives, hosted by women with names like Star who introduced their guest as "Kenneth Brannach". Branagh neither flinched nor corrected them.

"You're so rabbit in the headlights about the whole thing," he laughs. "You've got a wire up your arse and there's just this tremendous pressure to be relaxed and funny. Anyway, I thought they were very nice girls." Promotion is the price he has to pay to make himself known.

Branagh won't quite admit to "going Hollywood", only that "a little more identification with things that seem a little more obviously commercial is probably no bad thing for someone like me." It is not that Branagh wants to be a Hollywood movie star, rather that broadening his appeal to American audiences might facilitate that all-important financing of the less overtly commercial projects he really wants to make.

Having enjoyed the ingenious plotting of previous Grisham film adaptations, Branagh was very interested but wanted a film replete with rather more than the conventional Grisham elements: courtrooms and fancy lawyers. He chose to wait until a director was hired, hopefully one who would shake it up. So when Altman signed on, so did Branagh. The really difficult part of doing the mainstream thing well, he says, is finding something that operates in a genre which has some intelligence or wit and is satisfying, but doesn't feel as if it has formula or franchise written all over it.

While Altman was shaking up the Grisham cocktail, Branagh set about perfecting what is on film an impeccable Southern accent. Speaking the dialogue was challenging enough; improvising proved more troubling. "You've got to watch it with kids and animals, of course, but Christ, I had them both in the same scene. And then Bob said, 'Okay, Branagh, as you walk down with the kids, just say stuff. But say good stuff, OK?' Can you imagine!"

The Gingerbread Man was shot in Savannah, Georgia, rather than Hollywood, where Branagh says he has spent very little time. When he did make a film in Hollywood, Dead Again, he didn't like the change the place effected in him. "I knew it was time to leave when I was reading the Hollywood trade papers every day and kind of back to front. I had become a kind of encyclopaedia about what was going on. It was like a drug."

After filming The Gingerbread Man, Branagh completed "The Woody Allen Fall Project", and clearly captivated a second iconic American director since "only Judy Davis and me got the whole script". Branagh was unaware that Allen is famous for giving actors only their scenes, never a whole script - "I had no idea it was a big deal." The film, now titled Celebrity, was "never less than a fascinating experience" and "a big starry do" featuring the likes of Winona Ryder and Leonardo DiCaprio. "They would say things like, 'Well, what does my character do? You know, where have I come from? and does anybody say anything else about me in scenes that I'm not in?'." In fact, Celebrity may do more for Branagh's Hollywood profile, since it will be DiCaprio's first film to be released since Titanic.

Branagh harbours no great desire to return to the stage. And, he admits, he would rather "stay in bed all day" the day after a bad movie review than "have to stand up in front of a bunch of live people the day after a savage theatre review."

He is hoping not to spend too much time in bed after the reviews for his next film, The Theory of Flight, although were they to be less than favourable, he would at least be sharing them with his co-star and girlfriend, Helena Bonham Carter. Though he insists that the "celebrity couple thing" is not his "cup of tea", Branagh is excited about the film, despite its peculiar subject-matter: it's about a conman who dreams of building an aeroplane and a motor-neurone disease sufferer who wants to lose her virginity before she dies. Branagh describes it as a story of "this rather uneasy friendship which resolves itself in a very funny and touching way".

Since we spoke, Branagh has been cast in as high-profile a Hollywood film as it is possible to grace - opposite Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Salma Hayek in Wild Wild West. Already being talked of as one of 1999's blockbusters, the film entails gigantic, hugely expensive sets and a mammoth five-month shoot in Branagh's own idea of the Wild West - Hollywood.

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