Not So Melancholy, Baby
Madison (cover story), December
by Carol Day
With a new co-star, both on
screen and off, Shakespeare's favorite son learns life isn't
all tragedy. Kenneth Branagh shares his theories on life with
A standard-issue one-story photographer's
studio in Culver City, tucked away just off La Cienega, south
of Hollywood and on the way to LAX. A blindingly blue sky. A
few big black Mercedes in the parking lot. In walks a sandy-haired
guy in jeans and a rumpled blue plaid shirt. He tosses his loose-leaf
address book and StarTac cell phone on the table, grabs a coffee
and kibitzes with the photographer, assistants and all those
Suddenly everybody's smiling.
No, make that laughing.
After all, this is Kenneth Branagh,
the man Woody Allen chose to play his alter ego in his latest
film, Celebrity, in which Hollywood talents like Leonardo DiCaprio
and Melanie Griffith pop up in humorous cameos. It's no surprise
he can do a comic turn or two.
But when he dons a single unlined
Prada coat with turned-up collar -- the black Italian wool making
his pale Irish skin look paler and his blue eyes bluer -- abruptly
no one's laughing. He stares into the camera. A somber mood overtakes
the room, despite the stream of sunlight from the skylight overhead.
Hamlet had made his entrance.
It's impossible not to be charmed,
inspired and even moved at times by this, in turn, downright
silly, deeply intelligent, immensely articulate and emotionally
open man born 38 years ago in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
"Born to act" is the
assessment of Hugh Cruttwell, Branagh's longtime acting coach.
Which indeed he has done, as well as direct, in a body of work
that includes Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein and, of course, Hamlet, for which he earned three
Does Branagh agree? When we sit
down in the back room to talk after the shoot, he apologetically
lights up a Winston, claiming he's quitting when this pack is
done. ("Soon these will be gone.")
"I think he's right,"
admits the man who has been saddled from the age of twentysomething
with the title of heir apparent to the most admired actor of
our time, Sir Laurence Olivier.
"Although, maybe it stretches
wider than just acting," Branagh says, "born to create
in some fashion, to try to create in any way: making a film,
directing a film, whatever. It's linked to wanting to try to
tell a story with as much reality and vividness as possible."
Recently Branagh has been taking
a break from directing, establishing more of a Hollywood presence
for himself by starring in films like Celebrity and John Grisham's
The Gingerbread Man, directed by Robert Altman. As we speak,
he's just about to finish shooting Wild Wild West, co-starring
Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Salma Hayek, scheduled to open next
summer. He plays a 19th century villain -- the sculpted beard
and mustache he sports designed to make his friendly face look
a bit more menacing.
Branagh may be a far more interesting
character than any he's played, except of course for Hamlet (but
then, he's a lot more fun to be around than the melancholy prince).
It's not only his voice, which rises and falls like notes on
a musical scale, but without a hint of affectation; nor is it
the delightful way in which he punctuates the adjectives he uses
in conversation -- im-men-sely, ex-traor-dinary,
a-maz-ing, won-der-ful. Nor is it his insights
into human character and the arts, both high and low.
Quite simply, it's his passion
for life, and for portraying it that's so, to borrow a phrase,
He hasn't always been this at
ease with life, especially when taken to task by the British
critics for a particular performance, his early success or writing
an autobiography at the tender age of 29 ("who does he think
he is, anyway?"). He's also had years when he was tortured
with his work and its obsessions: "You've really got to
believe in what you're doing; otherwise it's terrifically intense
and subject to all sorts of whips and scorn."
He says he's currently comfortable
with the level of fame -- or, as he jokes, infamy -- that he
now enjoys. His favorite line from one of the British "Carry
On" comedies starring Terry Thomas is "infamy, infamy,
they've all got it in-fa-me!"
When I show him the October issue
of Tatler, with Helena Bonham Carter on the cover, he looks at
it briefly and nods. Yes, he's seen it. His face gives nothing
away about their relationship.
He stars with the Oscar nominated
actress in The Theory of Flight, directed by Paul Greengrass,
and she and Branagh have been a couple, reportedly since he directed
her in Frankenstein. But Branagh, perhaps burnt by the British
tabloids when he was married to actress Emma Thompson, doesn't
speak about Bonham Carter. Neither wants to be part of a public
celebrity romance. They don't live together (her mother accompanied
her to the Oscars last year, but she attended the New York premiere
of Celebrity), and although they are clearly an "item",
they resist being labeled as one.
The magazine inadvertently falls
open to the horoscope pages. I ask if he's a Sagittarius or a
Capricorn (his birthday is in December). "Sagittarius, of
course," he proclaims proudly. "And I rule my life
by the horoscopes," he says, poker-faced, until I do a double-take
and we both grin and chime at once, "Not really."
The subject comes up later, when
he tells me, "There's a large part of me, which is clownish
and wacky, which my pals get to see more than the public, and
Sagittarians are supposed to be philosopher-clowns." Whether
it's from inhabiting the characters he's played, delving into
some of life's truths illuminated in Shakespeare or simply showing
up on the stage of life, Branagh embodies a kind of simple wisdom,
and if he can impart it with a pratfall, he's thrilled.
In current Hollywood slang, a
hyphenate (writer hypen producer, for example) is one of the
most bankable talents. As actor-director-producer, Branagh is
a hyphenate in spades. There's Branagh the student of life and
interpreter of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. The playwright's
truths and illuminations about the human condition are, he says,
"practical and real and remain very pertinent." For
Hamlet, for example, he did a lot of research about suicide,
grief and death. "I have been lucky to have the occasional
moment in Shakespeare onstage where one felt bigger, wiser, funnier
because of all the intelligence passing through you, intelligence
beyond my comprehension," he says. "Those illuminations
don't come very often, but they almost function in the same way
as the traumatic shocks in life -- like grief or birth or whatever
-- that for a moment allow you to be exactly who you are with
And then there's Branagh the
regular guy next door (if you live in Oxfordshire) -- who loves
dogs and playing guitar in a makeshift band called the Fishmongers
and following his favorite football teams. He's as moved by excellence
on the playing field as he is by great writing and acting. "I
like the drama of it," he says, "superhuman efforts
in athletics--they make me weep."
Clearly, Branagh isn't afraid
to express his emotions as well as his intellect. As an actor
and filmmaker, he loves to move the audience to laugh and cry.
And a number of times he mentions how he wept at a movie or book
or some triumph of the human spirit. Don't get the wrong impression
-- he's not miserable or depressed by these events or emotions;
he's moved and exhilarated in a way that he strives to make audiences
feel: "Unless something touches me emotionally, moves me
in some way, makes me think in some impactful way, it's impossible
for me to do it, especially when it comes to directing a film."
Interestingly, the characters he plays in Celebrity and The Theory
of Flight are both, at least in the early scenes, desperately
When Woody Allen asked Branagh
to play Lee Simon in Celebrity, the role Allen himself typically
would have played in the past, he said he was looking for someone
who could come across as a regular guy with a real life and real
problems. Branagh plays a frustrated journalist with a failed
marriage and a half-finished novel, hovering on the edge of New
York's celeb scene, where success is measured by how many times
your name appears on Page Six of the New York Post.
Allen sent the entire script
to Branagh and Judy Davis, who plays his wife (his practice is
to give the actors only the scenes in which they appear), and
in a cover letter to Branagh, he simply told him that Lee is
basically a loser yet is still somehow attractive to women. "It
was a terrifically bleak piece," Branagh says, "but
as I think he had planned, it played very funny, with that melancholy
that underlines his work." After all, he notes, at the end
of the film, his character is staring at a screen that says HELP
In The Theory of Flight, which
opens in December, Branagh plays yet another frustrated, defeated
artist, this time a painter, opposite Bonham Carter as a young
woman suffering from a neuromuscular disease who want to lose
her virginity before she dies. When I ask what he draws on to
play these "loser" roles, considering that in real
life he's had such success at an early age (he was cast in a
West End play as soon as he left the Royal Academy of Dramatic
Art, and won the prestigious Best Newcomer Award in 1982), he
admits that he's as vulnerable to self-doubt as the rest of us.
"Deep down everybody has
at least transient moments of frustration. I think it's a particularly
male thing to be imagining that somewhere out there, some patch
of grass is greener," he says. "In both characters
there's a lot of dramatic tension, because they're highly intelligent
men who can be self-aware of this contradiction that their intelligence
informs them is probably a bit of a wild-goose chase. They both
show extreme restlessness, which is something I think a lot of
people can identify with." He goes on to say, "It's
as in As You Like It, when someone asks Jacques how he got to
know what he does about life and he says, 'Ah, I have bought
my experience.' Both these characters pay a price, so maybe they're
older and wiser in the end."
Branagh sees the possibility
of hope for both characters but "It's a realistic hope that
acknowledges that further along the way there will be other disappointments,
other moments in which life bashes you around, but perhaps the
experience you've bought will illuminate them in a way that allows
you to deal with them."
As a child, he got bashed around
a bit himself when his family moved from Belfast to Reading,
England, in an effort to escape the "troubles" between
the Catholics and Protestants. The first day at his new school
the other boys taunted him for his Irish brogue, a trauma for
the new kid who quickly learned to speak like an Englishman born
and bred, which might account for his facility with accents.
Later, when he was 12, he was the object of a brief period of
bullying; to escape, he says, "I retired to my room"
and developed a rich imaginative life. And although there were
never any books at home -- "not that my parents were stupid,
but they were from a culture that didn't read books, working-class
Belfast Protestants" -- he started to go to the library
and also to buy books.
Today reading has become his
favorite pastime. "my idea of a great day -- I had one just
the other week --is get up, go for a run, come back home and
spend the rest of the day reading a book...outside when it's
sunny, and inside when it isn't." So much for the glamorous
life of a movie star.
Earlier this year he wrote a
screenplay, a thriller that he had always planned to be a novel.
"I didn't write it as a novel," he says, "because
I read so much that I am so intimidated by the prose of people
like Ian McEwan that quite frankly, I think, Make films, Ken.
Just make films."
So what about acting on the stage
He's aghast. "On stage?!"
Surely he couldn't have given
it up? "I just got very interested in trying to get better
at making movies and acting in films," he says. Branagh
loves to go to the movies. No snob who deems only art films worthy
of his time, he even saw this summer's pop hit There's Something
About Mary, derided by some as being tacky and juvenile. "I
heard laughter in the cinema I haven't heard since Tootsie,"
he says. "Hysterical."
But strangely enough for someone
who's had so much training and acclaim, he confesses to a certain
amount of trepidation to treading "the boards" again.
Acknowledging that acting onstage, while grueling and tough to
"get it right," has its triumphant moments, Branagh
tells a famous story about Olivier: "The place was electrified
and the entire company and the audience felt his devastation,
his grief, his guilt. Everybody had felt it. As he left the stage,
all the actors in the wings cheered him off. And he ran off in
a real huff. Eventually somebody went to the dressing room and
knocked on the door and said, 'You know, Sir Laurence, you seem
unhappy. I just want to say that this was the most extraordinary
performance any of us have ever seen in our lives.' And he said,
'Yes, I know, and I don't know what I did.' You see, even in
the hands of a great artist, he could get everything ready as
it were to make the liftoff, but actually whether it happens
or not is something very elusive...and inspiring."
But not enough to compel him
to try it again anytime soon. "When I go to the theater
now, which is more often than I used to, I find myself impressed
about how they remember all those lines and do it night after
night. It seems strange, but I have a faint terror of stage fright
and forgetting the lines. All irrational. Lots of pals of mine
say, 'Nah, it's like riding a bike.' But I'll do it again. There's
Having just recently set up his
own production company, Branagh will be directing and acting
in three new Shakespearean adaptations. On the slate are two
comedies: Love's Labour's Lost (set in the 1930s with music by
Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) and As You Like It. The last of
the three to be filmed will be the tragedy Macbeth.
He credits the young producers
in Britain who have gotten savvier about the business: "We
have a bigger market in Britain now, so that for a certain price
you can make a film just for Britain and see how it does in the
rest of the world, not being always enslaved to the ideas of,
no offense, American influence." An example he cites is
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, directed by Guy Ritchey,
who, Branagh says, "did an immensely impressive job -- kind
of Tarantinoesque, but it definitely has its own originality."
British directors he'd like to
work with include Mike Leigh, director of Secrets and Lies: "I
love the acting that he produces, and he's not afraid to be bold."
He also praises Danny Boyle, an "actor-friendly director
who has such an incredible grasp of the business of making a
Spending more time filming in
England could also mean the addition of a few dogs around the
hearth of the house he recently built for himself outside London.
"I just want to make sure I"m home long enough to bond
with them. I've been to the local rescue place, so that's what
I'll do, get a couple of mutts. I love dogs," he says with
the same kind of passion he has for books and music.
Directing Shakespeare and living
at home may also mean more time with Bonham Carter, who has also
built a new home for herself, a sort of artist's artelier near
her parents home in London's Golders Green. Certainly that was
one of the motivations in doing the role in Theory of Flight:
it was a great part for her and she and Branagh could spend time
Her performance as Jane is mesmerizing;
she's limited to a wheelchair and speaks haltingly and with great
effort because of her disease, but she's funny and pluckish and
brave. In an interview about her role, Bonham Carter said how
she admired the traits of her character so much she was going
to try and incorporate them into her own life. I asked Branagh
if he had ever had this experience and if any of his roles had
changed him. He thought about it awhile.
"Sometimes I don't know
what my personality is anyway, you know, because I'm an actor.
It's the little bits in between your parts," he says. "But
I think they all change you in some way. It's the Shakespeare
that stays with me the longest. Not that I find myself quoting
him every day, but I do find images from the plays stay with
me, and there are lines that I love and moments when you discover
some scene or character has a meaning for you that hadn't occurred
to you prior to that. I'd say Hamlet has stayed with me the most.
It's hard to play that part and not be very, very aware of life
and death and the passing of people and preciousness of life.
And it makes you more concerned about your parents, who you see
getting older, and the fragility of life."
In parting, Branagh leaves with
a deceptively simple line Hamlet delivers to Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, who are bemoaning the hardship of their dreary
lives. Branagh uses it as a kind of mantra whenever anxiety strikes
or becomes too complicated.
The line? "There is nothing
good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
He explains, "The decision
about how you view your life is one that you can make. You can
consciously decide to embrace life as it comes, with all its
pleasures and all its pain."
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