Star-spangled Branagh

Mail on Sunday, August 15, 1993
by Sean Langan
**thanks to Virginia Leong

The easy-going charm of Kenneth Branagh has enabled him to woo a constellation of Hollywood stars to appear in his film version of Much Ado About Nothing. But the amiable Ken, man of many parts, is ruffled by some suggestions that he's too nice to portray bad guys. At the tender age of 33, he has big plans to finally silence his critics.

When you meet Kenneth Branagh you can't help but notice his unfortunate ability to underwhelm. At five foot seven, with blond "bouncy hair", as wife Emma Thompson likes to call it, he is a man you wouldn't think twice about trifling with. He has shed the boy-next-door puppy fat and kept the rugged beard he cultivated for his new film, Much Ado About Nothing, but it hasn't done much to roughen him up. Try as he might, the constantly fidgeting and obviously shy Kenneth Branagh just doesn't look the part of a heavyweight.

Yet in terms of the British film industry that's exactly what he is. At the age of 23 he was the youngest actor ever to play Henry V at the RSC and was promptly burdened with comparisons to Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. Since then he's co-founded the Renaissance Theatre Company and worked on films from Henry V and Peter's Friends to Dead Again and Swing Kids. Still only 33, he is currently directing a £26 million production of Frankenstein at Shepperton Studios with his idol Robert De Niro playing the monster.

And yet, for all his critical and popular success, Kenneth Branagh has failed to shake off the derisory "nice guy" tag. "A nice, bland guy, you mean," he says, sitting in a drab office at Shepperton, a resigned smile creeping across his face. "People can't accept that I'm not some kind of monster, and therefore that must render me without a certain amount of passion in some way. You have to be like that otherwise you're somehow lacking. People love to say, 'He's this or he's that, and if I can't work him out then he must be bland.' Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it isn't there. If people care to look, there is a lot of passion in my roles."

There's certainly passion in Branagh's populist version of Much Ado. Bronzed women and a semi-naked Keanu Reeves frolic in a Tuscan landscape and Branagh admits, "We wanted to make it very sexy and fleshy and sensuous."

He plays Benedick, the steadfast bachelor who only falls for his sharp-tongued rival, Beatrice (Emma Thompson), after his friends fool him into thinking she loves him. "Emma and I were not a thousand miles away from the characters of Beatrice and Benedick. We had both experienced long-term relationships before. You sort of dance around a bit."

Or a lot, as the case may be. Emma once said, "Marriage is an extremely dangerous step -- don't do it until you have shagged everything with a pulse."

It's a sentiment shared by her husband, who once claimed, rather like Benedick, that he was too busy to settle down. According to one friend, until he met Emma, Branagh "had a habit of falling in love with each of his leading ladies". The affairs were apparently intense but short-lived, with girlfriends such as fellow RADA student Katy Behean and, more seriously, Joely Richardson.

"That was what you might call my...rogue phase," explains Branagh, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. "I think it had something to do with the pace at which I was working. Things tended to happen in quite pressurised and intense ways. One went through emotions and intensity in a different kind of way. I think working so hard gave one excuses to be more of a rogue than one would have wished to have been.

"It was Emma," he continues, "who brought wisdom and understanding and peace and became the centre of my life." The couple became an item when they co-starred in the BBC's Fortunes of War in 1987, and married two years later. They recently settled in a £400,000 house in West London.

The late 80s were turbulent times for him, the beginning of the Branagh hype. People expected one virtuoso performance to follow another, a pressure that apparently took its toll. "I was nearing the point of a breakdown," he says of that time. But despite such emotional angst there has been some doubt over Branagh's own capacity for emotion on stage. His audition for RADA in 1978 was described by Hugh Cruttwell, the principal, as "tremendously accomplished, but the overall effect is soulless".

This would matter less with other actors, but Branagh has ineluctably become emblematic of the state of British theatre. The accusation of soullessness is central to the question of his potential for greatness. New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich described Branagh's performance in Hamlet as "bland, a cautious theatrical reading of the prince rather than a passionate, risk-taking interpretation". Put bluntly, it means this generation's pre-eminent stage actor is seen by many as a John Major to Olivier's Winston Churchill.

Richard Eyre, artistic director at the National Theatre, complains that "Branagh lacks that sense of danger, that recklessness, savagery and lurking melancholia that, with Olivier, made for something dark. Ken...he's nice." It's a critique that Branagh refuses to accept.

"These charges are just another way of undermining me," he says, obviously hurt and frustrated by them. "Lots of performances I've given have a rage about them, and as for not revealing a darker side, I would have to disagree. I just don't provide that in a way certain people would like to see it. There is not much I can do about it, but that it has been there I have no doubt. My performance in Look Back in Anger was very dark and tough. John Osborne claimed it was the best Jimmy Porter he has ever seen."

But even his keenest admirers have reservations about his acting gravitas. Dame Judi Dench, a great fan who directed him in the Renaissance's stage production of Much Ado, comments that "He wasn't the bastard that perhaps Jimmy Porter should have been. Porter should be more ruthless, and Kenny is not ruthless."

Richard Briers, who plays Leonato in Much Ado, describes him as "a worker ant" because of his phenomenal drive. "He's a great director," says Briers, "and a very fine actor." When pressed on the distinction he elaborates that "The difficulty is that with directing you are worried about everyone else. I talked about this with Ken years ago. I said, 'Be careful, or else you'll dilute your energies. I'm not being luvvie here, I'm being serious.' When he directed me in King Lear, he played Edgar, and when he thought about himself he was suddenly marvellous and would just take off. And the rest of the time he would be very good..." -- that same polite distinction again -- "but he was too often concerned about the others."

Beneath the affable indifference Branagh is deeply affected by what he sees as constant attempts to undermine him in this country, "which loves," as he says, "to just take the piss." That's why Much Ado was initially released in America -- because it was "too risky to open here first".

Far from being super-confident and blasť, Branagh suggests a perpetual battle with his confidence. "I wouldn't describe it as a neurosis, but I do get really black spells; that is why I'm so obsessed with Hamlet. When Dead Again was re-edited by Paramount because they didn't like the first cut, I was really low, but I don't care to talk about it because people don't care to believe it. And why should people have to know about my depression after a performance or whatever? That's boring. It's not a sign of a great actor."

If this is the case, then Branagh's public image as the supremely confident Mr. Fixit must rank as his most convincing performance. Take his habit of letter writing. His family moved to Reading from Belfast in 1969 when the Troubles started and by 15 Branagh had his own column, "Junior Bookshelf", in a local newspaper. It was the result of a letter he wrote to the editor.

While an unknown student at RADA, the young Branagh wrote to Laurence Olivier, asking for advice on a role, and to Derek Jacobi, proposing they work together one day. They did; ten years after Branagh left RADA in 1981. Even Prince Charles received the letter treatment. The result was royal patronage and the admission from the Prince that the film of Henry V reduced him to tears.

Branagh, however, maintains that the letter writing is not an example of what he self-deprecatingly calls his "egotistical megalomania. The letters are because I've always found it extremely difficult, and still do, to pick up the phone when you have to ask someone more famous or experienced than you to do something. It really does require a great deal of courage from me, and I usually have to write some kind of script down. When I approached Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to work with the Renaissance, it took me days just to pick up the phone. My voice rises an octave and I get all breathless, and that still goes on."

He says he's equally overawed by Hollywood, despite being "a major minor player" in local parlance. "I can never quite believe it when I'm in Los Angeles. We did some make-up tests with Robert (DeNiro) the other week, and we put the two of us on camera together. It was one of the most exciting moments in my life when I saw the rushes."

The first time he and Emma stayed in LA, it was in a cheap and far from cheerful motel called the Oakwood Apartments. "The roof was leaking and we were woken up one morning by the sound of a truck driving into the footbridge." However, when he was helming Dead Again, Paramount loaned him a suitably directorial Ford Mustang. He switched it for a beaten-up Toyota Corolla. "I'm not mechanically minded," he feebly explains. But Branagh is definitely losing his parochial tastes. On the last visit he "consented" to ride around in a limo and says, "The studio heads used to expect me to walk into their offices wearing a fluffy white shirt and a pair of black tights. I think they see me a little differently nowadays."

As he himself does. Branagh and his partner David Parfitt are to wind up the Renaissance Theatre Company after one or two more theatre productions. "We both came to the same conclusion," says David Parfitt. "It feels like a natural break and we can now go on to do other things." The other things will be films or something closer to home. Emma Thompson has said that 1993 could be the year for their first child. "Hang on a minute," laughs Branagh, "It is only August. Who knows what the gods have in store for us."

Branagh also has something else in mind. "It's something big I've been mulling over for a long time -- a project that will occupy me for years to come. There is definitely some writing I want to do. I might just write a novel and shove it in the drawer." From a man who published his autobiography at 28, that seems a little unlikely. "I think and I hope that sometime down the line I will create something and express myself in a more personal fashion rather than through the genius of William Shakespeare. I want to be the original artist."

The man is definitely readying himself to step out and answer his critics once and for all.

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium