Exclusive InDepth InterView: Kenneth Branagh Talks Sondheim, Shakespeare & 'My Week With Marilyn'

BroadwayWorld.com, 17 November 2011
By Pat Cerasaro
* Thanks Jane

Noted thespian and master theatre and film director Kenneth Branagh has found himself at a career peak in 2011, excelling in both entertainment arenas with his striking, visionary blockbuster THOR being one of the year’s biggest hits as well as his simply incredible portrayal of Laurence Olivier in the new film MY WEEK WITH MARILYN generating considerable Oscar buzz. Sharing his cordial and candid insights on a number of topics ranging from his beginnings in Shakespeare to his directing and acting in a string of Shakespearean stage plays and films - his iconic films of HENRY V and HAMLET among them - Branagh also illustrates his impressions of fellow acting titans such as Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud, Ralph Fiennes, Dame Judi Dench, Simon Callow and many more. Plus, he shares his deep affection for the most famous musical theatre Shakespeare adaptation of all time - the classic WEST SIDE STORY, based on Shakespeare's ROMEO & JULIET - as well as his love of the work of Stephen Sondheim as a composer/lyricist in his own right. Plus, news on Branagh's desire to do Broadway in the future, as well as all about his new lead role in the Belfast-to-West End transfer of THE PAINKILLER - and much, much more!

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN opens in theaters on November 23.

Have A Bash & Hope For The Best

PC: Your film of HAMLET is an elemental part of Shakespeare education in this country and it is such a magnificent achievement - you truly are the voice of Shakespeare as far as Generation Y is concerned, I would unquestionably say.

KB: Ah, how amazing! It’s such a thrill to hear you say that, I must say. It sends me right back to the process of making it - the whole process of making that film and the experiences with the actors was so vivid. I feel as though the movie of making the movie plays in my head when people talk about it - so, it’s great to hear. Thank you very, very much.

PC: The Blu-ray is absolutely fantastic, as well. Were you involved with the HD remastering - particularly given the fact that it is a 70 mm film?

KB: Yes, I did get involved - because, yes, obviously, with the 70 mm, we were so keen to, you know, make it a virtue in the rest of its life, as it were, on various formats; and, just the quality that was therefore possible. And, I am now very pleased with it.

PC: As director of the recent film version of SLEUTH - adapted by Harold Pinter from Anthony Shaffer’s original - I was curious if you could shed some light on the story that Stephen Sondheim actually formed the kernel of Shaffer’s idea?

KB: Am I right in thinking that Mr. Sondheim told a story that was an experience of that little potential triangle to Anthony Shaffer many years ago? Did it actually happen - is that right?

PC: I hope to find out, but that seems to be the case as far as I know.

KB: Yes, I had heard as much when we were researching. Gosh, I have never met Mr. Sondheim, but, if you care to pass it on: an enormous thank you from me for the awesome work that he has produced. He is just a master; a true master.

PC: Sondheim recently also wrote the score for The Public Theatre’s production of KING LEAR, as well.

KB: Oh, I didn’t see that production so I wasn’t aware he did that! How thrilling that must have been.

PC: What do you think is the best use of music in Shakespeare? In addition to your musicalization of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST, Act IV of THE WINTER’S TALE is essentially a musical…

KB: Oh, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely.

PC: Many noted musicians have adapted it, as well - William Finn included - so I'd love to know how you see the function of music in Shakespeare in general.

KB: So, do you mean how Shakespeare used music himself or how it has been used by his interpreters?

PC: Both. Some examples: the Stratford musical version of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR used only the lyrics dictated by the text; Des McAnuff’s new TEMPEST is outfitted with a whole new musical’s worth of songs that aren't all from the text verbatim.

KB: Well, I think that music is crucially important in Shakespeare - and, clearly, was an important part of the Elizabethan theatre. And, it’s always been something that was a profound element of the experience of Shakespeare that I have been drawn to - and interpreters have, as well. I remember first hearing Shakespeare via an LP record, actually.

PC: What was it you heard?

KB: It was Laurence Olivier doing speeches from Shakespeare with the music of William Walton - such a key part of my response to the material.

PC: What there a particular moment you remember being especially striking to you?

KB: In the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Olivier’s HAMLET, Walton’s music - and, indeed, in that case, the sound of the crashing sea underneath the ruminative Hamlet on the battlements at Elsinore is such a complete part of the picture.

PC: What a description.

KB: And, of course, given so much of the plays are poetry, they, in themselves, are inherently musical. I think that the marriage between the two - the music and the poetry - is so key. It’s not surprising that so many of the plays have lent themselves to musical versions, either.

PC: Yes - many, many examples.

KB: Indeed, you are right, though - there was a production at Stratford a few years ago that Dame Judi Dench and Simon Callow did that was a musical version of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. Judi herself directed THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE. For me, it’s often when approaching Shakespeare, I listen to music to be inspired by. On the way to our HAMLET, in fact - before Patrick Doyle wrote a very, very fine score for it - I listened to everything, really, that I could get my hands on that had been inspired by HAMLET - Tchaikovsky and all. To me, it’s remarkable that a playwright like that can inspire the sort of layers of meaning that other people find and give musical responses to - as well as the plays themselves lending themselves to just the fun of, either, enhanced musical interpretation, or, just, you know, pitch-perfect versions of when the songs come in THE TEMPEST or in CYMBELINE, for example. There are so many beautiful songs in the canon that you can’t really divorce one from the other - you might say Shakespeare is music; certainly the music in Shakespeare is key.

PC: Sondheim also set the “Fear No More” speech from CYMBELINE to music in THE FROGS - starring your own LOVE’S LABOUR’S star himself, Nathan Lane.

KB: Yes, yes.

PC: Given your position as a foremost Shakespearean, I have to ask: what are your thoughts on Sondheim, Bernstein and Arthur Laurents and their adaptation of ROMEO & JULIET for WEST SIDE STORY? Did it fix any issues of the original in your opinion?

KB: Well, it’s a masterwork as far as I am concerned - an absolute masterwork. And, one of the more exciting movies I ever saw.

PC: The film is so phenomenal. It just celebrated its 50th anniversary this week.

KB: I’ll tell you what it did, too - it just reminded me of when, certainly in my mind, I made my directing debut in Shakespeare. It was a, alas, not-very-good production of ROMEO & JULIET; but, it had great heart and great intention. [Laughs.]

PC: Well, you can’t start at the top, after all.

KB: But, what that trio caught in the doing of it - WEST SIDE STORY - and, certainly, one hears about the Broadway version and, indeed, the film version, still, to this day - was amazing. It was a key to my understanding Shakespeare way back when ROMEO & JULIET was the text in class at 13 and, then, it became the show for my first visit to the theatre as a student.

PC: What did you think of it?

KB: Sex! In the music, in the staging, in the atmosphere, in the feel and in the words, indeed, too. The passion, the fire, the violence - the sex. That was where - not only in detail, in terms of the execution of all the areas of artistry that that work has, but, just in the general feel and response I had to it was this overwhelming power. So, when I tried to direct ROMEO & JULIET, I felt as though I at least understood that was something one had to capture - and it was one of the reasons Shakespeare was still being done 400 years later.

PC: Sex sells - now and forever.

KB: In an audience for 13-year-old kids like me who went to see it for the first time live - in a not-very-good production - one could feel that; one could feel the power. The lure of gangs; the lure of adolescent would-be sexual encounters - WEST SIDE STORY comes and grabs all of that by the scruff of the neck and drags it kicking, screaming into every century you like.

PC: To hear the greatest Shakespearean speak of it that passionately is so thrilling to hear. There are many new film adaptations of the Bard that have recently arrived or will soon. I would love to know: have you seen the new CORIOLANUS film yet starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler?

KB: No, I haven’t, but I hear it is absolutely tremendous. I spoke to Ralph and he sat me down - we were both rehearsing; I can’t believe it, but it was three years ago now - he was rehearsing OEDIPUS upstairs and I was rehearsing downstairs.

PC: Oh, wow.

KB: [Laughs.] That was a funny kind of situation with a lot of classical people sort of wandering around a rehearsal center in London.

PC: What did you two talk about?

KB: Oh, well, he said, “Can I bend your ear?” one night and we had a good old chat about directing and acting in Shakespeare and what might be a good idea, practically, to do.

PC: How fascinating.

KB: Yeah, I am a huge admirer of Ralph’s and I have heard he has done an absolutely sensational job on CORIOLANUS so I look forward to seeing it very much.

PC: Julie Taymor recently did a film of THE TEMPEST with Helen Mirren, as well, of course.

KB: I think, you know, with that TEMPEST and this new CORIOLANUS, it’s clear that there continues to be a fascination with this man’s work and, also - it seems to me to be - a healthy desire to produce new versions in the new media.

PC: Shakespeare is arriving in the 21st century strong as ever.

KB: Yes, I understand that Joss Whedon has just done a new version of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.

PC: Yes, indeed, he has.

KB: I understand there is a new ROMEO & JULIET being planned, as well. They are rediscovering, and, therefore, reigniting the ignition of, you know, contemporary debate about what things mean - how the characters strike people today; the role of language in the visual mediums and in the new media. Plus: how does this playwright stay current? Does he even need to stay current? What survives best? What thrives - is it story? Is it character? Is it language? All of that seems to be as alive as ever.

PC: It definitely does.

KB: And, certainly, it comes in my post-bag from all over the place - in relation to some of what we have done onscreen, in Shakespeare. And, that still seems to come, ever-increasingly, from schools and colleges around this great nation of yours, and, also, back at home - where he is still inspiring and provoking and where teachers are, I think, doing the right thing by using existing and new versions of the pieces to stimulate their own productions and their own, real, hands-on experience of the plays for their students.

PC: Which matters most of all.

KB: Yeah, I think that’s the most thrilling thing. And, I am often written to about productions by, you know, 9-year-olds, putting on a production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and kids getting their sleeves rolled up and jumping into it and getting the fear out of the way and it really providing an entry into a potential love for this man’s work later on in their lives. All of it just supports the idea that, when understood - or, even, just experienced - that the words and the stories continue to be inspiring and illuminating. [Pause.] They help. They help us.

PC: How very, very true. Baz Luhrmann has done this column and I am curious what you think of his modernization of ROMEO & JULIET from the 90s? Are you a fan?

KB: Oh, yeah - and I say the same rule applies in a very different way to the way that he just got to the heart of that play and just expressed it and translated it. I saw that movie in ‘96, in Boston, in a packed movie theater. The average age of the audience members there must have been 15. And, it was thrilling!

PC: I bet.

KB: You know, I felt as though I had a little bit of insight into what it might have been like at the Globe, you know, way back - his direct connection to the audience was just great to witness. And, the imagination of it - his imagination is so vivid and so particular and so original and so energized. I think he did the Bard a great service with that film.

PC: He told me he would love to film THE WINTER’S TALE eventually - is that one you would want to do someday, as well? It’s my personal favorite of them all, myself.

KB: Oh, I would love to! I would absolutely love to! You know, it’s funny, isn’t it - the way certain plays just come and live with people for a long time?

PC: It is.

KB: Sam Mendes did THE WINTER’S TALE recently and I have wanted to do it for ages. For ages. It’s a play I can read only very slowly - because one is reading through tears the entire time.

PC: You can say that again.

KB: I have so many recordings of it and I have heard so many great recordings of it over the years. I was listening to John Gielgud and his Leontes just the other day, actually.

PC: What draws you to it most, do you think?

KB: Oh, I don’t know - it’s a play of such despair and of such hope; of such fragility and of such passion; it’s so dark and, yet, it is so uplifting - it’s really a beauty. I think it is, indeed - certainly along with TWELFTH NIGHT - perhaps my favorite.

PC: You as Leontes and Kate Winslet as Hermione would be heaven on earth - a re-teaming of HAMLET, as well!

KB: [Laughs.] Well, give Baz a ring and say that we are both available - he just needs to give us a shout!

PC: We were speaking of Ralph Fiennes earlier, and I was curious if I am correct in thinking that he was originally attached to MY WEEK WITH MARILYN in the Laurence Olivier role that you now play in the finished film?

KB: I think that’s true - I think it was with Ralph for a while, and, for whatever reason, that didn’t work out. Then, David Parfitt called me - the producer; who I had worked with extensively in the first part of my career and who is a terrific guy; and, indeed, he won the Oscar for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.

PC: A perfect connection if there ever were any, right?

KB: Yes. And Simon Curtis, our director, I had worked with on a television production of SHADOW OF A GUNMAN, came to me and said, “Would you ever fancy this? You might feel - for whatever reason - put off, but, read the screenplay and I think you will be surprised.” And, indeed I was; by how the combination of things that might not have worked - a backstage story; an insider’s story that was not too "in" and, also, in their hands, had a ring of authenticity and truth; and where iconic figures felt as though they had some human dimension; it made the prospect of playing someone like Sir Laurence very, very appealing. It was a role that was very well-judged, I think - they allowed me to suggest a few things about including some Shakespeare and just quoting him a little, since he had written extensively and candidly about his reaction to the Marilyn experience. It seemed that there was a chance to - in miniature - reflect her curiously parallel story of crisis in Olivier’s own mid-life crisis as an actor.

PC: His wanting to break the mold consistently and constantly.

KB: Yeah - he was an institution; I think that part of the challenge for him at that point of his life was that he was too revered, too respected.

PC: Indeed.

KB: He wanted to get a little more down and dirty - which he was about to, of course, spectacularly well!

PC: As history notes.

KB: So, the chance to see, you know, a kind of human account of him - but, also, a funny one. I mean, he is funny himself about his frustrations with her lateness and so on. So, it turned out, in the end, just to be something that was so delicious to attempt that I really seized the opportunity with alacrity.

PC: Did you ever get the chance to meet Olivier yourself?

KB: No, I never met Olivier. My one contact was by a letter - I was 19, 20 years old. He had directed a film for the next time after Marilyn - he said that Marilyn had stopped him directing for 20 years because she had so put him off the process, even though he often said - as he indeed does in the movie - that directing a movie was the best job in the world.

PC: As you would know.

KB: Yes, but, it took him another twenty years, though, to direct another film - it was a film version of his very famous stage production of THE THREE SISTERS. He played Chebutykin, the doctor, in THREE SISTERS and I was playing it in drama school - at the ripe old age of 19 [Laughs.] - and I got his address out of the Who’s Who of the theatre. Then, I wrote to him - with no expectations - and I said, “Do you have any inspirations for the Dr. Chebutykin character, Sir Laurence? You play it, obviously, magnificently in the film and I now am in the process of idiotically attempting it at 19." And, the reply came back with, you know, “I can’t help you with what need to be your own ideas and insticts about this, but my advice is to have a bash and hope for the best - which I certainly wish you,” he said.

PC: How fabulous! And, now - how full-circle for you in your own career.

KB: Frankly, that advice came to mind when the opportunity to play him in this new film did come up. I thought, “Well, you know? I will have a bash and hope for the best, " and I shall believe that that comes with Sir Laurence’s blessing.

PC: Given your Oscar buzz, it most certainly seems to.

KB: [Laughs.]

PC: 2011 has been such a big year for you with MY WEEK WITH MARILYN and, also, your magnificent direction of the absolutely riveting THOR. Since you have confirmed you will not be directing THOR 2, will you possibly consider doing the next AVENGERS film since it features Thor as a character and acts as a continuation of the story in its own way?

KB: Well, who knows? The timing for me just wasn’t able to work on THOR 2.

PC: What a shame that is.

KB: But, since then - since finishing THOR; which I loved and had an absolutely wonderful time doing and enjoyed working with that cast enormously, and, in fact, via Sir Anthony Hopkins I was able to get a ton of insights into Olivier…

PC: No way! What did he share with you?

KB: Well, I got chills hearing Hopkins talk about the night when he got the call - he said, [Anthony Hopkins Voice.] “This is the call no actor should ever have - it’s when the stage manager rings and says, ‘Sir Laurence will be off tonight and you, Mr. Hopkins, are the understudy.'”

PC: How terrifying! What immense shoes to fill.

KB: [Laughs.] DANCE OF DEATH. 1967. Sir Laurence Olivier was indisposed for the evening. When Hopkins tells it, it is so funny because he stood in the wings as the company manager went out onstage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen,” - you could hear the audience dreading what was about to be said - and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight, due to the indisposition of Sir Laurence Olivier…” - all you hear is “Ohhh!” and then a huge groan erupts through the whole audience. You know, literally, seats flipping up.

PC: Chaos.

KB: People came to see the greatest actor in the world and he wasn’t there.

PC: What a disappointment.

KB: But, then, “The role tonight will be played by Anthony Hopkins,” and, people say, “Ugh, who’s Anthony Hopkins?” [Laughs.] And, of course, he went on, and, you know, as they would say, he went out there a kid and he came back a star.

PC: What did Sir Anthony tell you about working with Olivier one-on-one?

KB: Hopkins absolutely worshipped Olivier - and, he was able to watch him in close quarters on that production of DANCE OF DEATH, of course. So, it was fascinating to do that picture - THOR - and talk to Hopkins all about working with Olivier.

PC: I bet. You have certainly been keeping busy since THOR and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, as well.

KB: Yes - since then, I had a break and then I played in a theatre piece; a French farce called THE PAINKILLER. I did it at my hometown theater in my hometown of Belfast - the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. I just finished that a month ago and I had a great, great time doing that. That may well come to the West End, as well.

PC: How exciting! Let's hope it happens.

KB: I would hope that - and I am not just saying this because I am talking to you right now [Laughs.] - but, it has always been an unfulfilled ambition of mine, most certainly, to act in a play on Broadway. So, I hope that sooner or later that may come to pass - perhaps it may be THE PAINKILLER, but I don’t know.

PC: And you have another role on the small screen currently, too.

KB: Yes, I am also in the middle of playing Wallander - the Swedish detective that I am privileged to play in a series of films for the BBC.

PC: Of course.

KB: Yeah, so that has been keeping me pretty busy - but, I am also happy to be, you know, banging the drum for MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, that I am very happy to be involved with.

PC: So, no current films in development as an actor or director immediately?

KB: No, not immediately - I have got stuff in development and I want to get back in the saddle and I will, but, also, for a guy who is lucky enough to be busy all the time, a little bit of a breath will be nice. As I come to the end of filming WALLANDER, I realize it has been a busy year - you know, with finishing THOR and then the play and then WALLANDER.

PC: I cannot wait to see you onstage someday very soon, then - hopefully on these shores!

KB: Yes, I am very much looking forward to new adventures - including, I hope, Broadway; sooner rather than later.

PC: One last thing: I adore your work in THE ROAD FROM EL DORADO. An underrated animated musical gem, in my opinion.

KB: Oh, thank you so much for remembering that one!

PC: Perhaps some day you can re-team with Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice and do the AIDA film - you would certainly be ideal to direct it!

KB: Oh, wouldn’t that be interesting?! God, I would love that!

PC: With, maybe, Beyonce in the lead?

KB: Oh, wow! You’re giving me plenty of good ideas, here, Pat! [Laughs.]

PC: From HENRY V to HAMLET to AS YOU LIKE IT to THOR to MY WEEK WITH MARILYN - you are a constant inspiration in front of the camera and behind it. Thank you so very much for this today, Ken.

KB: Aww, thank you so much and that’s very, very kind of you and I really appreciate it. It’s been absolutely lovely to talk to you, Pat. Bye bye.

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