The Funny Side of Kenneth Branagh
NOW Magazine, Autumn 1999
There's more to Kenneth Branagh than clutching a skull and uttering: "Alas, poor Yorick!" The man who got his big break from the Bard is now getting laughs starring with Will Smith.Kenneth Branagh, the man known for Shakespeare, is suddenly being hailed for his comedy acting skills. Kenneth, 38, plays hilarious villain Dr. Arliss Loveless in Wild Wild West, his latest movie, which opens in Britain next week.
He's also just made Celebrity, in which he plays a desperate scriptwriter. His performance in it was a perfect mimic of the film's director, Woody Allen.
"I've never been more relaxed," says Kenneth. "I'm enjoying some lunacy, and it's very good for me."
But the actor refuses to be drawn on his private life. Any mention of his divorce from Emma Thompson and his relationship with Helena Bonham Carter is definitely off-limits. "Talking about such things is just not me," he says. "It's best kept private. I share it with my family, but it's like telling secrets if I discuss it outside that circle. "I'm blessed - or cursed - with a Celtic personality, which is a combination of tremendous optimism alongside a crashing melancholy. I've got a sense of romance that's sometimes defeated by the age we live in.
"We're here for a short time, and it's best to make the most of what we have. Bad things happen in life and we could go on about it and get depressed. "So if we can laugh, work hard and enjoy ourselves then it makes life worth living. Money has never been my driving force."
Even so, Kenneth was paid more tham $1 million for his performance in Wild Wild West, in which he stars with Will Smith. "It's like James Bond with a Western feel, with gimmicks, special effects and a ridiculously funny plot," he says. "You don't have to think too hard when watching it, but it's difficult to make a good big-budget movie. If it was so easy to make movies that became big box office, we'd all do it."
Kenneth has moved into a new home in Surrey and is putting the record straight on his image. Despeite the "luvvie" tag, he had a working-class upbringing, first in Belfast and later in Reading when his family moved to England. "We lived in a rented three-bedroom semi," he says. "It was very unglamorous. "It was in a complete state of disrepair when we got there and my adolescent memories are of Dad doing it up. I bought it for my parents a few years ago. "That's the nicest thing about having money. The day that happened was one of the most magical in my life.
"Mum and Dad have always had their feet on the ground, without being dour. I've enjoyed the times we've had together through this odd business that I'm in - such as the premieres. "But they're quiet about being my parents and share their time equally between all of us kids. [Kenneth has an older brother, Bill, who's in computers, and a younger sister, Joyce, who writes and directs plays.]
"I'm imbued with the same kind of levelling influence. At worst, it's kind of joyless, because however good life might seem and however exciting films are, I'm always thinking, 'Stay steady.'" At best, it keeps me sane in the insane world of Hollywood.
Kenneth gives a frank verdict on actors. "They can be kind, generous and brave," he says. "I know the brave bit sounds nonsense, because they're not in a war zone. But they're in jobs that are open to harsh scrutiny. Their shape, face or lifestyle is criticised. To have these things commented on makes you paranoid and neurotic. "As a result, they can be the worst of people because of self-indulgence. They're potty and can be spiteful and childish. But I find them fun."
Kenneth's unsure why he has attracted so much criticism over the years. He refuses to blame jealousy of his early success, when he was chosen for leading roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company. "I've always thought of myself as down-to-earth," he says. "But there's been lots of piss-taking. The term 'luvvie' became a reference for superficial nonsense. I've also had my share of disappointments. The reaction to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was bruising. The film was a big let-down critically, and that hurt."
Now Kenneth, who's made Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and Hamlet, is back with the Bard. His new film Love's Labour's Lost - starring Alicia Silverstone - is adapted as a 1930's musical. "There's a lot of slapstick and silly clothes," says Kenneth, who directs and stars. "It suits my present mood perfectly."