Much Ado About Branagh
New York (cover story), May 24,
by Dinitia Smith
THE NEW ORSON WELLES
Kenneth Branagh may be a serious
Shakespearean actor, the new Sir Laurence Olivier, but he was
being treated like a rock star. Branagh was in New York to promote
his new movie, Much Ado About Nothing. The movie was a hit--people
were lining up around the block to see a sixteenth-century love
story. And he was traveling almost the same talk-show circuit
as Conan O'Brien, David Letterman's replacement, and Tracey Gold,
the anorectic actress who was promoting the TV movie Labor of
Love: The Arlette Schwietzer Story. Everywhere Branagh went,
fans had discovered his schedule, and as he lighted from his
limousine, they pressed against him almost ominously. At one
greenroom after another, there would be O'Brien or Gold, waiting
to do his or her turn too.
Branagh does not look like the
heir to Olivier's artistic legacy. A compact, soft-faced Ulsterman
with thin lips and pinkish-brown hair, he does not have Olivier's
photogenic face, high cheekbones, or haunting eyes. He is a working-class
man who has managed to succeed brilliantly in class-ridden England.
At 23, Branagh was the youngest actor ever to play Henry V in
the Royal Shakespeare Company. At 28, he wrote his autobiography,
Beginning. That same year, he directed and starred in the film
Henry V--Olivier was 36 when he made his Henry. Branagh's Henry
was the antithesis of Olivier's heroic version, and owed more
to Orson Welles's Chimes of Midnight, with its dark vision of
medieval warfare, its foundering knights and disemboweled horses.
In 1991, Branagh directed and starred in Dead Again, a film noir
that invited more comparisons to Welles and to his film Touch
Like Welles, who was only 25
when he made Citizen Kane, Branagh, 32, is something of a boy
genius, fusing pop melodrama and high art, theater and cinema,
with a company of grand actors. "Early on, I read about
Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast," Branagh says, "His
chutzpa! The fact he went onstage at the age of 16 and announced,
'I am a Broadway star!'"
Only when Branagh opens his mouth
is there a clue to his success. In the limousine on the way to
Live With Regis and Kathie Lee, he was telling an anecdote about
being compared to Olivier. He reached for a quote from Hamlet
to illustrate. "'A was a man," Branagh recited, "take
him for all in all,/ I shall not look upon his like again."
Branagh's actor's tongue caressed the vowels, sunk to points
of softness and fluidity; his body suddenly took on a flickering
of light and heat and youth. There "it" was.
In the greenroom, Branagh munched
on a bagel and watched the show on the monitor as he waited to
go on. Patti LaBelle was talking about her new diet: "Armstead
said, 'Put down that whole chicken!'" Tracey Gold called
her anorexia nervosa "a constant battle"," and
with Mother's Day Approaching, Kathie Lee and Regis did a bit
from their contest "Mom's Dream Come True."
At last it was Branagh's turn.
Quickly, Regis Philbin found an affinity with Branagh: "corpsing"--a
form of hysteria in which an actor breaks into uncontrollable
fits of laugher at serious moments. It's a problem that has plagued
Branagh his whole career. Once, he and the actress Dame Judi
Dench were actually kicked off the set during Ibsen's Ghosts
because of their helpless giggling. Sometimes Branagh speaks
in a crazed female voice when he's working. "O-o-o-o-o-h!
Dorothy Discipline needs to sprinkle some of her fairy dust in
here!" he told the other actors during a radio version of
Hamlet recently, sending them out of control.
Regis, it seems, had the same
affliction. "I did it in the middle of a news event in the
early sixties," Philbin told Branagh. "There was a
train wreck in the Alps. I went on and said, "Well, there
was a train wreck--ha-ha-ha-ha!" Branagh said he had had
the problem again just the other night while doing Hamlet at
the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. "There is a
sword fight," Branagh told Philbin, "and the night
before I had had a few drinks--it was the Heineken Hamlet, the
hung-over Hamlet--and the sword fell apart in my hands, and I
started to laugh. You look upstage. Someone said later, 'You
were so emotional.' I was crying--but they weren't the right
Branagh went on to tell Philbin
about Much Ado, and the love scenes with his wife, Emma Thompson,
winner of this year's Oscar for Best Actress. The interview was
going well. "This will be an introduction to Shakespeare
for lotsa people," Philbin told Branagh. And indeed it will.
From its opening shots, Much Ado is a film filled with sex and
joy, a paean to romantic love. As the camera pans across a landscape
in Tuscany on an autumn afternoon, we hear the voice of Emma
Thompson--warm, throaty, slightly world-weary, and giving new
meaning to Shakespeare's words: "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh
no more,/Men were deceivers ever, one foot in sea and one one
shore, to one thing constant never..." We see Beatrice (Thompson)
and a group of friends--the tanned breasts of the women revealed
in white dresses. There is the distant rumble of hoofbeats, a
cloud of dust and drums; and then, looking for all the world
like the Magnificent Seven, come the young men home from battle:
Don Pedro (Denzel Washington); his half-brother, Don John (Keanu
Reeves); Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard); and finally, Branagh
himself, who plays Benedick. Now, through the dust and heat,
appear close-ups of horses' hooves and their rippling chests,
tanned biceps and pectorals, taut thighs against horseflesh;
of cocky, smiling faces full of lust and expectation. The scene
is nothing less, says Branagh, than "sex on legs."
Much Ado is a love story on two
levels. One is about a pair of would-be lovers, Claudio and Hero
(Kate Beckinsale), who are thwarted, nearly tragically, by the
schemes of the evil Don John. The other is the story of Beatrice
and Benedick, sharp-tongued and sparring, terrified of love,
who eventually find their way to each other. Leonard is dewy
and soft with youth; Branagh's Benedick is cocky and rough-edged.
Denzel Washington, as Pedro, who finally makes love happen, is
a figure of wisdom and dignity. Keanu Reeves, as the evil Don
John, is the very paradigm of blank-faced hatred. New York's
David Denby called the film "rousingly entertaining and
touching," and in the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote,
"Ravishing entertainment...triumphantly romantic."
W.W. Norton has also published a book of Branagh's script, together
with an essay on the play and the making of the film.
Next August, Branagh will begin
filming Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to be co-produced by Francis
Ford Coppola. Branagh will play Frankenstein, Robert De Niro
the creature. Branagh "doesn't want to be just well-known
in the papers," says his old friend the English actor John
Sessions. "He wants to be well-known in the history books."
Indeed, Branagh's success has
brought something of a backlash in Britain, which has always
resented success, especially among the young. Some English reporters
have taken to calling Branagh and Thompson "the luvvies"--media
slang for overblown theater types who call everyone "darling".
The Guardian recently printed a remark by Richard Eyre, artistic
director of the National Theatre, that any any comparison to
Olivier is "wildly off the mark. Branagh lacks that sense
of danger, that recklessness, that savagery, and lurking melancholia
that, with Olivier, made for something dark. Ken...he's nice.
He's decent," said Eyre. And in the United States, Frank
Rich called Branagh's recent Hamlet "bland." "What
has happened to the creative fires of the gifted Mr. Branagh?"
Rich wrote in the Times. Branagh had given "a cautious,
theatrical reading of the prince rather than a passionate, risk-taking
interpretation of [Hamlet's] neurotic psyche."
But it may this very ordinariness that accounts, at least in
part, for Branagh's popular success. Until the turn of the century,
Shakespeare was always mass entertainment. In the Mississippi
River towns and frontier settlements of America, packed crowds
gather to jeer at Shakespeare's clowns, to laugh at his bawdiness
and his sly deceptions, and to weep at his tragic heroes and
heroines. "There is hardly a pioneer's hut that does not
contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare," Tocqueville wrote
of his travels in the United States during the 1850's. When fans
didn't like a performance, they threw cabbages and pumpkins at
the actors (during a production of Richard III, they tossed a
dead goose onstage). In 1849, hundreds rioted in Astor Place
in a dispute over the merits of the actors Edwin Forrest and
William Charles Macready, who were both playing Macbeth, in different
productions in the city, and 22 people were killed.
Part of the reason for Shakespeare's
popularity was Americans' love of oratory, a relatively good
public-school system, and a fascination with the individual on
the stage of the world. But by the turn of the century, Americans
had become more interested in print than in oratory, and class
distinctions had become more rigid, Lawrence Levine writes in
his book Highbrow Lowbrow. Suddenly, there was high culture and
low culture, and gradually Shakespeare became the province of
the elite, of academics, picked over in our time by structuralists
and deconstructionists, reinterpreted for political and racial
In a way, Branagh's popularity
is a rejection of that elitism. "My values are influenced
by a completely working-class background until I was in my teens,"
says Branagh. "This allows people to believe me when I say,
'Listen, honestly, I think you're going to enjoy this Shakespeare
play'--more than if I'd gone to Eton or Oxford. I'm essentially
somebody who believes in popular entertainment."
Branagh's explanation for his
remarkable drive and ambition is resolutely oblique, if not mundane.
(Emma Thompson has called Branagh "a walnut, very difficult
to pry open." "A very complex man, this Ken,"
says Keanu Reeves.)
"It's an Irish thing--the
gloriousness is in the doing," Branagh claims. "It
doesn't matter if you win. I've never been afraid of knocks.
I do expect disaster. The surprise is when you get away
"His real fear," says
Thompson, "is that people will say, 'We've just found you
out--now bugger off!' He's a very practical, earthy man. He doesn't
have much of a personal ego. He doesn't need shoring up."
On the surface, at least, there
is something of the hardworking Irish Protestant about Branagh.
"A driven, puritanical Celt" is how he puts it. Branagh
is a tough, stolid man who took pride in playing Hamlet for four
and a half hours every night at Stratford while he had laryngitis.
Punctual and well-organized, he is a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other
kind of man. But for Branagh, who knows almost nothing about
high culture--about Mozart, for instance--Shakespeare is a secret
mantra. Day and night, Shakespeare's words swirl around inside
Branagh's head. In fact, he knows whole stretches of plays by
heart. When he is directing, he often works without a text.
There was a time when Branagh,
like any good working-class bloke, listened to rock and roll,
even Prince. But now it is Shakespeare's words that "provide
comfort," he says. "I'm far more likely to think of
the line for a play than to put on a record these days. There
are just lines that really echo for me. I remember the first
time I saw Lear--'When we are born, we cry that we are come to
this great stage of fools....'
"For me, in moments of depression
and melancholy, when I come up against stupid humanness, lines
like that answer for it and make me laugh. Shakespeare is like
some of the Buddhists. After man struggles and suffers in this
world, the Buddhists say, 'Be cheerful.' There is a lot of Shakespeare
that puts into perspective our being wrapped up into the melodramas
of daily life. Shakespeare makes me laugh, and it also stops
me from going crazy. I like his cynicism--'To be, or not to be?'
What's the fucking point of it, when you think of Bosnia? 'The
pangs of despis'd love.' Hamlet-- everyone's gone through it.
I mourn the loss of vocabulary. I mourn the loss of poetry,"
says Branagh. "Find a word!" he cries. "You must
find a word! To use more words is not to deny your powers of
feeling; it's to express them!"
There were few books in the house in which Branagh grew up, but
words mattered very much. He was born the middle child in an
Irish Protestant family in Belfast in 1960. His father was a
carpenter; his mother worked in a mill. (Branagh has a brother,
36, who was laid off from his job as a computer salesman sixteen
months ago. A sister, Joyce, 22, has worked as a production assistant
on Branagh's films.)
The Irish, of course, have always
had a deep-seated love of language, a seemingly innate sense
of rhythm and inflection. As a boy, Branagh would sit and listen
to "the crack"--Irish slang for talking, for telling
stories about family and friends. "They would have large
family get-togethers," Branagh remembers. "It was people
making their own entertainment--there was no spare money. They
had a few drinks, they would sit by the fireside--'Let me tell
you a story.' My granny would tell stories about when she was
courting. They had a natural sense of pace--when to pause, little
rhetorical flourishes. They were fireside actors. My mom has
that as well. Definitely my dad. It was an oral tradition that
needed an audience. And a lot of music, a lot of 'Danny Boy',
usually when a the name of some dead relative came up, some relative
who went to America, and was never seen again." As a little
boy listening to these stories, Branagh longed to be part of
this "elite" of older relatives, but that would come
only later, with performing.
The Branaghs were an extended
family, with grandfathers who liked their liquor and women who
hauled their husbands home at night from the local pub. At one
point, the family had an outdoor toilet. The Branaghs lived in
public housing. Later, when they bought their own house, they
then had to sell it to make ends meet. "They didn't make
too much of a fuss with him," says Thompson of Branagh's
parents. "Women often spoil men. You've got to be careful
to let them do their own ironing. He wasn't spoiled. They were
all treated the same--they were tough wee creatures."
From the beginning, there was
the Anglo-Irish sense of "belonging nowhere," as Olivia
Manning writes--Branagh uses the phrase in his autobiography.
During Branagh's early childhood, Belfast was a relatively peaceful
place; but then in 1968 came the Troubles. "[My parents]
didn't want to leave Ulster," he says, "but my father's
work was taking him away, and we experienced quite a lot of violence
while my mother was pregnant with my sister." The Troubles
also made Branagh hate organized religion. Churches make him
"physically ill", he has written.
In 1970, the family moved to
Reading, England, a dull suburb of London. Again Kenneth was
out of place, bullied mercilessly. "It was tough on all
of them," says Emma Thompson. "Any one with an Irish
accent was not welcome in England. Ken being 9, it probably changed
his personality, being uprooted from family and friends."
Always acutely sensitive to language,
Branagh quickly adapted: He spoke with an Irish accent at home,
an English accent at school. "My saving grace was being
reasonably good at games [sports]."
Branagh was an indifferent student
and seemed destined to work in one of Reading's industries or
for the British Rail or the army. He describes his father as
being appalled that he wasn't going to drop out of school and
work with him. Early on, he was transfixed by movies--Birdman
of Alcatraz and Terry Salvalas, in particular, had an effect
on him. And he discovered books. "I can remember being 10
or 11, buying my first book from Woolworth's in Reading. I realized
books were not just in the library and in school. I spent whatever
money I had on books. My parents got my brother on me--they were
so worried about how much time I spent on my own and I would
that I would not bring friends to the house."
Eventually, Branagh's father
started his own small firm, and the Branaghs became members of
the middle class. Branagh thought he would be a journalist, and
early on there were signs of a kind of a gargantuan self-confidence,
when he wrote a letter to an editor suggesting that he be allowed
to review books. (The letter writing was to become a habit.)
Then one day he was cast in a school production of Oh! What a
Lovely War and discovered he wanted to be an actor. He read everything
he could on acting, sending away for magazines and poring over
copies of Theatre World, Encore, and Plays and Players. To this
day, Branagh has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the craft,
of past productions of Shakespeare, casts and directors and producers.
At 15, he pitched a tent at the Royal Shakespeare Company at
Stratford so he could see Shakespere. In 1978, he won an audition
to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, almost hallowed ground
in England. The audition seemed traumatic. "The execution
is tremendously accomplished, but the overall effect is soulless,"
he was told by the director and writer Hugh Crutwell, the principal
of RADA. Nonetheless, he was accepted. John Sessions remembers
that "he was a country boy. He wore ordinary clothes, not
very fashionable jeans, an out-of-date haircut. But he had a
way of looking at people as if he were looking down the barrel
of a gun."
At RADA, "a door had been
opened," Branagh writes in Beginning. "You could submerge
your personality fully into someone else's words. ...You could
become an instrument, a vessel through which something else could
channel and expand itself, take on color and meaning..."
He divested himself once and for all of his regional accent and
learned "received pronunciation", as it was called
at RADA. The result is a kind of suburban accent that lacks Olivier's
Early on, Branagh demonstrated an ability to cultivate the right
people. When he was playing Chebutykin, the doctor in Chekhov's
Three Sisters, he wrote to Olivier to get his advice and got
a letter back. Another letter won him an interview with Derek
Jacobi, a figure who would later be crucial to his success.
Branagh got his break at the
age of 31 when, after England's strict Equity rules were bent,
he landed a part on the West End in Another Country. At 23, he
was chosen by Adrian Noble, the artistic director of the Royal
Shakespeare Company, to play Henry V at Stratford. Again, the
letter writing came into play. What was it like to be a royal,
Branagh wondered, to live in spiritual isolation, to bear the
burdens of power? There was only one way to find out--go to the
heir apparent himself. Again Branagh wrote a letter--this time
to Prince Charles. After being vetted by Buckingham Palace, Branagh
found himself in a car bound for Kensington Palace and an interview
with the future king.
Like his distant ancestor, Charles
himself had been the victim of a million small betrayals, or
so Branagh wrote in his autobiography. "I felt an instant
rapport," Branagh writes. "I had never encountered
such an extraordinary and genuine humility." "Yes,"
said the prince, according to Branagh, "there was a tremendous
pressure and temptation to be at times either very silly or very
violent." "I had the impression that he shared with
Shakespeare's Henry a desire to strike a delicate balance between
responsibility and compassion. He was eloquent about Shakespeare's
portrayal of regal isolation," Branagh says today, "the
nature of regal responsibility. He [Charles] is very emotional.
He takes it very seriously."
But Branagh started squabbling
with Trevor Nunn, an artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare
Company, and the RSC administration over money and a certain
"smugness." The RSC has become a big machine, and many
young actors were chafing under its influence. Branagh decided
to form his own acting company, in which the actor would be central
and Shakespeare accessible. "Shakespeare is an actor's medium,"
Branagh says. "He was an actor."
There was also a conservative
bent to Branagh's move. During the postwar period in England,
Shakespeare had been reinterpreted and played in modern dress.
The plays have been produced as Freudian dreams or seen as metaphors--Romeo
and Juliet, says, as a metaphor for the Arab-Israeli conflict
rather than "a domestic dispute," says Branagh. "These
plays are not texts," he says. "They're scripts."
Branagh wanted to bring Shakespeare back to its roots, with an
emphasis on diction and language, and on story. He wanted to
do a Shakespeare "which did not assume people were familiar
with the play, an uncluttered Shakespeare."
Branagh had begun to conceive
the idea of the Renaissance Theatre Company as one that would
bring Shakespeare back to its roots. Prince Charles lent his
prestige and support to the venture by becoming a patron of the
company. At the press conference announcing the new theater group,
Branagh was able to get Derek Jacobi and Dame Judi Dench to appear
alongside him. At Renaissance's first Shakespeare production,
Twelfth Night, Prince Charles was in the audience. The reviews
Branagh published his autobiography, he says, because he needed
the money to buy office space for the Renaissance Theatre. It
is a good-humored book, surprisingly free of bravado, seemingly
honest about his talents, affectionate about his family, and
yet a stunning display of hubris. Already Branagh seemed to see
himself as a kind of character in an epic. Some in the British
press reacted negatively--the book, a long catalog of his successes,
seemed curiously complete. As his epigraph, he chose a quote
from As You Like It. "I will tell you the beginning,"
he wrote, "and if it please your ladyships you shall see
the end, for the best is yet to do."
In 1988, Branagh filmed Henry
V, braving comparison with the Olivier production, one of the
best films of any Shakespearean drama ever. Branagh cast England's
theatrical royalty--Jacobi, Dench, Paul Scofield. The crew teased
him. "You can't direct for toffee, you big pouf!" the
veteran actor Brian Blessed joked at one point.
But the result was a powerful,
back-to-basics Henry, a post-Falklands Henry. It is a bleak,
mud-ridden vision of a predatory England, of blood lost and anguished
power, and Branagh won two Academy Award nominations, for acting
and directing. Prince Charles was said to have viewed the rushes
and cried openly, especially during the scene before the Battle
of Agincourt when Branagh says Henry's lines:
Upon the King! Let us our
lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives, and our sins lay on the King!
We must bear all. O hard condition....
At the end of the film, Henry
kisses Katherine (Emma Thompson), his bride-to-be, the daughter
of the French king: "You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate,"
Henry tells her. "There is more eloquence in a sugar touch
of them than in the tongues of the French council." In fact,
unbeknownst to the British public, Thompson and Branagh had fallen
in love, and after the film's release they were married in a
wedding at Cliveden, the old Astor estate and the scene of the
Profumo scandal in the sixties. The wedding reportedly cost $50,000.
There were fireworks. "It was an English version of Much
Ado About Nothing," says Judi Dench.
Branagh had met Thompson while
auditioning for the BBC series Fortunes of War. Unlike Branagh,
Thompson came from a privileged background. She had gone to Cambridge
and been a member of Cambridge Footlights, which produced John
Cleese and Peter Cook. But, like Branagh, Thompson was not conventionally
attractive--her jaw is too long, her mouth a little equine. Thompson
arrived at the audition with "a terrible hangover,"
she says. Branagh seemed "energetic and brilliant, a very
young man--with bouncy hair," she says. (Branagh is two
years younger.) "She was very gregarious, outgoing,"
Branagh remembers. "She said, 'Oh, you're not what I expected
at all!' I thought it best not to ask what she had expected,
and I never have. She was funny. We shared a sense of humor."
Initially, Branagh was suspicious
of her background. "We were pretty cautious," he told
an interviewer recently. "We 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."
Indeed, Thompson had been quoted in US magazine as having said,
"Marriage is an extremely dangerous step--don't do it until
you have shagged everything with a pulse."
Since their marriage, Branagh
and Thompson have worked steadily together. In 1991, they made
Dead Again, a convoluted thriller with Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia
and Robin Williams. Some reviewers found the film clunky, cinematically
unsophisticated. Nonetheless, it was a commercial success. The
next year, Branagh and Thompson appeared in Peter's Friends,
a kind of English Big Chill, about a group of Cambridge friends
who gather at the country home of one of them for a reunion.
Branagh's trip to New York to
promote Much Ado is his first extended separation from his wife
in a long time. Branagh calls Thompson, who has pulled a muscle
in her back, three to four times a day. "She now goes to
bed with the Oscar, and I sleep in the spare room," he tells
an interviewer. "I have to call her 'madam.'" Today,
Branagh and Thompson live in a semi-detached house in north London
on a leafy street, across from Thompson's mother, Phyllida Law,
who plays Ursula in Much Ado, and down the road from her sister.
When asked about children, Branagh says, "It would be lovely;
we don't assume it's necessarily going to happen." "Conception
at the moment would be tricky. Ken is so tired at the moment,
doing so many jobs," Thompson told US.
Branagh began thinking about Much Ado four years ago, when he
was playing Benedick in a production directed by Judi Dench.
"I was listening to Balthasar [in the original play, the
opening lines of the movie are actually sung in the middle by
another character], and I began to imagine a group of men coming
over the brow of a hill on horseback."
To Branagh, the film is about
"the triumph and healing power of love. I wanted to somehow
imply a mood of reconciliation, tolerance, and forgiveness."
Branagh himself cut, transposed,
and reshaped Shakespeare's words, making some scenes more believable
and hastening the pace of the drama. From the beginning, he decided
to cast American actors alongside the British ones. "Shakespeare
doesn't belong to the monotonal, fruity-voiced British experience.
Shakespeare's language was pronounced much more like an American
or Ulster voice, with hard 'r's. Part of the reason for my choice
of American actors was a deliberate intention to make the language
feel and sound different and unstuffy, to remove this clutter
from Shakespeare, the received notions of how it should sound
and look. And I always liked the ballsiness of American film
acting, the full-blooded abandon. This play just seemed to require
Branagh had seen Michael Keaton
in Night Shift in 1982 and thought, "God, that's a funny
man." He asked Keaton to play Dogberry, the lunatic constable
who brings news of Don John's conspiracy against the two young
lovers, Hero and Claudio. Dogberry rides around hilariously on
an imaginary horse--a bit of stage business invented by Keaton.
"You think you're watching a romantic comedy," says
Branagh. "And then you say, 'What the fuck is this?'"
Keaton had never done Shakespeare before. He was "terrified"
of trying, he says. The other actors "were nervous about
my coming there, because I was a big American movie star,"
Keaton says. "I thought they would be aloof." It turned
out to be "the best job I ever had."
Keanu Reeves flew to London to
try to get the job. Branagh was "taken with Reeves's enthusiasm.
I thought, There's a guy who's bursting to do it." "He's
a stickler for clarity, for diction," says Reeves. "He
wanted me to chew the words, to go higher, with more fire."
The original play takes place
in Messina, Sicily, but Branagh wanted a more idyllic, verdant
setting for the romance, and chose instead the Villa Vignamaggio,
in Greve, Tuscany, once the home of Lisa Gheradini Giocondo,
the Mona Lisa. Some of the actors shared villas, creating a family
feeling, a sense of community. "It was like Les Enfants
du Paradis," Michael Carne's film about a French theater
troupe, says Keanu Reeves.
Much Ado About Nothing was difficult
to film, partly because of the intense heat and the many night
scenes. "You get to the moment when you think you're going
to crack," says Branagh. "I sent everybody away and
just sat it in the garden--'Nobody ask me for anything or need
anything.' Denzel came up and gave me a big hug and said, 'What's
up, boss?' He said, 'Listen. You're allowed to have these feelings.
If you send all the crew away, people won't take you for granted.'
He's good company, Denzel. I got a lot of time for him."
Branagh believes that there's a new interest in words and language,
a revival of interest in poetry. "Different kinds of muscles
are being flexed. There's a rejection of the eighties' 'here
and now.' Poetry acts on the soul. There is an interest in those
things that provide a mysterious reactiveness, that make the
hairs on the back of the head stand up. It is therapeutic to
have more words at one's disposal--the more words one has, the
more one begins to understand.
"Much Ado means that for
a whole generation of kids, some grateful teacher, with a gasp
of relief, will be able to say, 'Here are girls with cleavages
and boys with tight trousers, class. You will now shut up for
an hour and a half and pay attention!'"
Branagh and I were saying good-bye
at his hotel on the East Side. "I love the performance skill,"
he was saying. "This chutzpa in front of an audience, this
performance courage. In another life, I'd like to be a stand-up
comedian." I was taken aback, and Branagh could see it.
But then, of course, his statement made sense--the love of performing,
of being a member of that elite of storytellers sitting by the
fire, using language as a weapon and means of seduction.
All along during the trip to
New York, in interview after interview, it was as if others were
defining him, as if he were being caught up in a web of distortion.
To himself, Branagh seems almost "boringly normal."
But now he had a question to ask me. "Tell me," Branagh
asked, "just what is it that people expect?"
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium