Branagh's Trial Run at Grisham
New York Daily news, January
by Howard Kissel
Kenneth Branagh has a very important
piece of advice to anyone he approaches about financing his next
"DON'T READ THE PLAY!"
Branagh wants to go back to the
Bard, but, as always, must first go back to the bank. He opens
Jan. 23 in John Grisham's "The Gingerbread Man," a
Robert Altman film about a Savannah lawyer confronted by the
"establishment" he has built a successful career thwarting.
The 37-year-old actor, who achieved
international stardom a decade ago directing and starring in
Shakespeare's "Henry V," has adapted, directed and
starred in two other films of Shakespeare plays since then, his
acclaimed 1996 "Hamlet" and 1993 "Much Ado About
Nothing," which was the most profitable Shakespeare adaptation
in two decades.
The boyish, tousel-haired actor
concedes that luck has played a great role in his career. When
he went searching for financing for "Henry V," having
had a successful stage career and minimal movie experience, he
met a "maverick stockbroker" who was as much an amateur
in the film business as he was himself.
Ten years ago, the British film
industry was in the doldrums, and even the relatively modest
$8 million the film required was a lot of money to raise. Ten
days before shooting, Branagh wasn't sure the money would be
Moreover, his friend, Sir David
Puttnam, who produced the 1980 Oscar-winner "Chariots of
Fire" and subsequently ran briefly and controversially Columbia
Pictures, told him, "This film will collapse either two
weeks before or two weeks after principal photography begins."
A good sport, Puttnam congratulated
Branagh when his prediction failed to come true.
Since "Henry V," Branagh's
career has alternated various horror-themed projects ("Dead
Again" and "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which
he directed and starred in opposite Robert De Niro) and intimate
pictures, such as the low-budget "Peter's Friends"
or the Academy Award-nominated short subject "Swan Song,"
based on a Chekhov one-act and starring John Gielgud.
Branagh took the role in "The
Gingerbread Man" for several reasons, chief of which was
the opportunity to work with director Robert Altman.
"I liked the character,"
Branagh says. "He's not a straight up-and-down action hero.
Of course in Altman's hands, even if that's the way the character
had been written, it wouldn't be the way he'd turn out."
To play the role, Branagh had
to develop a credible Savannah accent, for which he hired a dialect
coach "a Henrietta Higgins" he had used in an earlier
"She acted as my 'dialect
police,' " he jokes. "It's a tough accent. First you
have to get rid of the cliches. You don't want to do a generalized
Southern 'Hee-Haw' redneck. What amused me is when you'd find
Savannahians 'embarrassed' by the accents of other Savannahians.
We'd go about Savannah trying to buy things so I could practice
my accent. It was a bit silly since all Savannah knew we were
Although it is definitely an
action picture, Branagh liked the script because it's "about
a man losing control. It's also about the emotional issue of
children about a man who loves his children but really doesn't
do enough with them. He only realizes the depth of his concern
when they're in danger. It's a character that makes you think,
'There but for the grace of God . . .' "
Does being in an action picture
enhance his commercial viability more than acting Shakespeare?
"If you're playing a flawed
action hero or a transexual gorilla, if it makes money, it adds
an extra little bit of heat."
None of this is what he imagined
when he became an actor. "For a working class Protestant
in Belfast, the notion of becoming an actor was thrilling for
being an escape. We moved to Reading, where I had to take an
exam to determine what I might be suited for. I was told my choices
were the army, British Rail or Prudential Insurance. The notion
of a film career didn't really exist."
As for the script he doesn't
want any potential investors to read, it's "Love's Labours
Lost," one of Shakespeare's trickiest, which he wants to
do as a musical.
"It's full of dense Elizabethan
wordplay, which no one ever gets. Instead we'll use classic songs
that employ 20th century wit and word play that conveys the same
sense of energy. It's deeply, deeply silly but ultimately melancholy.
I want you to weep at the end."
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