A Chip Off the Woodman

New York Post, November 18 1998
by Larry Worth

With the exception of a pounding headache on a brisk fall morning, everything's going Kenneth Branagh's way.

He's playing the Woody Allen role in the Woodman's latest, "Celebrity" (opening Friday), is currently shooting "The Wild, Wild West" opposite Will Smith and is head over heels for girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter.

But in the midst of upbeat chat about past triumphs, Branagh quietly notes that hearing the overture to 1993's "Much Ado About Nothing" still makes him cry. Every time.

Memories of directing and starring in the cinematic Shakespeare adaptation recall then-wife and colleague Emma Thompson. And while Branagh stresses that the two remain friends, he says their 1995 parting was bittersweet.

"Unhappiness, like gray hairs, is part of life," he says, stretching out in his Essex House suite. "And there's definitely a period [after divorce] where you pause for thought and deal with the sadness.

"The whole thing is still immensely sad and painful, but I'm truly grateful for the time we had together.

"Later on, you lose the sharper pains of a breakup, realizing that the wonderful times can't be diminished. So, for me, to have a record of our most wonderful time - 'Much Ado' - is a rather marvelous thing."

Also helping the 37-year-old Branagh move on was Bonham Carter, the longtime friend who played his love interest in 1994's "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." By the time the pair played lovers yet again (in the upcoming "The Theory of Flight"), on-screen sparks had ignited off screen, too.

"We get on terrifically," he says, flashing his cryptic smile. "We also have a relationship where we can work well together professionally. We make a good combination."

Then again, the Belfast native thinks he makes a dynamite combo with the one and only Woody, who sought him out to play the lead role of a movie-star-chasing journalist in "Celebrity."

Branagh was "honored" to play a variation on Allen's screen alter ego - the hyper, neurotic individual in constant pursuit of beautiful women - even though Allen never identified the part as such.

"There was no question that it read like Woody on the page, complete with his classic hesitations and stutters," Branagh says. "But I didn't want to do an impersonation.

"There was actually a telling moment in a debate about whether my character would wear jeans. I said this guy might wear them with a jacket, and Woody immediately said, 'But I would never wear jeans.' So I had my answer.

"Truth be told, I enjoyed being Woody - or, perhaps, having Woody channeled through me."

As a director, Branagh has already done a few Allen impressions. The London resident says "Peter's Friends," as well as the black-and-white "A Midwinter's Tale," qualify as homages.

"They weren't exactly 'Hannah and Her Sisters' - but, hell, what is?" he says. "The way Woody uses ensembles and composes shots - as in 'Manhattan,' my favorite of his works - is something you emulate."

It was almost a decade ago that Branagh was accused of emulating Laurence Olivier, particularly after earning Oscar nominations as best director and best actor for "Henry V." (Olivier had directed and acted in a 1945 version.)

But Branagh claims he was pursuing his ardor for Shakespeare, which later led to filming the complete text of "Hamlet" - an experience he calls his "most thrilling and exhausting job [as a director] to date."

In the meantime, Branagh just inked a deal with Miramax to adapt, direct and star in "Love's Labour's Lost," to be followed by "Macbeth" and "As You Like It."

First, however, he's finishing work on Barry Sonnenfeld's big-budget "The Wild, Wild West." And that explains why Branagh is sporting a curlicue mustache and beard, a trademark of arch-villain Dr. Loveless.

"It's been a six-month shoot," he says, "and, frankly, I'm exhausted. My character is always decked out with gadgets and disguises, so it's quirky stuff. It's also the first commercial movie I've made, with the possible exception of 'Frankenstein,'" which wasn't my best work.

"Thankfully, I'm saved from too much introspection or self-laceration by keeping busy. To me, work is a healthy, distracting, sanity-giving activity. And one I'll pursue as long as they let me."

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