A Not-So-Proper Kenneth Branagh Has Some Fun
New York Times, November 15,
by Sean Mitchell
LOS ANGELES -- Kenneth Branagh
has driven to the Hotel Bel-Air in a red Mustang convertible
similar to one he rented when he first came to Hollywood eight
years ago to direct and star in the detective movie "Dead
"On the first day of shooting,
I got in the car, put the top down and headed down Sunset,"
he recalled. "I had my sunglasses on and I was thinking,
'Yeah, I feel pretty cool.' I drove through the gate at Paramount,
found my parking space, and then realized the car had one of
those tricky locks, and I couldn't get the key out of the ignition.
After 20 minutes, figuring I must look like a fool, I had to
go in search of help." He took it as a sign that he was
meant to remain humble in the kingdom of star maps and convertibles.
And maybe that he was not meant for an indefinite stay.
Though "Dead Again"
was well-received and Mr. Branagh went on to direct and appear
in more than a dozen films, he has not physically worked in Hollywood
again until now, preferring to make movies on his home turf in
Britain, returning occasionally to the English stage whence he
came. He has been in Los Angeles since June, making the big-budget
"Wild Wild West," with Will Smith and Kevin Kline,
for the director Barry Sonnenfeld. He plays an angry, legless
villain being tracked by government agents while he plots the
assassination of the President of the United States.
For his role in this Warner Brothers
popcorn extravaganza due next summer, he has grown some feline
facial hair that suggests his chin might have been groomed for
a production of "Cats." But first, audiences will have
a chance to sift him in the new Woody Allen film, "Celebrity,"
He plays the main character,
Lee Simon, in a performance that brings to mind the stuttering,
neurotic persona of Mr. Allen himself, a conspicuous turn for
any actor, especially one so strongly associated with the grandeur
of Shakespeare. Starting Dec. 25, Mr. Branagh will also be seen
in the small British film "The Theory of Flight," acting
opposite his companion of several years, Helena Bonham Carter,
who is also in Los Angeles working on a film.
"I remember this place --
we got drunk in here after the 'Frankenstein' premiere,"
he says as he settles into a seat in a lounge off the hotel bar,
dark and deserted on a Sunday morning.
Most stars arrive fashionably
late for interviews. Mr. Branagh was 15 minutes early, waiting
alone in the lounge and rising to offer a warm welcome as if
this were his home. Compact and evenly built, with thin lips
and jowls marking his cheery face, wearing jeans, a dark leather
jacket and shaggy hair, he looks and sounds less like a prince
of Denmark or an English monarch than a lad from a rugby team
who would be more comfortable with a pint of Guinness in his
hand than the coffee cup he now holds. If he is not of the people
exactly, he is as close to them as anyone from the Royal Shakespeare
Company currently renting a house in Bel Air is likely to come.
"I don't think you should
view him as a British actor," says Mr. Sonnenfeld, who admits
he wanted a British actor for the larger-than-life part of the
"brilliant and diabolical" Dr. Arliss Loveless in "Wild
Wild West," based on the 1965-70 television series. "He's
really smart, really funny, really relaxed. You don't think,
'Here comes that British guy.' He's not proper, he curses, he's
self-effacing, he's one of the guys."
Mr. Branagh, who is adept at
a wide range of accents, speaks naturally in a mid-Atlantic tongue,
with educated enunciation sharing time with earthy humor and
high-pitched exclamation. He says "cahn't" for "can't";
then he adds, "Nothing annoys me more than Brits whining
about Hollywood; I want to deck 'em."
He says it with a flourish, but
the soft eyes under his sturdy brow suggest he is not eager to
deck anyone. "I'm Irish, and I was born in Belfast -- parents
were working class," Mr. Branagh states firmly. "I
think I got some basic values they happened to live by. There
wasn't much money around. It was kind of, 'Know your place.'
They don't like airs and graces."
None noted, though he is perceived
rather differently back in Britain, where, in 1989, at the age
of 27, with no experience behind the camera, he directed and
starred in an independent film adaptation of "Henry V"
that became an against-all-odds art-house triumph. Reprising
a role he had played onstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company
in a production that emphasized Henry's youth, Mr. Branagh turned
in a memorable performance as a conscience-stricken conqueror,
was nominated for Academy Awards in acting and directing and
was hailed in Britain as "the new Olivier," the sort
of title sure to curl into a noose for almost anyone. It didn't
help that he published an autobiography, "Beginning,"
the same year.
"I think the autobiography
was probably a step too far for a lot of people back home --
as well it might be." Now 37, he has reached the age at
which Olivier made his "Henry V," and when he says
over breakfast, "In some ways I've always had a head on
my shoulders older than my years," it strikes you that he
is not bragging but putting his finger on a truth about himself,
someone possessing the precocious self-assurance that makes such
a career possible.
"Did I think about my looks
when I was starting out? No. Did I think about the fact that
I hadn't made a film before? No. Did I disregard it? No. But
we were off and running. It was exciting. This work was great.
One na´vely saw all the positives.
"When I arrived on the scene
with 'Henry V,' " he says, "partly through timing,
it was overpraised to a degree that could only come back and
haunt me. And so it did." His comeuppance came with the
1994 release of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which
he directed and in which he starred with Ms. Bonham Carter and
Robert De Niro. A foray into big-budget, big-studio moviemaking,
the film was more laughable than scary and found him playing
the mad doctor as a shirtless pin-up boy, preening in passionate
love scenes with Ms. Bonham Carter. He was pelted with bad reviews
and accusations of self-indulgence, assumed to result from his
"Bottom line," he says
now, without a hint of bitterness, "we made a film that
a lot of people didn't like. And sometimes when critics don't
like things, it gives them access to a fantastic eloquence because
of the intensity of their feeling. At least they had some passion
he had made two other notable films, "Peter's Friends,"
a serious comedy about a fractious 10th reunion of some Cambridge
University graduates (he played a self-loathing alcoholic), and
"Much Ado About Nothing" -- both with his now ex-wife,
Emma Thompson, who was also in "Henry V" and "Dead
Playing Benedick to Ms. Thompson's
Beatrice in "Much Ado," Mr. Branagh galloped through
the love poetry of Shakespeare and made it seem, if not modern,
manly. In 1996, he directed and starred in a freshly minted unabridged
version of "Hamlet," with an Anglo-American cast that
ranged from John Gielgud to Billy Crystal.
He was a fiery, fearsome prince.
The film made back only a fraction of its modest $18 million
budget, but Mr. Branagh got another Oscar nomination for the
"After that," he says,
"I was tired, and tired of the responsibility to direct.
So I suppose it was a conscious move to go and act in other people's
films and try to dispel once and for all the notion that I only
acted in films that I directed. And I've had a couple of years
Robert Altman cast him in "The
Gingerbread Man," a John Grisham thriller released this
year that was ignored at the box office, though many critics
marveled at Mr. Branagh's convincing impersonation of a Savannah
lawyer. Also this year he appeared in the independent films "The
Proposition," as a Catholic priest, and the unreleased "Alien
Love Triangle," from the director of "Trainspotting,"
Danny Boyle, as one of the aliens.
In "Celebrity," he
plays a frustrated New York journalist whose artistic and amorous
aspirations are familiar from the oeuvre and life of Woody Allen,
the film's writer and director. Shattering his wife (played by
Judy Davis) with the news that he wants a divorce, his Lee Simon
character, described by Mr. Branagh as "an emotional car
wreck," then proceeds to muck up one relationship after
Putting on another American face
and slipping uncannily into the comic rhythms and fevered locutions
of the Woody Allen protagonist -- a performance not all critics
were enamored of -- Mr. Branagh seems to have modeled his performance
after the man directing him. Not exactly, he says. "The
situations the character finds himself in are unquestionably,
to my eye anyway, the kinds of things you'd expect Woody to be
doing. And the way it was written, I found it impossible to play
it without the kind of energy he has. It wasn't funny unless
you were desperately, physically kind of jumpy. But at no time
did we ever talk about my trying to be him. It never came up."
Mr. Allen, who is busy making
his next movie, declined to comment on any of this.
If there exists a link between
Mr. Branagh's role in "Celebrity" and that in "The
Theory of Flight," it is that he plays a beleaguered young
artist also searching for significance. But in this case, the
yearning is satisfied inadvertently by a sudden romance with
a young woman (Ms. Bonham Carter) suffering from a fatal neuromuscular
disease. The characterization is completely different and finds
Mr. Branagh acting the part of a quixotic English bohemian trying
to construct his own backyard airplane while gazing misty-eyed
at the fate of a spunky young woman in a wheelchair who can speak
only with the aid of a voice machine.
The low-budget film, directed
by Paul Greengrass, has the aspect of a bittersweet fable in
which the airplane becomes a symbol of escape from earthly afflictions.
As Mr. Branagh says: "It could be argued that all this is
rather blurred in the treatment we choose to give it, with an
airplane that seems as likely to fly as this hotel does. But
I think it's an interesting investigation of paralysis -- spiritual
paralysis in my case and physical in hers."
He says that he and Ms. Bonham
Carter were not specifically looking for something to do together.
"No, not consciously. Helena had been sent the script and
I read the script, which I was very taken by. I think we were
both struck by its eccentricity and quirkiness."
And what of Emma? While Ms. Bonham
Carter is a beautiful and esteemed actress, Mr. Branagh's 1995
breakup with the multitalented Ms. Thompson, who has won Oscars
for both acting and writing, seemed to their fans the dissolution
of a show business marriage made in heaven.
"We're friends, we talk,"
Mr. Branagh says.
Is it hard for him to watch the
films they made together? "In a sense you've got visible
memories of rather happy occasions," he says after a moment,
not eager to pursue this but not taking umbrage.
"It takes you a while to
get to the point where you view them that way. It just is what
it is, you know? It's always sad, marriages breaking up. But
I refuse to be affected over issues like this by how the world
at large appears to feel."
Mr. Branagh will return to directing
in February, when he begins shooting a musical version of "Love's
Labour's Lost," the first of three Shakespeare films he
has contracted to do under the new banner of the Shakespeare
Film Company, established in partnership with Intermedia and
Miramax. The adaptation will have a 20th-century American setting,
with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.
He is keenly aware of the highbrow
status conferred by a British accent and classical stage training,
and says he wants no part of it. "My aversion to the alleged
prestige of certain kinds of backgrounds is total. It's a reflection
of a class system that I loathe with every fiber of my body."
And so it is that he makes no
apologies for the time he is spending back in Hollywood making
a big summer action-adventure picture like "Wild Wild West"
with the director of "Men in Black."
" 'Wild Wild West' has been
enormous fun, and I think it's very hard to do something brilliantly
silly brilliantly -- in a way, much harder than the already faintly
intimidated respect you might get for doing a Shakespeare play,
which you might do terribly. I don't want to be a movie star,
but I love the choice of work that I have so far been able to
maintain. I don't want to make Shakespeare films for a small
intellectual coterie or a group of my friends. I want them to
be utterly available. I want to get Barry Sonnenfeld's audience
for 'Wild Wild West' into 'Love's Labour's Lost.' And I'm not
suggesting that one's better than another."
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