Branagh's At Home in L.A.

Ottawa Citizen, August 23 1991
by Jamie Portman

Kenneth Branagh, the hottest actor in English-speaking classical theatre, is confounding critics by directing and starring as private detective Mike Church in an American thriller

He's the quintessential Los Angeles private eye - cocky, fast-talking, wise-cracking, more than a little cynical and with an unmistakable California twang in his voice.

You look at him on the big movie screen in a sizzling new mystery thriller called Dead Again and it seems inconceivable that he could be the product of anywhere but the L.A. lotusland.

But the credits tell it differently. Wonder of wonders, that's Kenneth Branagh up there, the same Irish-born actor who confounded the skeptics two years ago when he directed his own film version of Shakespeare's Henry V with himself in the title role.

But there are more surprises in store for audiences. There are also flashback sequences featuring Branagh as a totally different kind of character _ a ferociously jealous composer who ends up on Death Row in the late 1940s for the murder of his wife.

This is an actor who never does things by halves, an attitude that has made him a figure of controversy in some circles. Two years ago, some theatrical traditionalists considered it near heresy that this precocious 27-year-old should venture into film territory considered sacred to the memory of Laurence Olivier, who had made a legendary movie version of Henry V back in 1944. Branagh also was attacked by some critics for his presumptuousness in writing an autobiography, called Beginnings, at such a tender age.

However, the movie-going public didn't care about such niceties. Branagh's dark, exciting version of Henry V was both a critical and commercial success, and further entrenched his position in British stage circles as the heir to Olivier's mantle.

So how on earth did Branagh, currently the hottest actor in English-speaking classical theatre, end up directing and starring in an American thriller for Paramount Pictures?

"I keep asking myself that question," grins Branagh in an interview in a central Manhattan Hotel. "I'm absolutely fascinated it came my way. This was a time when I was being offered a whole range of different things but because of my identification with Shakespeare, they were primarily of a literary nature. I was offered a life of Tolstoi, a life of Chekhov, even a life of Shakespeare."

Some producers, impressed by his handling of the battle scenes in Henry V, thought he could do a contemporary war film.

"I got sent all the Vietnam films that hadn't yet been made," he says, shaking his head.

But the project that whetted his appetite was Scott Frank's screenplay for Dead Again, in which cynical private detective Mike Church is hired to learn the identity of a beautiful woman who has no memory of her own life but is tortured by nightmares from someone else's life 40 years before.

Branagh and his actress-wife Emma Thompson were in Los Angeles at the time, where his Renaissance Theatre Company was presenting Shakespeare's King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream as part of a nine-month world tour.

The script for Dead Again came "out of the blue" from producer Lindsay Doran, who had been trying for four years to get it made.

"Clearly, she had seen something in Henry V which made her want to try and use me. When I read it I was gripped immediately. In fact, I was completely carried away."

Originally, Branagh was asked only to direct the film, but he had a different idea. He told the producers his "vision was entirely dependent" on the casting of himself and Thompson, both in dual roles, plus such British colleagues as award-winning Derek Jacobi as a mysterious antique dealer, composer Patrick Boyle, production designer Tim Harvey and costume designer Phyllis Dalton.

All had worked with him on Henry V. "With them, I knew I could get both the right look and the right sound for a vehicle like this."

One thing is certain, Dead Again, which opens today, couldn't be further removed from the world of Shakespeare.

"When I read the script, I felt the whole thing had a flamboyance to it. There were the two time-settings, the classic ingredients of private eye and creepy house, a woman with no memory, a scary housekeeper, the hard-drinking journalist, the mysterious hypnotist.

"It was all from a world of movies that I loved and felt I was growing up with. Furthermore, to play a private eye in a quintessentially American genre piece was an opportunity I relished."

Then there was the fact that both he and Thompson had the chance to play two roles _ he as the private eye of the 1990s and as the jinxed musician of the '40s, she as the nightmare-haunted young woman of the present day plus the doomed murder victim of four decades before.

Andy Garcia, a rising Hollywood star, has a small flashback role as a journalist who precipitates the nightmare still haunting people 40 years later. The film also features an unbilled cameo from Robin Williams in a role that is a complete departure.

Says Branagh enthusiastically: "This is a very dark, sinister, seedy and bizarre character Robin plays.

"When we sent the script to him, he loved the part, but he was determined to be unbilled so the audience would not perceive this as a Robin Williams film."

The film has been previewing strongly, with audiences responding positively to the twists and turns of the chilling plot. But Branagh is also tickled by the fact that he seems to have been fooling audiences into believing totally in his performance.

"They don't know who this unknown American is who's playing Mike Church," he says happily.

"But let me tell you, it took many moons to get that character right. I started out being very East Coast _ wildly gesticulating and being totally wrong."

He spent hours listening to "accent" tapes, and sought the advice of screenwriter Scott Frank.

"He's the same age as me and has a lot of Mike Church in him. I knew I had to deliver more than just a collection of representative sounds. Vocal cadences and rhythms had to be believable."

But he also had to get the body language down.

"In preparation, I spent a lot of time on my own in L.A., watching people, walking down the street behind them, just seeing the ways in which they moved differently. You know something _ people on the West Coast generally move more loosely. I had to get that right.

"Then with some trepidation I started going into shopping malls as an American, buying things like books or newspapers, watching to see how people reacted."

Branagh called Dead Again "full-blooded movie making" in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. "I'd best describe it as a romantic thriller with touches of Gothic and film noir and comedy _ plus of course the supernatural element."

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