The Original Gingerbread Man
PA News, July 23 1998
by John Hiscock
If Kenneth Branagh had any regrets
about abandoning his director's chair and letting someone else
give the orders, they disappeared during the three months he
spent in the Deep South on his most recent film.
There he was, joking and laughing
between takes on The Gingerbread Man with beautiful actresses
Darryl Hannah and Embeth Davidtz - and filming a lengthy nude
romp with Davidtz - while the veteran director Robert Altman
wrestled with problems of weather, script and demanding studio
Branagh was very happy to let
him get on with it. After the long, arduous months he spent directing
such demanding films as Henry V, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
and Hamlet, he is revelling in the luxury of just showing up
for work and watching someone else handle all the worries and
Although he would never describe
himself as such, being a movie star suits him so well that he
has no plans to return to the firing line as a director.
"I'm very happy to do what
I'm doing now," he says. And as for going back to his roots
on the English stage - the idea is met with a firm 'no thank
"I haven't acted in the
theatre for about five years which is a long, long time, because
for the previous ten or eleven years of my career I was pretty
much exclusively in the theatre," he says.
"The experience of live
theatre is remarkable but currently I have no plans to do it
again and I think I'd have to gather up my courage because I
would be scared."
When he decided to try his hand
at film-making, he did it in a big way.
He received Oscar nominations
for acting and directing for Henry V in 1989 and from then on
he was drawn by the lure of the cameras.
"Since then I've been concentrating
on the film medium and trying to practice and get better. I'm
drinking in as much as I can of what the film process is all
about," he says. He has also temporarily closed the book
on his English dramatic training, having achieved his ambition
to make a full-length Hamlet with an all-star cast. The three-and-half
hour film, he says, is slowly beginning to earn money while bringing
Shakespeare to the masses.
A bit like Branagh himself, although
for now he has abandoned the Bard for more accessible Hollywood
"The physical effort of
Hamlet was pretty exhausting. It was such a huge canvas and I'm
not ready to get back on that particular horse at the moment,"
he says. That is part of the reason that he found himself not
so long ago on a film set in Louisiana involved in a lengthy,
naked embrace with the delectable South African actress Embeth
Davidtz. "Embeth said that several people had commented
to her that it was rather unfair that she gets her kit off and
I don't, but of course I do. Once you get the video and use the
pause control you'll see just how very naked I am!" he laughs.
"It was something we felt appropriate for the story."
The Gingerbread Man, based on
a story by John Grisham, stars 37-year-old Branagh as a hard-drinking
lawyer who finds himself in the middle of a life-threatening
scenario after becoming involved with a beautiful young waitress,
played by Davidtz.
While Altman had the worries
and problems, Branagh was able to enjoy himself with his co-stars.
"Darryl and Embeth are great
gigglers: very funny and very rude and they teased me a lot,"
he says. "They were great; both completely gorgeous and
talented women, so it wasn't difficult to play opposite them."
Davidtz is full of praise for her co-star. "The great thing
with Ken is that he comes across as really serious but he's actually
not," she says. "Ken is a girl's guy. You can have
a good old knees-up and a beer and a good chat with him.
"He's got a great sense
of humour and we had all that stuff with our clothes off which
is never easy to do. We never poked fun at each other's anatomy
or anything like that but we just had to try and keep it light
and happy between takes."
It is easy to see what Embeth
means about Branagh because he is remarkably easy to talk to.
He calls people 'mate', and is as comfortable as the crew-neck
woolly sweater he wears, chatting easily and wittily about his
work and his status in the Hollywood firmament.
"I no more think of myself
as a movie star than I ever thought of myself as some sort of
wunderkind of the theatre," he says. "When I meet directors
for a job as an actor it surprises me when in the middle of the
conversation they might ask me about pictures that I've done
because I seem to be able to just put the baggage at the door;
it's as if I've forgotten what I've done.
"It's not some sort of false
modesty - I just feel as though I'm living right now and it's
like starting off all over again.
"I feel exactly the same
as I did when I was 16 or 17 so the list of achievements doesn't
sink in. For that I'm grateful and in that sense I've never been
able to take myself seriously."
His frankness does not extend,
however, to his personal life and although he and his ex-wife
Emma Thompson inevitably cross paths on the Hollywood promotional
circuits, he is not yet ready to talk about the break-up of their
marriage or his off-screen relationship with Helena Bonham Carter,
who was his co-star in The Theory of Light. In The Gingerbread
Man his character has trouble with his ex-wife because of his
womanising. Any links to reality there?
"I have a fine relationship
with my ex-wife and that's as much as I'm going to say, thank
you very much," he says firmly.
"I don't feel in a position
to have any comments to the world at large about marriage or
relationships. I'm in the middle of life, getting on with it
and don't feel currently able to have any great pronouncements
And Helena Bonham Carter? "She's
a fine actress and a very nice person." He sits back with
his lips firmly closed.
Back to the topic of his work
and he is once again friendly and eager to talk.
He has just finished another
film, The Proposition, a melodrama set in 1930s Boston in which
he co-stars with William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe, playing a
Catholic priest who becomes involved in a murder mystery. "It
was a bracing experience but I had a major problem explaining
it to my mother," he laughs.
His parents were working-class
Irish Protestants and The Troubles were always present on the
streets of the Belfast neighbourhood where he lived. When he
was nine his parents moved to Reading, Berkshire, where he found
himself picked on and bullied by other boys because of his Irish
"I very much wanted to fit
in so I learned to speak differently," he said. "I
felt bad about my Irish accent and I was very troubled about
my identity." But, he is quick to insist, "I by no
means reinvented myself . I still feel Irish and I'm very close
with my family and they of course are tickled pink with all the
wonderful things I've been able to be involved with as an actor.
"My love of words is connected
to my Irishness and my resistance to the class system, which
is such a divisive thing in our country, is also part of my Irishness."
Next, he will be working for
his old friend, Trainspotting director Danny Boyle in the science-fiction
tale Alien Love Triangle in which he will co-star with another
two beautiful actresses, Heather Graham from Boogie Nights and
Courteney Cox from the television series Friends.
Any free time he has is devoted
to learning to play the piano.
"I'm enjoying it enormously,"
he says with enthusiasm, "and I'm very bad at it but it
amuses me for hours. I play by ear. I've always only ever wanted
to play for myself in a sort of piano bar kind of way so I'm
playing Cole Porter-y kind of stuff."
He pauses and rethinks. "Well,
I can't dignify it as that at moment. It's would-be Cole Porter-y
kind of stuff." Although he professes to be happy with his
Hollywood career as a hired hand, his own projects are never
far away from his thoughts. Neither is the ubiquitous William
One particular project has been
percolating at the back of his mind for some time. "I'd
like to do Love's Labour's Lost as a musical...a big musical
and I've got a very clear idea of how I would do it," he
"But it's an expensive film
and it's a difficult play and it's all of the things that will
make the pitch meeting to the studios pretty interesting. When
and how it will be done I'm not sure, but I've started the screenplay."
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