MAN OF THE MOMENT
"I'm just a foul-mouthed
She, August 1998
by Martyn Palmer
**thanks to Catherine Kerrigan
Far from being a super-luvvie,
Kenneth Branagh is surprisingly laddish. He talks to Martyn Palmer
about looting, celebrity girlfriends, and the perks of being
Americans are somewhat in awe
of Ken Branagh. When he turns up for a script reading in the
US, often pale-faced, stubbly-chinned and oh-so-British, there's
a certain amount of baggage that comes with him.
Take, for instance, his latest
movie, The Gingerbread Man - a thriller set in America's deep
south, in which Branagh plays a lawyer who becomes obsessed with
a woman following their passionate one-night stand. There he
was in Savannah, alongside Hollywood stars Robert Downey Jnr,
Daryl Hannah and Robert Duvall, determined that he would nail
down that notoriously difficult drawl. So each night after filming,
when out with the cast and crew, Branagh would try to maintain
"We'd walk into a bar and
I'd say, 'I'd just love a glass of wine here,' speaking in the
And the barman would say, 'What are you speaking
like that for? You're that Shakespeare guy
of course, in many ways he is - even fellow actors have some
trouble seeing him as anything different.
"There is a degree of intimidation,"
he admits. "But it disappears pretty quickly - usually they
hear me swear and that's the first devastating blow to their
expectations. Then they are surprised that I have a sense of
"Americans are intoxicated
by the accent - they associate it with intelligence, sophistication
and class. But two days in, they realise that I'm just a foul-mouthed
Kenneth Branagh is used to people
having preconceived ideas about him. After all in a glittering
career and he's still only 37 he has been, by turns,
fêted as a genius, lambasted as a luvvie, scrutinised and
judged, when all he's ever wanted to do is his job.
When you actually meet him, the
idea that he exists on an intellectual plane way above the rest
of us is quickly discarded. He fires up a Marlboro Light and
asks if I saw last night's England game, then he moves on to
the vexed topic of Gascoigne's omission from the team.
Branagh is football mad, a Spurs
supporter who recently succumbed to a Sky Sport subscription
so he can catch all the games at his Berkshire home. But during
the World Cup, Branagh was in the States filming a special-effects
blockbuster, Wild, Wild West, with Will Smith and Kevin Kline.
Hollywood stars can demand certain perks and, for once, Branagh
flexed his superstar muscles: "I had it written in my contract
that I had whatever channel was showing the World Cup in the
trailer," he grins. "They were like, 'Hell, what's
going on?' I said: 'It's the bloody World Cup and I want to watch
He loves the US but has remained
true to his British roots. While he's away, he runs up huge phone
bills calling partner Helena Bonham Carter and his family and
friends, buying two-day-old copies of the Guardian and trying
to find a decent cup of tea.
Branagh is the second of three
children. His father, a joiner, moved the family from Belfast
to Reading when Ken was 9 after the Troubles started. Branagh,
a Protestant, recalls how when a Shankill Road mob came after
some of his Catholic neighbours he found himself in the middle
of a riot. As fighting and looting raged all round him, he helped
himself to a packet of Daz from a shattered shop front. "My
mother clipped me around the ear and made me take it back",
Once the family was settled in
Reading, Branagh realised that an Irish accent was not going
to make for an easy life. Within a year, any trace of a brogue
had completely disappeared. "I felt very ashamed of losing
my accent, so I would be English at school and Irish at home
because I was afraid of upsetting my mother." But his childhood
passions football and watching Morecambe and Wise
also helped him blend in. He wrote letters to Morecambe and Wise,
who sent him a nice reply, encouraging him to fire off more.
At 15, he made his stage debut in Toad of Toad Hall and after
school he went straight to RADA. In 1983, six weeks after leaving,
he made his West End debut in Another Country. The rest, of course,
Along the way to becoming a fêted
actor-director and forming the Renaissance Theatre Company, he
met and married Emma Thompson a female version, at least
in the public's eyes, of himself talented and bright.
Together, Ken and Em made the perfect British screen couple.
They fell in love while making the BBC series Fortunes of War,
and married two years later. The marriage broke down some around
1994, while Branagh was making Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He
won't talk about the break-up except to say "any marriage
ending is sad and ours is no different". Indeed, to their
credit, neither has ever discussed the break-up in the press.
Naturally, the tabloids had a
field day. He admits now that it was not an easy time. Was he
never tempted to move to America, where he is regarded as just
about the best actor we have?
"At times I probably was.
But my mates and family are here, and in the end those things
in the press are irritating at the time, but they blow over.
I don't believe in flouncing off
He has been seeing fellow thespian
32-year-old Helena Bonham Carter for the past two years, but
she lives alone in a flat in Belsize Park. Again, Branagh is
reluctant to discuss their relationship, but he refers to her.
When I ask him what he thought of this year's Oscar nominations
(Helena was nominated for Wings of a Dove, but she lost out to
Helen Hunt), he grins: "I'm not going to tell you who I
voted for, but you can probably guess
Earlier this year they worked
together again, in a BBC film, The Theory of Flight. Did he have
any reservations about working with his partner? "Yes and
no this was an unturndownable script. And if you know
someone really well you hope it won't get in the way. In the
end it turned out to be a very good film. And Helena is terrific,
she really is."
For Helena, her role has an added
poignancy. She plays Jane, a young woman with motor neurone disease
and Branagh plays Richard, her volunteer helper whose aid she
enlists to lose her virginity. Bonham Carter's own father is
a paraplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair for 18 years
since he suffered a brain tumour.
For the moment, Branagh is content
to let others do the directing while he gets on with acting.
"I enjoy working in films, but I'm always surprised that
someone who doesn't look a like a leading man can continue to
There was a time, he says, when
he went through a crisis about exactly who he is. The media had
praised him, calling him a thoroughly "decent chap"
and then, when his marriage started breaking up, they turned
on him. "I used to wake up and think, 'Fucking hell, what's
going on?' But now I don't analyse it. I've got this background,
which helps like an instant switch that I can throw and
it tells me who I am, where I came from.
"I think some people might
find that rather bland, they'd rather I confessed to some terrible
dark side and that I wander around with drugs hanging out of
my arm, falling into the gutter.
"And that 'decent bloke'
thing has become a bit of a cross to bear. I think during the
past three or four years I really was losing a sense of who I
was the media construction of my personality changed according
to whim. Now I feel as though I can just say to myself: 'Well,
you are who you are. You have done these things and there's no
point worrying about it or trying to analyse it
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