Much To Do
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June
by Harper Barnes
KENNETH BRANAGH GIVES NEW
MEANING TO THE TERM SELF-MOTIVATED
Kenneth Branagh has described
himself as "keenly self-motivated," which would seem
to be a vast understatement for a poor boy from Belfast who has
pulled himself so high so quickly. Eleven years and three Oscar
nominations ago, Branagh graduated from the Royal Academy of
Dramatic Arts in London, an expensive theatrical education paid
for by grants and odd jobs. He was under no illusion that stardom
was a snap of the fingers away:
"I rather relished the gladiatorial
aspect of getting a job as an actor," he said in "Beginnings,"
his 1989 autobiography. Writing an autobiography at 28 is, of
course, another example of "keen self- motivation."
Getting it published is simply more evidence that Branagh' s
confidence in himself is not misplaced.
"I'd have done pretty much
whatever came along: panto(mime), rep, telly, radio, Shakespeare,
comedy, whatever. I'd have cleaned floors, made sandwiches, delivered
papers - anything to make a quick buck until professional acting
did come along."
As it turned out, none of those
things was necessary. What did come along at the age of 21, after
some highly gladiatorial auditions, was what he described as
"an unbelievable break." He won a leading role in what
became a very successful London play - "Another Country,
" the story of the Depression-era school days of aristocratic
British Communists, including one notorious spy.
Then came acclaimed Shakespearean
stage roles; British TV performances of work by such distinguished
writers as Ibsen and D.H. Lawrence, and a one-man performance
of Tennyson's "The Madness" that led the London Times
to call Branagh "the most exciting young actor in years."
At the age of 26, he founded his own Renaissance Theatrical Company.
Its purpose was to present classical theater directed by people
known primarily as actors - such as Anthony Hopkins and Derek
Two years later, with the Renaissance
company a rousing success, he directed and starred in a breathtaking,
much-honored film version of Shakespeare's "Henry V,"
a play that many film makers had shied away from for fear of
invidious comparisons with Laurence Olivier' s stirring 1945
version. Now, after a couple of lighter movies ("Dead Again"
and "Peter' s Friends"), Branagh has gone back to Shakespeare.
He recently completed a long
run on the English stage as Hamlet. And a film of the Shakespearean
comedy "Much Ado About Nothing," directed by and starring
Kenneth Branagh, has just been released. It opens in St. Louis
The other day, seated in a suite
high up in an elegant hotel, he gazed at the Chicago skyline
and said, "It feels very strange to be here promoting `my'
movie. I don't really feel like a movie star. That's not false
modesty. I don't feel like a director, either. I feel like an
actor who directs."
Branagh smiled. At 32, he still
has something of a baby face, peach- hued, dimpled, blemish-free.
He has a slim boyish physique - he is about 5 feet 9 inches tall,
and has described himself as "Too tall for the short roles
and too short for the tall ones."
His bushy, sand-colored hair
and bright blue-gray eyes add to the illusion that he is just
another talented young fellow from the British lower-middle class,
one who casually calls people "mate" and uses slang
phrases like "sod it."
"You know," he said,
"the movie screen does such miraculous things. I grew up
idolizing movie actors, and even now when I go to a film, I find
myself reacting like an audience does. I'll say to myself, `God,
that's amazing, how do they do that?' "
Branagh has been married since
1989 to Emma Thompson, his co-star in "Henry V" and
"Much Ado About Nothing," among other movies and plays.
She, of course, won the best-actress Oscar this year for her
performance (without Branagh) in "Howards End," and
during his recent cross-country tour to promote "Much Ado,"
was in London working on a film with Daniel Day-Lewis.
"Emma is, of course, a really
fine actress," said Branagh, "but another reason I
like to work with her is that she has none of that prima donna
attitude you get with some actresses," he said. "She
shows up on time and knows her lines and always is professional,
unlike some I could name.
"In our private lives we've
always stayed out of that extra dose of celebrity. We don't go
to premieres unless we have to, we don' t live in Los Angeles,
don't have a big house or big car." Perhaps the lack of
pretension of their lives is what led to his reaction upon seeing
his wife's picture on a recent People magazine as one of the
50 "most beautiful people."
"I spotted it in the airport,"
he said, "and my first reaction was to laugh. I was delighted,
of course, but you have to understand Emma and I have a pretty
ironic household. There's a lot of `mickey- taking.' "
He explained that "taking
the mick" was British slang for kidding or teasing.
There is a great deal of mickey-taking
in "Much Ado About Nothing, " also, particularly between
the two main characters, Beatrice (Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh).
Each professes, in bitingly witty terms, to be contemptuous of
the opposite sex, and particularly of each other. As Shakespeare
shows us, they protest far too much.
"It's very amusing when
they end up getting all ga ga over one another," he said.
In answer to the obvious next question, he said, "Of course
there are similarities between Beatrice and Benedick and myself
and Emma. We danced around one another for years before we finally
went for it. And a lot of our relationship came through humor.
Still does. It can be very feisty."
This summer, Branagh begins work
on his next movie, a new version of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."
Branagh will be Dr. Frankenstein, the 19th-century scientist
who wants to create life, and Robert De Niro will play the monster
that results. Thompson will probably not be in it. "We're
going to do the book, which hasn't really been done before in
any of the successful Frankenstein movies. We'll start in the
Arctic, as the book does. The creature will speak, and quote
Milton and Coleridge, as in the book.
"We'll approach it, not
as if Frankenstein is mad, but as a plausible idea, as it seems
to be today, in our world of genetic engineering, cosmetic surgery,
people try to freeze themselves for immortality. You can imagine
there's a guy out there now, trying to create human life, and
getting to the point where he's so close. And all it takes is
for him to do something ungodly - like kill somebody."
"We want the audience to
get caught up in his quest, so that they are half rooting for
him. We want to bring to life a real moral, ethical dilemma that
has immense consequences today. "Perhaps I shouldn't say
this - the marketing people might not like it - but I don't intend
to make a horror movie."
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