Acting As Fast As He Can
Toronto Star, January 30, 1998
by Judy Gerstel
Busy year working with great
directors for Gingerbread Man star Kenneth Branagh
Come Oscar night on March 23,
Kenneth Branagh may have a problem.
Most of the frontrunners for
best actress have been, one way or another, his women: current
companion Helena Bonham Carter (The Wings of the Dove); Judi
Dench (Mrs. Brown) who's been in most of his Shakespearean productions
on stage and screen; Julie Christie (Afterglow, opening here
Feb. 20), who played Gertrude in Branagh's magisterial film of
Hamlet; and Kate Winslet (Titanic), whom he cast as Ophelia.
There's even an outside chance
that ex-wife Emma Thompson and ex- mother-in-law Phyllida Law
could get nominated for The Winter Guest.
"I think I"ll stay
out of that one," Branagh says dryly by phone from New York,
where he's promoting The Gingerbread Man.
It's been 10 years now since
Branagh, at 27, strutted on to the screen and the world stage
with Henry V, which he starred in, directed, wrote and produced.
He hasn't seen the Oscar-nominated
picture in a decade, but jokes about feeling ambivalent about
viewing it now. "The worst thing would be to see it and
say, 'Christ, I'll never do anything as good as that again.'
"The best thing would be
to think, Ah, that's callow youth at work.'"
Branagh went on to direct, and
for the most part, write and star in seven pictures in 10 years,
during which he was also ubiquitous on the English stage, both
acting and directing, and starred in other people's movies.
This has not endeared him to
the English press; they find him, well, excessive. But he's won
friends on this side of the pond with his easy-going, no-nonsense
attitude and unfettered accessibility.
He's laying low as a filmmaker
at the moment, acknowledging a change as he approaches 40.
FROM ALTMAN TO ALLEN, BRANAGH'S
"I've been consciously letting
things come to me, letting myself be stimulated, which is a different
kind of instinct for me and probably good--to be not so powerfully
motivated by things you've always wanted to do."
He admits to working on the screenplay
for an idea he has long cherished, a musical version of Shakespeare's
Love's Labour Lost. He finds "It's getting bigger than I
thought it would be--much in the style of an old Hollywood musical."
Meanwhile, in what only Branagh
could view as something of breather (he's merely acting, not
responsible for everything from financing to distribution), he's
starred in four films over the past year.
The Gingerbread man, directed
by Robert Altman, is the first to be realeased.
The others include The Theory
of Flight, with companion Bonham Carter playing a disabled woman;
The Proposition set in the 1930's Boston with Madeline Stowe
and William Hurt, and the latest Woody Allen project, as yet
If you think it's strange that
Shakespearean Branagh is playing a sleazy southern laywer in
Gingerbread Man, just wait till the Allen picture.
"I guess I'm playing Woody
in this one, an alter ego," Branagh says rather sheepishly.
As with all Allen's projects,
Branagh is contractually not allowed to talk about it, but he
does admit that he and co-star Judy Davis were the only cast
members to see the entire script.
The cast also includes Leonardo
He admits, "Woody, along
with Altman, is something of a hero. So your power of observations
is reduced slightly with the anxiety of wanting to please them,
and quite frankly, you get a little paranoid about whether you're
"But I know we got on well,
because he felt he could say anything he like to me, including
on day two, in the middle of the first take. We were doing something,
myself and Leonardo DiCaprio, and about a minute in, he said
'Cut! Cut! Cut!'
"And he came over to me
and said"--and here Branagh goes into a perfect imitation
of Woody Allen complete with Manhattan accent and stutter--"You
know, you know you shouldn't do it like that because, you know,
it's too broad, an, you know, it's like Jerry Lewis, an, an,
you know, it's not funny. So you shouldn't do it that way.'
"Okay. Fine. I turned to
Leonardo and he just put his hands over his face and cringed
on my behalf."
With Altman, whom he calls "a
great sort of benevolent patriarch," he witnessed the great
confidence in actor. "He gives many fewere notes tan I would
to an actor. He doesn't worry too much."
It was because Branagh was willing
to take on the lead role of the Savannah, Ga lawyer who is drawn
into dangerous territory that Altman agreed to do The Gingerbread
Man, his first suspense film.
"He's an extraordinary talent,"
says Altman unhesitatingly about Branagh. "He and I talked
and we both agreed how we would handle the rewrite and what kind
of film we would make."
The film lead to a furor--though
Altman now reer to it as a tempest in a teapot--when Polygram
took the picture away from the director after only average results
frm preview screenings. Altman went to war and won it back.
Branagh found the three-month
Savangh shoot hugely enjoyable.
"There was a chance to drink
in the ambience and meet people. It was a great advantage of
doing it there. Doing it on a soundstage away from the South
would have been very difficult."
And from his work in the South
to his musical version of Britain's bard, Branagh's second decade
on screen promises to be as fascinating as his first.
"I recently moved into a
new house outside London," he confides, "and found
boxes with old props and things from Henry, the last clapper
board from the show, and I found myself getting rather emotional."
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