Kenneth Branagh Has Grip on Reality
Toronto Star, September 3 1991
by Catherine Dunphy
Kenneth Branagh has been meeting
the press all day. All the very long day. This is the last interview
before he rejoins his wife down the hotel hall and they slip
away to see Alan Parker's new movie, The Commitments.
Most actors hate days like this:
Morning to evening interviews with the face of the inquisitor
changing on the half hour, but all too often the tone, tenor
or content of the inquisition staying the same.
Some, like Kathleen Turner, limit
their contact to one or two chosen scribes, when they have product
Others, like Sean Connery, refuse
to budge, in his case from his home by the sea in Spain. Through
the miracle of modern technology, entertainment writers come
to him via international telecommunications, but a telephone
line is not enough. He will talk only if he can see their faces.
He is a big enough star to get
what he wants. But now so is Branagh, only he acts as if he doesn't
He is the man who in everybody
else's estimation is the obvious heir to the late Sir Laurence
Olivier's talent, prestige and majesty. Not content with starting
his own classical theatrical company, the Renaissance Theatre
Company, the audacious Belfast-born theatrical prodigy then made
a hit movie of a Shakespearean play, Henry V, not even one of
Will's all-time top three.
He starred in it, directed it,
and was nominated for several Oscars for it. But he compares
the tub-thumping he's now doing to actors in Shakespeare's time
"going into villages and banging the drum."
It is part of the job, he reckons,
because the work of making a movie or staging a play isn't finished
until people know about it.
"It is not the hardest thing
in the world to do. I haven't spent the day lugging coal,"
He has spent it answering questions
about why he chose his latest project, a nifty little genre thriller
he directed and stars in called Dead Again, which is now running
at The Plaza and other Famous Players theatres.
It's all about reincarnation
and murder and Hollywood in its glamorous heyday. And it's about
as far from Shakespeare as one can get.
Branagh looks amused. "People
expect me to spend all my time in a study reading 1,000-year-old
That's because he's known as
the driving force behind his four-year-old theatre company, which
is dedicated to bringing a revitalized, energized Shakespeare
back to the masses, and has attracted to its fold some of the
most stellar names of the British stage - Derek Jacobi (who has
a juicy role in Dead Again), Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan (the
mother of all witches in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood), and, naturally,
Branagh and wife (Emma Thompson).
Last summer the company came
to Toronto to present A Midsummer's Night Dream at the Elgin
Theatre. This summer it stayed home, opening the other week in
London's West End with their version of Uncle Vanya.
Branagh and Thompson interrupted
their coast-to-coast promotion of Dead Again to be there for
the opening, which is as it should be. Two-thirds of the Uncle
Vanya budget came from Branagh's and Thompson's Dead Again pay.
"I think Chekhov would approve,"
Branagh says dryly. "Films will always subsidize theatre.
Not because theatre is a higher art form but because the pay
in movies is better."
Here is a classically trained
actor with a firm grip on reality - and the reality of numbers.
With British ticket prices topping 20 pounds, he says theatre
is in bad shape right now.
Movies are an obvious answer,
but Branagh is cautious about coming to that conclusion. He reasons
that because of the way the financing is structured, independent
movies take a long time to get into profits. Studio financed
pictures, on the other hand, can limit his creative freedom.
It's a conundrum, but one that
Branagh refuses to be defeated by. Blue eyes firmly fixed on
the bottom line, he notes that Dead Again cost $ 15 million to
make, "and I dread to think how much they are spending on
the advertising budget. Enough, I'd say, to save the British
But he acknowledges that now
that the Henry V video is out, more people will see the play
than if his theatre company toured it for five years.
So the plan is that the next
movie will be Much Ado About Nothing, and then, some day, Hamlet.
Not because he wants to out-do Mel Gibson - he hasn't seen and
probably won't see that movie, he says - but because it is Hamlet,
the most mulled over and interpreted Shakespearean play, the
Everest of every classical actor.
In the meantime, he plans to
return home to North London and vegetate for the next 10 months.
"I have not stopped in 10
years," he says. "It was intense making this picture
in this strange planet called Hollywood."
He and Thompson avoided the social
scene. In their nine months working there, they went out only
once: to a tribute to Martin Scorcese because, Branagh says,
"I'm a big fan of his."
But, he adds, "being in
America was like being in a film to me." He was "intoxicated"
working in the Paramount lot on a soundstage next to Mike Nichols,
near Demi Moore, with Kevin Kline and Sally Fields around the
corner making Soapdish.
"And where we made Dead
Again was where they did Citizen Kane."
Branagh looks as smug as any
satisfied groupie. "The whole place was full of ghosts."
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