Pulling Together a Film out of 'Nothing'
USA Today, May 18 1993
by David Patrick Stearns
Kenneth Branagh would appear
to have one of the most fabulous lives of anyone on the planet.
The 33-year-old Irish actor/director
has made three critically lauded, modestly profitable films,
and his latest, a sumptuous adaptation of Shakespeare's Much
Ado About Nothing, may prove the most successful of all.
The phone rings in his hotel
suite. It's Emma (as in Thompson, his actress wife, who recently
won an Oscar for Howards End). The poor thing hurt her back,
hasn't slept all night and can't catch the next flight from London
to join him. Besides, she still must shoot a few scenes with
Daniel Day-Lewis for the forthcoming In the Name of the Father.
And as the talk turns to Much
Ado, it's filled with references to "Denzel" and "Michael"
(Washington and Keaton, respectively), who played secondary roles
at low salaries for love of The Bard.
Yet it's never as much fun as
it looks. He lives by the skin of his teeth, grabbing meals on
the run and feverishly working to make the next project fly.
Even with his past record, Much Ado was a tough sell.
"I've never not encountered
difficulty raising money," Branagh admits. "You have
to jump through the hoop, saying 'It'll be sexy! Young! It'll
have a beautiful location!' It means your ideas and commitment
to the project get challenged, and that's probably good. You
have to know this is the picture you want to make."
The resulting difference between
Branagh's operation and the ragtag collections of celebrities
that disgrace themselves at the New York Shakespeare Festival
every summer is that Branagh doesn't hire Hollywood names on
the basis of glitz.
"I wanted to get away from
that mellifluous-voiced, fruity, tight-assed stuff," he
says. "Much Ado always spoke to me as a very passionate
affair, and I wanted the kind of ease and naturalism that American
film actors have. Full-blooded is what I mean."
Casting Washington as the benevolent
nobleman Don Pedro may raise eyebrows considering that white
actors play his blood relatives in the film.
"You lose nothing in the
play because of that," Branagh says. "I asked Denzel
because of his natural grace, dignity and poise."
What came out of this approach
is a highly spontaneous film. For Branagh's big soliloquy in
the role of Benedict, he just set down the camera in the gardens
of the Villa Vignamaggio in Greve, Italy (where Ado was filmed)
and tried all kinds of things the whole day.
"The dialogue is so conversational
. . . people said I had to have made up some of it. But that's
what I've been working toward. Shakespeare, minus the stiffness,
can be very disarming."
Also disarming is Thompson, who
is never more beautiful than when in her husband's films, such
as Dead Again, Henry V and Much Ado.
"She looked ravishing,"
he agrees. "I've been really lucky to have her. She also
has a strong positive influence on everyone else. She's always
on time, always knows her lines. Her value as a colleague far
outweighs any annoyance or irritation I might feel with us knowing
each other too well.
"I've admired watching her
work develop, culminating in Howards End, which was such a strong
piece of internal acting - rich and meaningful yet not showy."
So far, all of his films feature
her. But they may diverge in Branagh's forthcoming Frankenstein,
based on the original Mary Shelley novel, which doesn't have
a good female role. "It's not a schlock horror thing. There's
a whole series of things that have never been touched by even
the best Frankenstein movies," he says. "With the whole
moral debate these days about genetic engineering, I hope it'll
have the same contemporary zing of Much Ado. I'll play the doctor,
but I don't see him as crazy. He's a gambler.
"I don't want to make really
violent movies," he says. "I'm drawn to films where
people talk to each other."
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