Branagh the thespian relished his role
as legless Loveless
Let's acknowledge, shall we,
that there is often a distinction between "actors" and
Take the summer movie The Wild Wild West,
which opens Wednesday. In the role of frontier
secret agent Jim West, Will Smith, a former rapper
with two hit movies to his credit, is unequivocally
the star. Yes, he has acting chops, as he proved in
his first film, Six Degrees Of Separation, but in
subsequent blockbusters, including Men In Black
and Independence Day, he primarily plays a likable
guy not unlike himself, in the tradition of stars such
as, say, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
Kenneth Branagh, on the other hand, has got
"actor" written all over him. The thespian who
directed himself in the Shakespearean films Henry
V, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, appears
in the mind's eye as though he was born in tights.
His presence in the effects-laden blockbuster is
initially confusing. Especially when you factor in the
attitude of the film's director, Barry Sonnenfeld,
whose philosophy of directing actors is summed up
in the words: "You don't want them to act."
"You need people to talk fast," Sonnenfeld says,
explaining his style of directing comedy, "Because
... if they talk fast, it's harder for them to act. And
you don't want them to act."
Branagh, cast as truncated villain Dr. Arliss
Loveless, was apparently the exception to the rule.
"Kenneth was always my first choice," Sonnenfeld
says, "Because the great thing about British actors
is that they can play really big ... and be very
theatrical, but really real.
"You wanted someone who would play so big and
energize the movie and anytime Kenneth is on the
screen, I think the whole movie is energized in a
really cool way."
In the TV series that inspired the film, Loveless was
played by dwarf actor Michael Dunn. In the movie,
the character has transformed into a
wheelchair-bound half-man, his legs and lower
torso having been blown off while fighting for the
losing side of the Civil War.
"I knew about the series and didn't want to be too
influenced by it," Branagh says, "Barry said, 'This is
going to be a very different Loveless, so don't go
and get yourself confused. You won't be a midget
in this, but you'll be very short anyway.'"
Short in stature, but evidently not short in power.
Loveless is a loud, baroque villain where everyone
else in the film is comparatively subdued.
"This kind of film needs a villain like this," Branagh
In his own twisted way, Loveless is passionate and
even charismatic ... for a megalomaniac. For
inspiration, Branagh looked to an unexpected
"The accent was influenced in style alone, not
content, I hasten to add, by television evangelists
and their extraordinarily dramatic delivery," he says,
adding he was impressed by the sheer
showmanship of the typical southern evangelist.
"Their amazing swoops, vocally, their ability to
growl down here in the low registers, then be, a
minute later, in a falsetto and when they feel
something sadly, their eyes fill with tears ... and then
they turn around and they're shouting at you and
you're scared shitless," he says. "The whole thing is
hypnotic, not for what they're saying but the kind of
complete and utter belief in what they're doing."
"Their performing style is very grandiloquent and
extravagant and very actorly, often self-consciously
so, but often brilliantly done. Every sentence is a
That big approach no doubt compensated for the
fact Branagh went against extreme physical
limitations in the role. Since his legs and lower body
weren't supposed to exist, Branagh had to fit his
legs into a box beneath his steam-driven
"They actually had to screw a metal plate down to
keep my thighs down and keep my legs as close
together as possible," he says. "A half an hour of
that and it was blood-circulation hell.
"It definitely changes you," he adds. "It changes
your voice, it changes everything literally if you can't
put your feet on the ground, which I was never able
to do. You have a completely different relationship
with the way you move."
As for the wheelchair, well let's just say speech isn't
the only thing Sonnenfeld liked to go quickly.
"That wheelchair was very nippy and very agile,
and Sonnenfeld always wanted it to go much
quicker," he says. "There were a lot of moments
where I exit very, very quickly, and then there's a
crash off camera."