Kenneth Branagh Takes On a Legend
Back Stage, 8 February 2012
Kenneth Branagh was standing on a cliff on the island of Guernsey, the wind and rain whipping around him, when he got the news he had just earned his fifth Oscar nomination. Branagh first earned nods for both lead actor and director in 1990 with "Henry V," the film that brought him to Hollywood's attention. He followed that in 1993 with a nomination for his short film "Swan Song" and earned another in 1997 for writing the screenplay adaptation of "Hamlet." Now, after Golden Globe and SAG award nominations, Branagh is being recognized by the Academy for his funny, furious portrayal of Sir Laurence Olivier in "My Week With Marilyn," which details the tumultuous relationship between Olivier and Marilyn Monroe while shooting 1957's "The Prince and the Showgirl." It was that film's director, Simon Curtis, who broke the news. "I got a text from Simon saying simply, 'I'm so thrilled for you,' " Branagh recalls. "I was so happy, but I didn't want to assume anything I mean, it could have been 'I'm so thrilled for you; I've just seen a lovely photograph of you.' " Then his manager of 15 years, Judy Hofflund, called to confirm the news of his nomination. "Of course, my reaction was and I don't think this is uncommon to say, 'Are you sure?' " Branagh says with a laugh. Once it was confirmed, Branagh called his wife. "We were both excited and quite emotional, actually. It was a lovely, lovely moment. And suddenly the rain and wind started to slightly diminish or maybe I just didn't feel it as much."
Back Stage: You've long been associated with Laurence Olivier; you both adapted, directed, and starred in film versions of "Henry V" and "Hamlet." Did it seem inevitable you would play him someday?
Kenneth Branagh: No, it did not. In fact, quite the opposite. A lot of those comparisons were unflattering parallels for me. [Laughs.] Because he simply was marvelous. I always felt he was an inspiration to all of us, but you didn't need to try and compete it was futile.
Back Stage: How did you go about preparing to play him, and did you already have an impression in your back pocket you could draw on?
Branagh: Everybody in our generation had one. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth we all did him from various films we'd seen him in. So I listened and looked at as much as I could. What was particularly helpful was, he does a dramatic reading of the Bible, he reads the entire Bible, and that's extraordinary. He's so staggeringly real at times and also very theatrical. So I would listen to that when I was getting ready in the morning. Also fascinating was a series of on-set photographs from the filming of "The Prince and the Showgirl." And it shows him sitting below the camera, directing. He had ferocious concentration and yet a childlike joy. You could see he loved being by the camera and that he loved her. No matter how cross he got at her, you could see he appreciated her talent.
Back Stage: When did you first start to realize you wanted to be an actor?
Branagh: When I was 10 or 11, I was cast in a school play, and I know that I enjoyed it. But it was really when I was 15 or 16 that a particular teacher at the school I was in encouraged me to think about doing it professionally. It really had not occurred to me as a remote possibility before that. However, once he said it, it became so absolutely clear to me that that is what I should do. And now my life would be about finding out if that was even possible, because I didn't know how you went about it. I didn't know anything about actors. So I found out about drama schools, and I joined an amateur dramatic group and tried to get some experience that way. And I loved doing it; I felt at home. It was really a life-changing experience to know that this was my destiny.
Back Stage: You attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; do you remember the audition process?
Branagh: Well, I remember there were 21 people in our group, and for that group they'd seen 2,500 people. So they were big numbers. We first went in doing a speech from Shakespeare and a contemporary speech. And there were two subsequent rounds of auditions, if you went forward. In my case, I was asked to come back yet one more time by the principal of the academy, because he was not convinced I should have a place. He said he wasn't sure whether I was an actor or a performer. And he thought that was a distinction that I ought to understand.
Back Stage: So he decided you were an actor?
Branagh: He decided I was an actor. Hugh Cruttwell, his name was. He was a man who then became my acting coach on the first six or seven pictures that I was in. He was a really extraordinary student of acting and a brilliant giver of notes. And was honest all the way through, with no ego about it. He was a kind man, but he would shoot from the hip.
Back Stage: Was your RADA audition the first time you'd done Shakespeare?
Branagh: I guess apart from reading it aloud in class, when we were forced to, no I hadn't done it in front of anybody before. I might have done it once, which was in an open-air production of "Othello" with the amateur group I was with. I'm not sure. But I felt very at home in it. I just loved the words. Part of my passion for acting was the real relish for the language itself. I really enjoyed the kind of detective work of working out what Shakespeare meant and then finding a way to make it human. And even then, I was interested in trying not to sound too declamatory. I wanted it to be urgent and direct. I don't know that I achieved any of that, but I had a kind of point of view about Shakespeare, even then.
Back Stage: This is a broad question, but is there a secret to getting Shakespeare right?
Branagh: It's not a secret, but part of that journey to getting it right is looking to be as truthful and as honest and direct in the communication of the play and trying to find a simplicity through it, even if there's a complex production. It has to be devoid of reverence and devoid of elaboration of voice or production. That's not to say that one can't set something in a remarkable time and setting, but through that still find the sort of truthfulness and reality and a desire to communicate the play. It sounds like such an obvious thing to say, but sometimes I see Shakespeare productions that are really references to other productions. They don't have that immediacy. That directness.
Back Stage: Are you thinking about going back to Shakespeare any time soon? Either acting or directing?
Branagh: I feel it very strongly sort of swirling around in my creative imagination, yes. I don't know which play will be the one, but I do read them for pleasure, still. The plays that preoccupy me at the moment are "Macbeth," "The Winter's Tale" that's a play that I've been very passionate about for a long time. I've been in neither of them, but both those plays I feel very full with. "Antony and Cleopatra" is always another play that has a very strong pull for me. Also recently, I reread "King John," a neglected, difficult, but brilliant play. "Pericles" is also a play I love, even though some would say it's not entirely Shakespeare's hand.
Back Stage: Some people thought you were an odd choice to direct "Thor," since you're the Shakespeare guy. What drew you to that project?
Branagh: It was a comic that I remember so vividly from my childhood I had a visceral reaction to the hero being so primal and dangerously physically powerful but also being a prince and a member of a royal family. When I was first approached about doing it, they asked how I would tell the story and I said, "Well, I think it's about fathers and sons. And fathers and sons in a royal family, as well." Now that is obviously something that Shakespeare wrote about repeatedly, knowing that his audiences were interested in the lives of the rich and famous and the great and the good. All of that's in "Thor" Prince Thor has to work out how to wield that hammer and use his power and position and privilege well.
Back Stage: Do you think being an actor gives you a certain empathy for when people audition for you as a director?
Branagh: Well, you would have to ask people who've auditioned for me. I would like to think that I try to be as fair and as ordinarily kind as one should be with people who are kind enough to come and read for you and are interested in the part. I have no appetite for playing any kind of power games. I like to try to be on time and respect their talent. I do genuinely thank them for coming, and I know that I feel tremendous empathy for what most people can find to be a difficult process. But I find it moving. And I really, really appreciate the bravery and honesty of actors in ways that fellow actors do.
Back Stage: When was the last time you had to audition?
Branagh: Well, I'd say frankly, life is an ongoing audition when it comes to the world of movies. There's so much money involved, you at least need to have meetings in which people understand how you feel about something. Also, when it comes to doing theater projects, I've sometimes suggested when somebody dubs me as being correct for a role, I will read for it. I sometimes like to do that, just to see what things sound like out loud. I think you've always got to be ready to roll your sleeves up. As a friend of mine puts it, "As actors, we're all beggars." And I think that's good for us.
Back Stage: What is the best advice you can offer other actors?
Branagh: You have to love it. You have to feel passionately about it. It can't be something you're quite interested in. Interesting doesn't come into it if you want to be successful. And by successful, I mean creatively satisfied. Then you've got to love it, and you've got to give yourself to it. You need to be resilient, and you do need to practice. You've got to find a way to practice and to train. To read the books you need to read, to watch the work you need to watch, to write, to create your own work. I think all of that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will bring other work in. You need to feel that sense of empowerment. It's very hard for an actor not working to not feel like an actor. You lose a sense of identity, so I think it's important, in whatever way you can, to just keep practicing it and trying to find either the good work, the good play, the good role, or the good people. Search out quality in those you work with or in the material that you work on. Find the best of the best of the best in whatever situation you're in. And dedicate yourself to that utter pursuit of excellence.
A Letter to Olivier
Although Branagh never met Olivier, he was able to talk to several friends about the legendary actor. Both Anthony Hopkins and Derek Jacobi relayed a story to Branagh about the time they worked with Olivier on "Othello" in the 1960s. Says Branagh, "On one evening, they said he was in a sort of form that was transcendent. He was touching greatness, no question the audience felt it, the actors felt it. As he left the stage that night, all the actors applauded him, but his face was wrought in anger. Hopkins asked him, 'Why are you upset? We all thought you were absolutely magnificent tonight.' He said, 'Yes, I know I was; I just don't know how I did it.' "
When he was 19, Branagh wrote a letter to Olivier to ask for advice. "I was cast as the doctor in 'Three Sisters,' and my single approach to it was to walk with a slightly bandy gait, be a little bent over, and put a flower in my hair to look older," Branagh says. "Laurence Olivier had just directed a film of 'Three Sisters' in which he played the doctor magnificently, and I wrote and asked if he'd seen a painting or heard a piece of music or read something that gave particular inspiration to his great performance. He said, 'Yes, there was, but I'm not going to tell you what it was because this is the kind of thing you need to find out for yourself. Instead, I advise you to have a bash and hope for the best, which I certainly wish for you.' "
- He's prepping to direct an adaptation of the bestseller "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," which is why he was on that cliff in Guernsey when he got the call about the Oscar nomination.
- Other films as a director include "Sleuth," "Frankenstein," "Peter's Friends," and "Dead Again."
- Other films as an actor include "Wild Wild West," "Rabbit-Proof Fence," "Valkyrie," and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," in which he played Professor Gilderoy Lockhart.