We Catch Up With Actor and Director Kenneth Branagh
As his masterful remake of 'Cinderella' hits movie screens, Una Brankin talks to the icon about his life's work, his complicated past love life, growing up in Belfast and why his late mum and dad would be so proud of his new film.
I can hear Sir Kenneth Branagh laughing before I even see him in the Merchant Hotel. He is finishing up a radio interview; I am waiting outside the door of his elegant suite. He has a hearty guffaw and the rich, measured tones of his Rada-trained voice carry into the dark corridor.
The night before, he was given what he describes as a "premature" lifetime achievement award after the Dublin premiere of his latest blockbuster, 'Cinderella', which he directs masterfully. If it was a late one, there are no signs of it
His sapphire-blue eyes are clear and attentive, vivid against his lightly tanned, close-shaven skin, and he's newly trim, thanks to a low-carb, little-and-often diet. In a fine-knit sweater almost the same shade as his eyes, and expensive navy jeans, he's not one bit like the rumpled, stubbly detective he plays brilliantly in the UK version of the Nordic noir series, Wallander.
He's also much blonder than he appeared in 'My Week With Marilyn' as Sir Laurence Oliver, the actor to whom he's most often compared. (He raises an eyebrow, later, when I tell him he reminds me much more of Spencer Tracey in his acting style.)
After a quick handshake - he's germ-conscious and always travels with a hand sanitiser - he offers water and starts fixing the cushions behind him on a grand velvet sofa, while his PR warns me I have only 15 minutes with "Ken", as everyone addresses him.
It's a frustratingly inadequate allotment of time to interview such a powerhouse of the arts but he's amiable, if perhaps a little media weary, and answers questions thoughtfully.
He wishes his mother could have seen his captivating version of 'Cinderella', a live action remake of Disney's 1950 animated "beautiful piece of gossamer", as he refers to it.
Frances Branagh died of a heart condition in 2004; his father William, a former joiner, succumbed to cancer in 2006.
"Yes, that would have been a very special experience for mum to have seen it," he says quietly, his blue gaze moving to the window. "We had all the old Ladybird fairytale books at home.
"But I'm very blessed she saw all of us do well. She was very proud; Dad too. He was appalled initially at my doing the Billy Plays - he thought it was too controversial - but when he saw it he was tickled pink. He thought it was authentic."
Rather than join his contemporaries in the shipyards or building sites, Ken's older brother Bill became an IT expert, while his younger sister, Joyce, who was born after the family moved from north Belfast to Reading in Berkshire, is a theatre director and writer. Most of his relatives also moved away from the city but he still has friends here, and admits to feeling emotional when he returns, almost "filling up, as my granny would say" when he went to his see old family home on the Mountcollyer Road and his primary school recently, only to discover they'd both been knocked down.
He recalls that his practical parents were concerned that acting wasn't a proper job, but backed him all the way, especially when he got some bad reviews for his film version of 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' in 1994.
"They enjoyed it very much and they were quite supportive - it was the zenith of the critical bashing I was receiving at the time," he explains drily. "They were quite pleased that I got up and got on with things in the face of it. I learned from it."
He was only 33 when he directed Robert de Niro as Dr. Frankenstein's creature and managed to make audiences empathise with him. I tell him I found the scene where the body of Helena Bonham Carter's character is brought back to life, in a macabre dance sequence, quite disturbing - but in the way Mary Shelly meant it to be in her novel. "Yes - that was creepy," he frowns, cupping his chin and looking away again. "Mmmm."
He began an affair with Bonham Carter on the set of 'Frankenstein' and broke his then wife Emma Thompson's heart. (He's been happily married to the non-starry English art director Lindsay Brunnock since 2003). Indeed, Thompson has admitted that her brilliantly acted scene in the film 'Love Actually' - where she's standing in a bedroom straightening the eiderdown and trying to hold in tears after discovering her screen husband's (Alan Rickman) apparent infidelity - is based on her own experience and the crippling depression she endured when she and Branagh divorced in 1996.
Of the split, he has said little, bar a comment in 1998: "It's always sad, marriages breaking up. But I refuse to be affected over issues like this, by how the world at large appears to feel."
He didn't like the 'Ken and Em' luvvie tag foisted on himself and Thompson, either.
"We were up there and prominent and I'm sure guilty of saying daft things but, in reality, I don't know what was imagined by this sort of intense luvviedom," he protested in a 2011 interview. "If I was in and out of The Ivy having parties where no one had a name, everybody was called 'Daaahling', that wasn't and is not the truth. Certainly, I enjoy a bit of theatrical banter with the best of them but I've always had a sort of feeling that this sometimes does actually feel like a proper job."
Thompson made her peace with both parties and co-starred twice with Bonham Carter, who lived with Branagh for five years. They, in turn, remained friends after they split, and the slightly eccentric actress makes a memorable Fairy Godmother in 'Cinderella'. She is eclipsed, however, by the icey-eyed Cate Blanchett as the cackling Wicked Stepmother, Lady Tremain, in a riveting, funny performance which even reveals a little vulnerability in the spiteful character.
Ken knew the graceful Australian actress was exactly right for the part when he first saw her in close-up, and agrees that she has elements of the glamorous countess in the 'Sound of Music'.
"She has this incredible physicality, great ease of movement, and wonderful high cheekbones and piercing eyes," he says of Blanchett. "She can make herself stand taller and brings sass to the screen. She and her daughters are town people coming to the countryside, sophisticated and glamorous. Cate devours the film."
I show him the front cover of a magazine with actress Lily James as a brunette, looking very different to the flaxen-haired Cinderella she portrays on screen. The 'Downton Abbey' star (she plays Lady Rose) beat Hollywood A-listers Margot Robbie ('Wolf of Wall Street') and Alicia Vikander ('Ex Machina') to the role of Cinders after five auditions.
So what made her stand out?
"She has a very expressive voice," says the director, who should know. "Fairytales come to us first from the mouth of the parent. Lily has musicality and warmth in her voice, and she can sing.
"She has a chameleon quality, she can look quite different and she has the acting chops. It augurs well for her future. She's the Real McCoy."
The 25-year-old English actress also lost her father to cancer, three years after Ken lost his. She has spoken of the poignancy, for her, of the scene in Cinderella where she is told her beloved father has died, leaving her alone with her stepmother and horrible step-sisters (for politically correct reasons, though, they are referred to as ugly only "on the inside").
But, as the Fairy Godmother narrates - and as Ken himself has discovered - in time "pain turns to memory".
"I think it's supposed to be a three-year period, the initial phase of grief," he says reflectively. "Yes, the pain turns to memories that are sometimes pleasant and fun."
The warm memories include his parents meeting President Bill Clinton at a dinner held shortly after the premiere of Ken's film version of 'Hamlet' in New York. When Clinton shook his hand and mentioned that he loved his movies, Ken turned to look at his mother and father, and thought both of them were going to collapse: "Both their knees went. And then when we went through the next door, my mother threw herself at Goldie Hawn and said, 'Do you know what the President just said to my son?'."
Like many growing up in the 1960s and '70s, entertainment for the young Kenneth was provided by old black and white films, on television on Saturday afternoons, comics, the local cinema, and by the regular large gatherings of relatives. But while his mother would sing and his father would tell jokes, the children were not encouraged to be exhibitionists.
"Being kind was important in our house - and not showing off …"
Which you went on the make a career out of …
"Haw haw, yes indeed!"
In a way, he began acting at nine, when he dropped his thick Belfast accent to avoid bullying at his new school in Reading.
"They couldn't understand a word I said and Northern Ireland was on the news every day," he recalls. "I was stared at; I was an uncommon sight. You're suddenly the representation of this dangerous, violent place.
"Yet my strongest memories of Northern Ireland are of feeling that I knew exactly who I was here, and feeling at home and for a long time after we moved I didn't have that feeling.
"I could walk to school alone and go to football matches with no fear and come back on the bus. It was completely safe. And you always met people you knew.
"I was always looking for that feeling of security and I did find an element of it in theatre and film communities. That was bonding."
From what I've read, and can see from his calm demeanour (possibly aided - like director David Lynch - by his twice-daily meditation), it's clear that he's also found sanctuary in his second marriage. Ironically, it was his ex, Helena Bonham Carter, who, in 1997, introduced him initially to the pretty Lindsay (44), described by friends as "mature and level headed". They met again in 2001 on the set of the £40m TV series 'Shackleton', the miniseries about the British explorer in which Ken played the title role. They married quietly in 2003. Although Lindsay has appeared holding her husband's hand on the red carpet, the couple shun showbusiness parties.
"She's like most women in that she's smarter than most men," he said of Lindsay in a recent interview. "She's certainly much smarter than me and knows me better than I know myself. She understands that it's great when people love what they do, but also knows that they need the right kind of balance in their life, which is why we'll be having a holiday as soon as I've finished 'Cinderella'. She also knows how much I love her."
In 'Cinderella', Ken has made an delightful film for old and young alike, with the positive mantra of 'Have courage and be kind' hitting home throughout. Although having children is not a priority for him, he says he loves them and has hinted that he might get round to it one day. In the meantime, he has two dogs he obviously adores, taking them for 20 minute walks to check his vegetable patches, when he gets the chance, on his Berkshire estate near Pinewood studios.
"The older one, Molly, only likes small male dogs so we got a nine-month old Jack Russell and he'd break your heart. He eats EVERYTHING and he has so much energy and then he collapses. It's so funny when they do that, isn't it? I'm very amused by dogs. Jack Russells think they are much bigger than they are."
He looks genuinely pained when I tell him of a fatal Lurcher attack on our family Jack Russell, closing his eyes at the imagined horror. And there's a bit of an anti-hunting message in 'Cinderella' too, when she chastises the prince (Richard Madden, of 'Game Of Thrones' fame) for chasing a boar through the woods. "Well, I mean they live in the country and have to slaughter a pig or two," shrugs the director. "I care for all living things; I'm pro-wildlife. It's a nice passing reference to a lively debate - as Cinderella says, just because it has always been done, doesn't make it right."
When he's not walking the dogs, he likes reading and going to the cinema and the theatre, and football matches - he captained his school's rugby and soccer teams and supported Spurs because one of its famous players, Danny Blanchflower, was from here. He also likes watching 'You've Been Framed' on a Saturday night, which, he admits, leaves him helpless with laughter. But after three recent blockbusters, including 'Thor' (2011), and 'Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit' (2014) - and with a "particularly dark" new series of 'Wallander' and theatre production of 'Romeo and Juliet' coming up - his self-confessed Calvinist work ethic shows no sign of abating.
The good news is that he'd love to make a film in his home town.
"I'm actively on the lookout for something," he says, taking the PR lady's waved cue for his next interview, and standing to shake my hand again, with a warmer smile this time.
Whatever about his Lifetime Achievement award at the Dublin Festival, let's hope he wins an Oscar at some stage soon. He has won three BAFTAs; an Emmy; a knighthood for both dramatic arts and services to his native Northern Ireland. And after five nominations in five different categories, it's about time he had an Academy Award to put along with them.
Cinderella is in cinemas now
In his own words: Branagh on growing up in Belfast
"There was the sense of identity inside a community that unquestionably was warm. I've never felt so secure, or as certain of who I was since, to be frank.
"It was a life built totally around visiting and mutual childcare. I remember years of coming home from school and going to my Auntie Irene's, who lived two doors down, before my mother came home from work. My granny gave me my lunch from school every single day when I was at the Grove Primary School."
"My mother never wanted to move. None of us wanted to. But the offer of a house came at about the time when we had this experience of rioting in the street. It was scary because, overnight, a peaceful, mixed Protestant-Catholic street turned into this very dramatic-looking landscape where all the paving stones had been pulled up by the residents to put a barricade in at either end.
"A gang from the Shankill Road had come up and marked all the houses of the Catholic people and were throwing bricks at them, just to say, 'We know where you are'. It was a sort of manic, scary warning shot and it meant a lot of Catholic families moved out.
Suddenly, we were in a street where the fellow who was the postman was now also a vigilante at night. There were men with makeshift truncheons from the shipyard parading after dark and armoured cars.
"I remember that being a really dramatic transformation of what previously had been a place where one felt very, very, very secure."
They said it ... colleagues on Ken
"Ken's brain is working ten times faster than the rest of us. As well as having the mind of an actor - the sensitivity, vulnerability and openness that an actor needs - he also has the organisational mind of a man who can direct 'Hamlet'. He's a very impressive man. It's embarrassing because I know this will be gushing in print but I've been bowled over by him. He's got a very strong work ethic. He'll be the first person back on set after lunch." - Rob Brydon, co-star in the play 'The Pain Killer', and royal court artist in 'Cinderella'
"He seemed calm, confident, prepared and fully capable. He is kind and personable and really has conversations with everyone. He's genuinely caring. He looks you in the eye and remembers what you said yesterday. Usually, you really don't see that in directors." - Natalie Portman, whom he directed in 'Thor'
"Ken is very precise in his directing. 'Jack Ryan' is a Hollywood thriller - there's no pretending that we were doing Shakespeare. We all knew exactly what we were doing and he was very clear about that. But he was also very clear that we were going to make the best possible thriller that we could. I was hugely impressed by him as a man, as an actor, and as a filmmaker." - Keira Knightley, on Branagh's direction of 'Jack Ryan'