Kenneth Branagh: 'Why I'm Addicted to Fear'
Kenneth Branagh, who has directed two new films out this month, talks to Benjamin Secher about the death of his parents, the shock of finding himself in Hollywood - and why he keeps taking risks
The Telegraph, 16 November 2007
Kenneth Branagh has, in recent years, been subjected to enough critical flak to fell even the most robust of characters. Yet the man I meet on a wintry London afternoon is not only buoyant and garrulous company, he is also preparing to roll out two major new films in consecutive weeks.
"Believe me, it's an exciting feeling," he says, balling his hands into fists, like an agitated boxer. "There really is nothing quite like it." He may have taken a bruising, but Branagh's still up for the fight.
"This may be a daft thing to say," he adds, "but I lost both my parents in the last couple of years, and I feel as though that very sort of direct connection to a sense of loss makes you look at your life and somehow determine to value and relish it, not knowing - as it were - when your time will be up.
"I know this sounds rather melodramatic to be saying at 46 - but you are suddenly aware tempus fugit and all that. So, you know, you've got to get on with it."
Next week brings the UK release of "Sleuth", a loose remake of Anthony Shaffer's classic battle of two male egos, with a menacing new script from Harold Pinter and snarling performances from Jude Law and Michael Caine. A week later comes "The Magic Flute", Mozart's final masterpiece, transported, in a flurry of CGI, to the trenches of the First World War and adorned with an English libretto by Stephen Fry.
advertisementBoth films "absolutely assume the intelligence of the audience", as Branagh puts it, which is to say that they are utterly original, challenging and anything but a safe commercial bet. "But then," says Branagh, "what is a safe bet these days?"
Indeed, few directorial careers have demonstrated the capriciousness of the film industry as starkly as Branagh's.
At the age of 28, already a celebrated stage actor and manager of the acclaimed Renaissance Theatre Company, the boy from Belfast became the toast of Tinseltown, nominated for both acting and directing Oscars for his big screen debut, a brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V" in which he took the lead role.
Two years later, in 1991, he had his first American blockbuster, directing and starring - alongside his then wife, Emma Thompson - in the gothic melodrama "Dead Again". The film was an instant hit, rocketing up the US box office and knocking "Terminator 2" off the top spot.
"I'll never forget the feeling of being in Hollywood that first time," says Branagh, "driving down Sunset Blvd in a red Ford Mustang with the roof down and a pair of sunglasses on, thinking, 'Hell's f***ing bells, I really cannot believe this is happening to me'."
Sixteen years, one divorce and seven releases further down the line, "Dead Again" remains the director's most successful film in the States (beaten only by "Frankenstein" here). His adaptation of "Love's Labour's Lost" (2000) was a spectacular flop.
Its eventual follow-up, this year's Japanese-inflected "As You Like It", barely registered with UK audiences, and failed even to secure a theatrical release in the States.
Yet Branagh heroically refuses to be stymied by commercial failure: "That way madness lies." He has always been a risk-taker most notably in his indefatigable attempts to take the works of Shakespeare to a mainstream cinema audience - and he's not about to quit the habit.
In fact, he says, it was the very difficulty of "Sleuth" that attracted him to the project. "After reading Pinter's script for the first time I said to my wife [art director, Lindsay Brunnock], 'This script is dirty; it's marvellous but dirty, and I don't understand it all.' Those all seemed like good reasons to do it."
If Pinter's acid prose seemed a challenge, Mozart's notorious story of a young man subjected to a series of austere initiation rites was a feat of a different order for a man who doesn't even like opera because he's "always rather thrown by an inability to understand what is being sung".
Before taking on the film, he sought the advice of old friend and opera-buff Stephen Fry. "The very first conversation I had with Stephen about it, he said, 'You do know of course, Ken, that "The Magic Flute" makes absolutely no f***ing sense at all. There is no plot, and you'll be driven mad trying to find one.'?" For Branagh, that seemed to clinch the deal.
"I went away and listened and listened to this piece that Beethoven once described as the greatest of all German operas, this edgy work with all its variety and mystery and all of that. And I was frightened, but it was a good fear, and it put me in a situation I like to be in."
For Branagh, fear is "just another form of excitement", an addictive fuel on which he has always thrived. "The myth about me when I was younger is that somehow I was incredibly confident," he says.
Actually, for much of the time, he was terrified. "I have a very vivid recollection of the first moment at which I had to call Judi Dench, to ask her to direct a play for our company. I swear to God, that was two days of pacing up and down, physically shaking and sweating, even writing a script for the phone call."
All these years later, Branagh's working schedule remains as full and eclectic as ever. As well as the two new films, he has also recently completed a leading role opposite Tom Cruise in "Valkyrie", Bryan Singer's upcoming film about a plot to assassinate Hitler, and has a couple of theatre jobs in the pipeline, playing the lead in Michael Grandage's production of "Ivanov" next year, then directing Jude Law in "Hamlet" in 2009.
Has he never felt the desire to stop, to take a break from it all? "No, is the short answer," says the man who doesn't really do short answers. "I don't know why but I've always been a sort of " He slips into a rare silence.
"Do you know that line from "Annie Hall" where Woody Allen says, "A relationship is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies'?" He smiles. "Well, I think I'm like that. There is a sense that I just have to keep moving forward, the motivation always being to try and just get better."
'Sleuth' is released next Friday, 'The Magic Flute' on November 30.