What You Should Know About Sir Kenneth Branagh
A panoply of eccentric biographical data re: Shakespeare’s preferred thriller director
Vanity Fair, December 2013
Were Sir Kenneth Branagh’s life play’d upon a stage, Shakespeare himself might condemn it as improbable fiction, so decorated has it been: five Oscar nominations in five different categories; three BAFTAs; an Emmy; a knighthood for both dramatic arts and service to his native Northern Ireland. But the last few years have seen Branagh, 52, in new contexts—as director of big-budget blockbusters for the first time in his career, beginning with his nearly $500-million-grossing sword opera 'Thor'. This month he directs the Christmas Day thriller 'Jack Ryan', the Tom Clancy character rebooted with Chris Pine, and he’s already at work on Disney’s live-action 'Cinderella', filming in England with Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, and Downton Abbey’s Lily James. And in the chillier climes of Nordic noir, he is three seasons in as the BBC’s wan-but-penetrating Inspector Kurt Wallander. But! Fear not, Branagh faithful—he daren’t abandon Will. Next spring he mounts his 'Macbeth' at the Park Avenue Armory, in what will somewhat incredibly constitute his New York stage debut. Herewith, Branagh on Branagh, characteristically trippingly on the tongue.
He takes his coffee black with a single spoonful of raw manuka honey.
He shaves as directed by Woody Allen, who imparted these instructions when the pair made Celebrity: in a hot shower, very steamy, soap on the mirror, and with some rapidity, like “a knife through butter.” When not shaving, he instead draws a very deep bath, stirring in restorative potions—these days, anti-stress oil and anti-bacterial Olbas Oil. He likes a “modesty” veil of bubbles, waist-down, but decries “this fiddle-faddle of suds near my ears.”
Every day, he meditates.
His Irishness — and the “token, but nevertheless firmly inflected,” Protestantism of his upbringing—has left him occasionally spooked and certainly superstitious, dodging ladders, not putting new shoes on tables, and craning to see, per nursery-rhyme tradition, a second magpie when an unlucky first flutters past. “I live in the English countryside, so I’m surrounded by magpies,” he says. “The rituals I have to go through in order to make sure I haven’t just seen one!”
His self-declared “addiction,” one that best describes his sense of humor, he says, is a connoisseurship of “optimistic skateboarders.” He collects “exquisitely performed, utterly destructive” pratfalls in the form of YouTube clips and in viewings of the British humor show You’ve Been Framed! He particularly relishes “that sort of daftness—where the incipient danger is so clear a blind man in a cellar could say, ‘You’re gonna hurt yourself!’”
He still loves to play soccer.
He commutes home these days around six in the morning wearing an eye mask, earplugs, and earphones, hunkering down in the backseat for his chauffeured 30-minute drive. He hopes one day to be mistaken at a stoplight for a “wrecked version of the Lone Ranger.”
His most beloved piece of home décor is a pair of wooden seats carved to look like deer, a gift from his wife, art director Lindsay Brunnock. He especially likes when guests mistake them for the real, “very well-behaved” thing.
Lured by picturesque rinks at the holidays, he attempts to ice-skate once per annum. It does not go well. His technique is to be “stooped” on all fours.
The appliance he most despises is the trouser press, on the grounds that it can press only one portion of a trouser leg at a time. “They might call themselves ‘Half-Leg Trouser Press,’ ” he says with light disdain, suggesting a recent and still-fresh dustup over full-leg wrinkles. (His own offending trouser press has recently been consigned to a heap of discards, off to, “I hope, a trouser-press farm, or heaven.”)
The superpower he desires most sources from an elixir, “Anti-curmudgeon Juice,” which would transfigure him into the beloved night-shoot superhero “Non-irritable Man.”
His favorite song is 1977’s “Rio,” by ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith. When a thousand e-mails await, he listens to it to “tickle me under the armpits.”
When craving a sweet, he melts a Mars candy bar on the stove with a glob of honey, dribbling the resulting warm goo over vanilla ice cream.
Germ-averse, he travels with Purell, last used on a train from Manchester, while seated across from a man nom-nom-nom-ing on successive bananas, washing them down with “a low-alcohol but nevertheless fizzy and effective lager,” and burping—“a very cheerful soul.”
His last twinge of bemusement was in re-watching Disney’s 1950 animated Cinderella, a 74-minute “beautiful piece of gossamer,” and realizing, slightly aghast, that he could still sing all the songs.
His celebratory drink is lately a single martini, one in “a proper glass out of a James Bond film,” mixed at dawn to end a week of night shoots. It traipses with him across the dew-silvered lawns of his rural Berkshire estate as he checks in on the vegetable patch with the dog: “There’s an aubergine that’s looking very likely, and a courgette that has my name on it.”