There is (Sexy) Life After Shakespeare
Cosmopolitan, September 1991
by Jamie Diamond
Born on the Emerald Isle and
raised in a dull British commuter town, Kenneth Branagh didn't
spend too much time on the ski slopes. But when he moved to Hollywood
earlier this year to star in and direct Dead Again, he
had the sudden urge to go skiing. So he drove to Bear Mountain,
a winter resort a few hours outside Los Angeles and, wobbling
on his skis, made his way to a chair lift marked ADVANCED. Minutes
later, he found himself perched atop the steepest peak, with
only one way down: the most perilous, trauma-inducing trail.
Not for a second had Branagh
considered starting on the beginner slope; he figured he could
learn everything he needed to know about skiing while barreling
at full speed down Bear Mountain. He knew he could think on his
feet and assumed he could do the same on skis. "I had never
skied before, and there I was roaring down the slopes,"
he recalls, "very, very swiftly. There was something in
me that just wanted to go for it--the old light in the back of
the eyes, that certain kind of 'Oh fuck it! I'm not going to
He didn't (miraculously), and
says he wasn't motivated by bravery: "It was recklessness.
When I think about things too much, I'm not very brave."
Brave or not, Branagh must have
seen that old light in the back of the eyes when he set out to
make a mainstream movie out of a lesser-known, less-than-sexy
Shakespeare play--Henry V. Not only did he adapt Shakespeare's
prose for the screen, but he starred in the title role, sat in
the director's chair, and wined and dined businessmen to raise
$8.2 million in financing. Shot in seven weeks--on schedule and
under budget--the first-time director's film was nominated for
three 1989 Academy Awards and won one. His triumph led the Hollywood
press to crown him, at age twenty-eight, the new Laurence Olivier,
and led the public to cry, Long live Kenneth Branagh! Wait a
minute--who is Kenneth Branagh?
Branagh is now sitting in his
warm office at Paramount studios with the air conditioner turned
off. In the corner, there's a television set the size of a Volkswagen.
On the wall hangs a poster from last year's box-office smash
Ghost--a good-luck charm, as Branagh's Dead Again,
which was released in late August, is also a love story that
flirts with the hereafter. And as a nod to the chap who wrote
Henry V, the complete works of William Shakespeare sit
on Branagh's desk.
In person, the actor-director,
now thirty-one, is a surprise: He is slightly built and not particularly
commanding, with milk white skin and translucent eyelashes more
befitting a schoolboy than a movie star. He fidgets constantly--pushing
his hair from his face, waving his arms--while his voice peaks
and dips, sometimes high and squeaky, sometimes low and booming.
Two years have passed since Henry
V, and Branagh is now firmly ensconced within the Hollywood
system, working on a film with a studio's big budget. Yet despite
his success, he feels uncomfortable with this new role. "I
come to work and create a bit of cinematic fantasy in the same
buildings that Orson Welles used for Citizen Kane,"
he says with obvious awe in his voice. "I drive home in
a red Mustang convertible and have to pinch myself when I look
up at the Hollywood sign. I never thought that when I turned
up to work here, I'd be weaving those kinds of dreams that affect
His reverie ends when an assistant
interrupts to inquire about flight plans on the MGM Grand and
the Concorde. Branagh looks acutely embarrassed. "This happens
only for a short time," he mumbles. "In London, I don't
have a car. I take the tube." Isn't it enough that he refuses
to turn on the air conditioner--does he want the world to think
he flies coach? But of course. Branagh is proud of being humble.
"It's an Irish tradition," he explains, "to want
to take people down a peg."
And Branagh should know from
Irish tradition. He was born in 1960 in a working-class neighborhood
in Northern Belfast, where he grew up surrounded by a boisterous
extended family. When Branagh was nine, his father, a carpenter,
moved the family to Reading, England, a bland middle-class London
suburb that Oscar Wilde once said was best seen from a passing
train. His memories of that era are troubling; it wasn't exactly
the best time for an Irish family to relocate to England. "Every
night the TV news was full of things exploding," he recalls.
"English soldiers were being killed. It was a mild, mild
version of what happened during World War II, when people weren't
terribly thrilled with the Germans who lived around them."
To avoid ostracism at school,
Branagh perfected an English accent. This ruse was probably his
first acting experience, but it brought him little joy; he felt
he'd betrayed his family by pretending to be British. "It
was a painful time," he says. "I started to worry about
everything--the past, the future--instead of just responding
to things as I had when I was younger."
He found a refuge in books. "I
remember going into Woolworth's and thinking, Christ you can
buy books!" he says. "My father said, 'Spend
your money on something else. Once you've read a book, what can
you do with it?'"
By his teens, Branagh had warmed
to the works of Shakespeare, thanks in part to a teacher with
an unorthodox approach to literature: He played Branagh's class
a slow and suggestive Marvin Gaye-Diana Ross duet and then asked
his young students what the song was really about. They
responded with adolescent giggles. "So the teacher said"--Branagh's
voice rises in an imitation--"'It's about sex, isn't it?
That's what it's about. Now let's turn the corner and look at
Romeo and Juliet again. Let's see if we can find some
sex in that!'"
Such episodes, says Branagh,
reinforced his passion for debunking "high" culture.
"People go on like Shakespeare's a private club, that you
have to know certain rules and be precious," he says. "You
needn't think Shakespeare is the greatest thing since sliced
bread, but it shouldn't make you feel stupid either. Shakespeare's
not an IQ test."
After high school, Branagh applied
to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, one of sixteen hundred
applicants for twenty-three openings. He was accepted--on the
merits of a brazen Hamlet soliloquy--and graduated with the highest
award for acting and an invitation to join the Royal Shakespeare
Company. His rise was meteoric; at twenty-three, he starred in
the RSC production of Henry V, the youngest member ever
to do so. The critics said Branagh's portrayal of the tormented
English king was brilliant. But he'd had help. To research the
role, he'd consulted the future King of England, Prince Charles.
"Actors have this very strange, intoxicating expectation
that the whole world will be fascinated by what they are doing,"
he says, explaining his chutzpah in calling upon a member of
the royal family. "I drove up in this battered old Volkswagen.
I had on my one suit. I really was there to ask Prince
Charles about kingship and stuff, not because I wanted to be
Chafing under the limitations
of the RSC, perhaps the world's most prestigious theater company,
Branagh left at age twenty-six to form his own troupe. His Renaissance
Theatre Company, operating on a shoestring budget, produced a
series of sold-out tours. The following year, Branagh risked
being branded an egoist when he penned his autobiography, Beginning.
He pumped the book's advance back into the theater company ("I've
always robbed Peter to pay Paul," he says) and began to
pull together the elements of Henry V--all the while acting,
directing, and touring in Renaissance productions, not to mention
jetting around the world to shoot television and film projects,
including High Season, costarring Jacqueline Bissett.
It was during this frantic period that he was cast opposite
Emma Thompson, who would later become his wife. "We were
meant to play a married couple," Branagh says, recalling
the day he met Thompson (Impromptu, The Tall Guy,) and
the upcoming Howards End, costarring Anthony Hopkins and
Vanessa Redgrave) on the set of the miniseries Fortunes of
War. "Neither of us had heard of the other. We didn't
exactly go doiinngg," he adds, making the sound of
a broken spring. Instead, Branagh initially resisted getting
involved with his costar. "You spend a lot of time staring
into someone's eyes, something tricks you into maybe something's
there," he says. But there was something there. The
couple married in 1989. "We don't slavishly rely on each
other," Branagh says. "We're both independent and very
different. Still, being married has allowed me to find the capacity
to have some quiet and peace."
When Branagh isn't enjoying peace
and quiet--and Thompson's good cooking--he's busy organizing
groups of people around him. "I like the idea of building
an artistic family," he says. "Even when I was sixteen,
I knew somewhere in my secret soul that I wouldn't be just
an actor. I knew that acting would open the door to the amazing
possibilities of being involved in creative enterprises."
Writing a book, producing plays,
directing movies, acting in films and on TV--that's a lot of
creative enterprises. "There's some genuine interest there,
some greed, but also some subconscious thing that says, if you
do thirty things at one time, a half dozen can fail and you can
still get away with the others," Branagh says.
His day of reckoning may be at
hand with Dead Again. An Oscar nominee for best actor
and best director for Henry V, Branagh no longer has beginner's
back on his side. Instead, he has a reputation to maintain, if
not top. People are counting on him. And he has to fly first-class.
"Oh, it's agonizing!" he confesses. "Not like
doing hard physical labor, but the more you know, the harder
it is. You have nothing to lose with the first one, when no one
thinks you can do it. There's tremendous fun to be had discovering
things as you go; it forces you to make decisions you will agonize
over in the future. Like skiing--you experience the fear after
you've done it. Sometimes I want that blissful oblivion back."
Well, he's not going to get it.
Unless he comes back in another life, which is exactly what he
does in Dead Again, a love story-thriller with mystical
overtones. "It's one of those kinds of pictures that was
branded on me from watching TV as a child," he says, "especially
black-and-white movies like Rebecca."
In Dead Again, Branagh
plays two roles: A blue-blooded German composer and a streetwise
L.A. detective. "Me missus," as Branagh calls Thompson,
plays two parts as well. How did he master an American dialect?
(Obviously, a chat with Prince Charles wouldn't have helped.)
Branagh practiced his accent on, well, movie ushers. "On
weekends, I sneaked out to the movies," he says. "I
did a lot of ordering of popcorn and Diet Coke."
Dead Again's story line involves amnesia, hypnotism,
reincarnation--plot devices that could easily turn hokey. But
Branagh thinks it's worth the risk. "Something in all of
us wants to believe that when circumstances take you away from
the one who's meant for you, the gods or fate or whatever mysterious
powers you trust in will bring you back together," he says.
And if he's right, a Dead Again poster may earn its rightful
place alongside his Ghost poster.
"If the film's a hit,"
said Branagh before its release, "it will be 'Ken, we want
to make Dead Again Again. It's the sequel. He comes back
as a donkey!" Branagh smiles wickedly. "If the film
doesn't do well, it will be"--he drops his voice--"'Oh,
Kevin Brandon, who did Henry the Eighth and that disappointing
Fred Again? He's Dead, She's Dead? What was it called?'"
Having been in Hollywood for nine months, Branagh already has
the inside line: He masks his hope with cynicism.
He also says he's changed. In
the past, he used his energy to resist things. Not he's going
toward something. "And yet, I can see the absurdity of it
all," he insists, waving his hand at his enormous television
set, his storyboards. "Here I am at thirty-one, doing this.
Although I'm thrilled that I'm doing it and enjoying it and thinking
I can, at the same time I'm thinking, What the fuck am I doing
And then he gets that old light
again in the back of his eyes.
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