Stratford on Sunset
GQ, September 1991
by Johanna Schneller
No lips--the man has no lips.
There's a great dimple in his left cheek when he smiles and a
keen intelligence in his eyes, but his head is too big for a
body that doesn't exactly spend a lot of time at the gym. So
why does Kenneth Branagh keep making these grand entrances in
the films he directs? The just-released Dead Again, his
first American effort, is full of Branagh bashing through double
doors, smoldering and whispering in dimly lighted rooms like
some mad cross between Vincent van Gogh and Charles Manson. In
his first film, Henry V, which earned three Oscar nominations
two years ago and got America to line up for Shakespeare, he
emerges from the smoke and backlighting like Darth Vader. He
certainly isn't shy about making a spectacle of himself.
Dramatic entrances, you see,
are the story of Branagh's life. At 20, just minutes out of the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, he was headlining a
hit West End play, Another Country, which also launched
Rupert Everett and Daniel Day-Lewis. At 23, he was the youngest
Henry V in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company. At 26,
he founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, whose King Lear
and A Midsummer Night's Dream sold out around the world
last year. And at 27--the age of Henry himself at Agincourt--Branagh
made Henry V in seven weeks, for a spare $7.5 million.
Along the way, he married his
frequent costar, Emma Thompson (Impromptu), wrote an autobiography,
Beginning, and earned equal parts enmity and admiration
in Britain. In June, Branagh returned to his native Belfast to
supervise a Renaissance play he wasn't acting in and, at the
ripe old age of 30, to take the first extended break of his life.
"I had the sweetest letter from my mother the other day,
saying she was so glad I was gonna stop for a bit," he says.
"She said I should go to a health farm."
Indeed, Branagh looks rather
pasty this afternoon, slumped on a couch at the Beverly Hills
Hotel, a site chosen because it was halfway between his other
appointments. More and more often, he finds this work of being
famous eclipsing the work that made him famous in the first place.
It's a dilemma that his favorite character, Hamlet, whom he's
played several times, might define as "To be a star, or
not to be?"
Branagh's got Hamlet on the brain
these days. "It's impossible to say you are unchanged by
suddenly being at the helm of a Hollywood picture," he says.
"Sometimes I felt very alone inside the system. Hamlet,
textually, is 30, and he expresses so much of the indecision,
neuroses, worry, anxiety and stress I see in this town, where
one lives at a pace destructive to the human spirit: You get
up too early, you work too long, you do not nourish your soul,
you literally do not nourish you body because the air is so polluted.
You grab leisure time, you grab space. Hamlet expresses the sea-change
that occurs, that means a person like me is considering stopping
So Branagh will rest. But he
has to be careful. Because here in America, fame doesn't like
to nap. It either grows, in all its pros and cons, or it evaporates
like a ghost.
Teatime in Branagh's Spartan
office at Paramount. Sheets of paper--the outline for Dead
Again--line the walls and a giant pair of scissors (which
figures prominently in the film) hangs nearby, along with a portrait
of Emma, who costars with Branagh. A romantic mystery, Dead
Again flashes back and forth from the present (shot in color),
in which L.A. private detective Mike Church takes his amnesiac
client Grace to a hypnotist, to the 1940's (shot in black and
white), where Grace recalls--under hypnosis--the lives of Roman
and Margaret Strauss, a passionate conductor and composer and
his concert-pianist wife. Branagh and Thompson play the lovers
in both eras. (Branagh even does two accents, American and German.)
The film is old-fashioned, in the best sense: Heavy on plot twists
and period atmosphere, it both pays homage to and gently sends
up classic films older than Branagh himself.
By late May, the two eras aren't
meshing well--"You either like it or you go, 'Fuck me, what
is this?'" says screenwriter Scott Frank--so Branagh's been
spending long days in the editing room. One reason he's having
such a hard time with the final cut, goes the in-joke, is that
he's in most every frame, and he hates to cut his scenes. Tired
but alert, wearing jeans and a cotton shirt, he balances a cup
of tea on a saucer in the palm of his left hand for the entire
conversation. You get the feeling he could leap up and dance
around the room without spilling a drop.
Branagh speaks in soliloquies,
not sound bites. Though he sprinkles his speech with "fuck"s
and "Christ"s and "me"s instead of "my"s,
his beautifully modulated voice gives him away and justifies
any dramatic entrance he'd care to make. As Henry, Branagh wasn't
the most compelling-looking king in the world, splattered with
blood and mud. But when he spoke, he sounded like an avenging
angel. "With an instrument like that," Pauline Kael
wrote in The New Yorker, "he can play anything."
A lot of people are banking on
that. One of the film's producers, Lindsay Doran, nursed Dead
Again through three Paramount regimes and her own move to
Mirage Enterprises, Sydney Pollack's company. "We wanted
a stylish filmmaker who had all the technical skills, and we
wanted a romantic who cared about people," she says. "We
didn't know if such a person existed. Then we saw Henry V."
Branagh's appeal--as opposed to that of Laurence Olivier, whose
1940's version of a godlike Henry was much revered--was that
he played the king as a man, with all his contradictions, doubts
and humor on display. In his first meeting with Doran, Branagh
laid out his demands: He would direct Dead Again if--and
it was a big if--he and his wife could star. "Everyone swallowed
a lot," Doran says. "But Ken inspires such confidence,
without arrogance. He said, 'Let me be Lon Chaney,'" and
we said 'Oh, what the hell. Let's go for it.'"
Despite Henry's success,
it's big leap from a small Shakespeare picture shot with a company
of friends to a $15 million Hollywood thriller. It doesn't help
that Branagh is not as well known here as are Daniel Day-Lewis
and Gary Oldman, two peers perched with him on top of the British
heap. And it sure doesn't help that everyone keeps comparing
Dead Again to Alfred Hitchcock's first American film,
Rebecca, which won the Oscar for best picture. But "Ken
didn't have to adapt to making a Hollywood movie," Doran
says. "Hollywood adapted to making a movie with Ken."
Branagh's not famous enough?
Well then, he'll persuade Robin Williams, Campbell Scott and
Andy Garcia to appear in cameos. The first American crew is too
sluggish for Branagh's liking? He'll replace them. "Ken
works very fast and wants other people to keep up," Thompson
says. "It's that Anglo-Saxon-terrier quality that barks
and yaps and says 'C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon!" He
also brought over five members of his "central artistic
family" from Henry V. Despite the studio's initial
resistance to the British invasion, "they were the most
fun people on the crew. They had a shorthand that really helped,"
says Scott Frank, who was on the set daily. "People think,
well, you've done this Shakespeare film, so you must have a fucking
brain the size of the Empire State Building and be tremendously
serious, [plummy voice] very, very English, very intense and
witty and so forth," Branagh says. "But for me, it's
hugely exciting to be working on a detective thriller in Hollywood
as my second film. It gives me the chance--the necessity--to
ask people how things work. They respond to that, as long as
they that, finally, you are in the driving seat."
The pressure mounts because he's
fond of scenes that ask a great deal of everyone involved. While
filming the climactic murder scene, to the accompaniment of an
opera, with huge shadows and a moving wall and special-effects
people under beds and flicking blood onto curtains, "literally
every single member of the crew was working," Branagh says.
"We eventually got it, and there was an enormous cheer and
a great camaraderie. That felt like making movies. When
you suggest doing things like that in preproduction, people say,
'Well, you'd have to do this, that and the other' and shake their
head. But I'd say 'I know, and wouldn't it be great? It would
be hard, so that's a challenge, then, isn't it? Why don't we
do that, then?'"
He gets away with it because--like
Henry--he doesn't ask anything of his crew that he's not willing
to do himself. "How it was physically and humanly possible
for him to learn two accents and be in every scene, plus the
constant demands of being the director, I don't know," Doran
says. "I don't think any of us realized the hours of preparation
that none of us saw. He made it seem effortless."
Why does Branagh push so hard?
"Sometimes it can be a bit anal retentive," he admits,
"and sometimes it's mixed in with just a stupid guilt: 'Well,
I'm healthy, I have a certain amount of talent, and I must do
things.' You know, the Protestant work ethic slapping you on
the back every now and then."
The Protestant ethic was very
much in evidence in Branagh's childhood home: His mother worked
in a textile mill, his father in construction. He grew up surrounded
by a noisy extended family that was amazed by his appetite for
books, magazines and movies. But one night, when he was 9, the
Troubles in Belfast swirled too close for comfort. A huge Protestant
mob swarmed through his neighborhood, smashing the windows of
Catholic homes. "Suddenly, the entire street poured out
of their houses, ripped up the paving stones and built a barricade,"
he says. "It was like being in one of those classic scenes
from a police series, where the camera rises up and ambulances
pour in and lights are going, and then somebody comes in with
a raincoat and says, 'So how did he did?' It all felt a bit tingly
and not, from my point of view, actually unpleasant." His
parents saw it differently, and moved the family to Reading,
England, where Branagh tested his acting skills by trying to
appear English at school and Irish at home. He also started writing
to actors such as Derek Jacobi and Laurence Olivier--they wrote
back, which astonished him--and appeared in every play he could.
At 18, he earned a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
John Sessions, a fellow student, remembers their first day: "Ken
wore that look he often does, like he's listening very carefully
while looking down the barrel of a gun. He was easily the best
person in our year and arguably the best in some time."
Former RADA principal Hugh Crutwell, who has since consulted
on Branagh's projects, says that Branagh hasn't changed since
his school days: "He's developed and grown, yes, but he
was not one of those who's all tied up and needs sorting out.
Ken was securely himself from the moment I met him."
After graduation, a six-month
stint in Another Country led to lots of BBC television
work, a place at the Royal Shakespeare Company and a fame that
fanned out in all directions, like fire. Plenty of British critics,
however, say that Branagh's ambition far outweighs his charm.
Over the past several years, he has been a recurring tabloid
target. The first straw was his leaving the RSC to form Renaissance--taking
several select actors with him, including Jacobi and Judi Dench--and
persuading Prince Charles to be a patron. Then he wrote and starred
in the company's least successful play, Public Enemy.
And writing his autobiography at 28--though he admits in the
first lines that he did so just to earn money for Renaissance--only
added to his reputation as a megalomaniac.
His friends dismiss the criticism
as mean-spirited jealousy. Branagh simply sighs: "Australians
call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome: people who get too big for their
boots and need cutting down to size. I suspect nothing would
annoy certain sections of the British press more than Dead
Again being very successful. Nothing could please them more
than it being a total fuckin' disaster. And of course, if it
was a total disaster, I would be back in favor."
Before she met him, Emma Thompson
was one of Branagh's naysayers. "I was aware that he was
considered to be the Great White Hope of British theater. Therefore,
I avoided his work like the plague," she says over yet another
cup of tea in their rented home in the Hollywood hills. From
the outside, the place is nondescript, but the gate opens onto
a charming garden with a pool and a stunning panorama view. "I
think we should pass out grass skirts as guests come in,"
Thompson says. She starts the interview looking glamorous, fresh
from a photo shoot, but quickly proceeds to slip into jeans,
remove her makeup and tie her curly blonde hair into a lumpy
ponytail. She periodically jumps up to answer the phone ("Hi,
matey" to Branagh) and stir a huge pot of chicken stock
simmering on the stove ("Hello, you lovely" to the
stock). "And here's our fridge," she says tongue in
cheek, whipping the door open to reveal heaps of fresh pasta
Thompson is getting meals ready
for her husband because she's going to England to star in the
new Merchant Ivory film, Howards End. "I was just
reading [E.M.] Forster last night," she says. "He said
this lovely thing about marriage, that though its pleasures are
great, they are only afforded to very few." Thompson and
Branagh met playing a doomed couple on the BBC miniseries Fortunes
of War and went on to play several others (most notably in
Henry V) before tying the knot themselves, in August 1989.
"It's fun playing marriages that are going desperately wrong,
'cause it makes you feel, you know, smug," she says.
They've continued their professional
alliance, with Thompson starring in two roles on Renaissance's
world tour. "I'm sure there's treats in store for us, working
together, with regard to tension. So far we've been lucky,"
she says. "When Ken directs me, we kind of do it together.
He can also come up and whisper imprecations in my ear and I'm
not gonna tell anybody."
She calls their reincarnated-soul-mate
roles in Dead Again "an interesting metaphor. If
we had any kind of past life, I would say that we'd probably
been brother and sister. That's what my metaphor would be. We
went through hell and high water, breaking up and getting together,
but the thing we enjoy most now is just being able to be at ease
with each other. A lot of people get together and are not, in
the most primal sense, at ease. I think the whole notion of romance
is to blame for that. Romance is a bit of a con, really; it simply
does not last, in that way. Friendship and humor, work and thought
last. You have find somebody whom you can sink into, as into
a comfortable armchair."
Still, Branagh is not without
his romantic side. When the Gulf war started, last January, Thompson
was at their house in London (purchased after Henry V,
on the very same block where she grew up) and Branagh was in
L.A. "He thought, If the world is gonna blow up, I'd like
to be on the same side as my wife," Thompson says, and he
flew over to bring her back with him. For her twenty-eighth birthday
(she's now 32), Branagh left a series of notes in her flat that
led to a small pile of presents. "The last envelope was
'Go and look in the airing cupboard,' and Ken was in the airing
cupboard. A good present, that," she says.
"Em's and my relationship
is and always has been much more than just a surface attraction,"
Branagh says. "It always felt like something strangely more...something.
I find it a totally, utterly mysterious and wonderful thing that
I can barely talk about coherently."
But what works at home may not
always work onscreen. Several people associated with Dead
Again express some reservations about the robust and straightforward
Thompson's playing a frail mystery woman who doesn't speak for
half the movie. They suggest that someone more mesmerizingly
beautiful--Michelle Pfeiffer, say--would have better served the
role. Indeed, neither Thompson nor Branagh looks authentically
American up there onscreen as Grace and Mike, despite their crack
accents. They both come off better as Margaret and Roman, the
"Ken pulls back from the
sex and violence," says one insider. "He's shooting
his wife, so it's more chaste than it could have been."
Branagh bristles at the suggestion. "Someone else wrote
that part, and Emma's her own person. The last thing she'd want
is to be molded by me into something. Anyway, if there had been
some sort of explicit sex scene in this, I suspect that we would
not have been drawn to it. I think there's a double frisson there
that is nobody's business but ours. And I think she's a terrific
actress, really as good I've ever worked with. Knowing that seems
to sort everything out. 'Cause I think, Well, who would you rather
be working with? Somebody less talented?"
So far, Branagh's only taste
of superstardom came one night in Chicago, on Renaissance's world
tour. At a party after the play, "a great crowd of people
completely enveloped me. I must have shaken hands with everyone
in that room," he says. "Finally, I grabbed my wife
and said 'Look as though we're having a very, very intense conversation
that cannot be interfered with.' I saw someone coming, so I started
saying very loudly 'She's got cancer. It's going to horrible.'
I thought, That's got to put them off. I was very serious, I'd
gotten to 'She's going to die' and suddenly [flat Chicago
accent] 'Excuse me, Mr. Branagh, would you mind signing this?
I want you to meet my nephew, he's such a fan of yours.' Completely
impervious. I though, Oh, well, and went along.
"I found the attention startling,"
he continues, "I don't mind meeting new people at all, but
when it's as if people are touching the hem of your garment,
it's not really satisfying. You are a thing to them, rather than
a person. And they become that as well." So how does he
escape the Hollywood star-making system? "Directing is engrossing;
you don't have time to get sidetracked by that sense of being
in a dream factory. Which it is if, like me, you've watched a
lot of films as a kid and were very intrigued by it all. I can't
help but be shocked every time I drive through the front gates
of Paramount; I keep thinking they're going to not let me in
Branagh's Oscar night, in 1989,
when he was a best-director and best-actor nominee, sounds like
a movie in itself. "I took Johnny Sessions, and we ended
up at the My Left Foot party until around four o'clock.
My last conversation was a very drunken with Steve Soderbergh,
another first-timer, talking about 'our next movie.'" Branagh
flew to Tokyo at eight the same morning, arrived at three in
the afternoon and was doing Edgar in King Lear at seven
that night. "John and I were kind of hysterical on the way
back, in post-Oscar euphoria," Branagh says. "I had
introduced him to Steve Martin while we were all peeing, lined
up at the trough. You couldn't shake hands. But that's the kind
of evening it was; you're so excited that you socialize in mid-pee."
"We felt a bit self-conscious
singing 'Happy Birthday' to Akira Kurosawa," Sessions says.
"It's not as if we play golf together or anything."
Sessions lauds his friend for
returning to England after Dead Again, for not staying
to "wallow in the vague romance of Hollywood. He's not getting
his face stretched every day, lying there with cucumbers on his
eyes for six hours, building a swimming pool shaped like a foot.
He's got a game plan. He's always known the sort of contribution,
as an actor and a director, that he wanted to make."
Still, it's likely that Branagh
will have to choose between being a theater impresario, a film
director or a lead actor. Taking a sip of tea, he acknowledges
the conflicts: "Sometimes it frustrates me enormously. Playing
Edgar in Lear, my performance suffered from the work load
I had around it. That doesn't mean I was particularly bad, just
that I disappointed myself and was aware of paying a price. It
was all such a whiz from the moment I left the RSC with the notion
of forming a theater company, a crazy race to keep things afloat,
moneywise. At one point, I was on the verge of selling my flat,
that's what it had come to. That's why I'm going to stop for
a while and consider things more carefully."
He wants to keep Renaissance
small, twenty or twenty-five people--the size of William Shakespeare's
own company--and to do a slightly more commercial version of
what Ingmar Bergman did, directing theater in his native land
and making movies, using the same people in both. "God,
how I would love a fairy godmother to wave her wand over our
coffers and say 'Look, we'll give you this amount of money every
year; do a play, do a film. You are not forced to make a profit.
Just do things to entertain people,'" Branagh says. "That's
my idea of heaven. And being allowed to get on with it."
He sets his cup down and laughs.
"Then again, maybe Dead Again will kill me. Maybe
it'll be a terrible disaster, and I'll take every other career
down with me; Paramount will go bankrupt; it'll be 'Kenneth's
Gate.' The choices will be much simpler then."
Unlikely. Despite its flaws,
Dead Again is a well-crafted, funny thriller that keeps
you guessing--and does so without the sex, schmaltz, violence
and techno-hardware that fuels most summer fare. At a June screening
on the paramount lot, Branagh paced outside the theater, hissing
a speech to himself while the cast, the crew and studio executives
filed in to see his final cut. His entrance was typical: Bounding
down the aisle to fond applause, he begged for a little extra,
then asked for quiet. "What you are about to see is the,
um, exciting combination of the film you read, the film you shot
and the film we edited," he said. "I've been given
lots of good ideas--all of which I will take credit for--and
I've made the inevitable cuts, which I will also take credit
for. I stand by every frame. I'm very proud and hope you'll feel
the same way." Judging from the line waiting to clap him
on the back two hours later, they did.
Despite his talk of rest, Branagh
already has ideas for a follow-up film, either Thomas Hardy or
Shakespeare. There's always Hamlet. (He hasn't seen Gibson's,
but when the time is right, he'll go to "nick Mel's best
bits.") "I think people get wound up in Hamletian ways
about fucking freeways, about bills, mortgages, bereavements,"
Branagh says. "One of the reasons I am so grateful to be
involved in these works is that often a part of why we feel uncomfortable
with the human condition is our lack of language. What these
plays give us is a wonderful cathartic release into an expression
of these things. It gives me little bursts of spiritual solace
that I don't get from any religion. I don't mean one goes and
prays at the mantel of Sir William but just that it's a practical
faith. When you're doing your own Hamletizing, his irony is so
life-affirming. At base camp, he says we're such a fucking grubby
mottled bunch of humanity. I find that comforting and inspiring."
And just imagine the entrance
he could pull off at Denmark.
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