Kenneth Branagh on Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3, 12 September 2011, with Philip Dodd
Thanks Hester, for the transcription
PD: He's been championed by Prince Charles, yet seems not entirely at ease with himself or with England. He shares with Orson Welles the distinction of being Oscar-nominated as writer, director and actor, yet seems as at home with making a film about the comic hero Thor as with Shakespeare on film. Initially hailed as a wunderkind, he formed his own Renaissance Theatre Company when he was twenty-six. He then suffered the slings and arrows of media deflation. My guest in extended conversation this evening is Kenneth Branagh – actor, writer and director. Born in 1960 in Belfast and raised in Reading, he came properly to fame as a Shakespearean actor, performing as Henry V and making the 1989 Oscar-nominated film of the play. He may not have wanted the Laurence Olivier comparison, but the filming of 'Henry V' (Olivier had done it in 1944) cemented a comparison that's still difficult to shake. It's not likely to go away any time soon, since he's just finished playing Olivier in a forthcoming film, 'My Week with Marilyn' (Monroe that is). He's a properly promiscuous performer, not only having recently directed 'Thor' and acting in the Olivier film, but performing in a forthcoming theatre piece, 'The Painkiller'; starring in a Radio 4 adaptation of Vasily Grossman's 'Life and Fate'; and shooting another television series of 'Wallander', where he plays the Swedish detective – melancholy, middle-aged, alienated – in my view, the best performance of Branagh's career. But in all this whirlwind of performance, where's the man himself? Well, when we met earlier at the Twickenham film studios, near to where he's rehearsing for play 'The Painkiller', which will open soon at the revamped Belfast Lyric Theatre, I began by asking him how the native felt returning home.
KB: When I go back to Belfast, I somehow flash back to being a small person, physically small person, looking at a city which seemed to me to be vast and big, that I remember for both big buildings and the hills beyond. And I remember Belfast (it may sound strange) as a place of freedom.
PD: Turner once said that he tried to find the same stream that he'd painted the year before and he couldn't, 'cause there's no way back.
KB: That resonates very strongly with me, but there's some sense, I don't know, paying respect in some way. I think I was brought up with a sense of honouring your fathers, your forefathers - literally honouring your father and your mother, and, I don't know, somehow honouring the place you were born. Because also Belfast also carried for me, really, in a way, through my entire life (I'm now fifty) the strongest sense of personal identity; the strongest sense of knowing who I was and where I belonged. And this was born out of a very large extended family, a tight-knit community, where even as a kid, I seemed to know everyone. Certainly, everybody seemed to know me and that was true of everybody else who lived around the place. And so memories from that time are so vivid and clear and they are absolutely underpinned by a sense of security.
PD: It's an odd place, Belfast. Even in the early 60s before you left, ‘cause it was a place of high-flown rhetoric. I remember interviewing for this programme Iain Paisley. So there was that kind of rhetoric and there's the Nationalist rhetoric. What's interesting about you recently – at least from where I sit, and I've only read 'The Painkiller' – there's something wonderfully deflationary about you recently. [KB laughs] By that I mean, you're playing parts – here you're playing, without giving the plot away too much, this man who's there to kill somebody. And he's endlessly distracted by everyday life. And, of course, Thor is a film about a guy who falls to earth who wants to keep speaking comic book Norse-God speech, but has to cope with US everyday life. So there's a way in which I understand your going back to Belfast, but there's something kind of mock heroic about what you've been doing recently.
KB: I like – and I think it's been part of quite a lot of the work I've done – a look at what constitutes heroism. And sometimes I've worked in venues and in literature where the heroic is, perhaps, in a very conventional sense, provided by grand language, romantic scenes – you know, large epic stories. There is a sort of search, I feel, that goes on (maybe, in some of the work I do, but I feel as though I'm responding to what I see) for a search for heroism in life these days. But, perhaps, a modern version of it must contain some deconstruction. It must mock; it must satirise; it must, actually, in a way make it somehow... make it a different kind of heroism through humour and somehow through, strangely, making it more human-sized. So the heroic dimensions are different.
PD: Is that what drew you to 'Thor'?
KB: There is a sense in which the film and the book asks what is a hero, and where, in the comic books, with Stanley and Jack Kirby particularly, they, essentially, set up very robust and overtly masculine figures, to often then mock them, with a language that Stanley said worked at its best when it was a kind of comic version of a fusion between Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible. So they love their 'thees' and 'thous' and 'thusly', 'hencely'. They loved doing all that and it had a twinkle in its eye. And it was fun. And I think handling that kind of material with affection, understanding a bit the way one is drawn to the lives of the rich and famous, the heroic, even if, in a heightened universe, they're running the Rainbow Bridge or the world of Asgard and they're in the Nine Realms. But, nevertheless, that could be a great big politician with responsibilities and we like to know what goes on behind closed doors. And if it's Thor yelling at Odin, because he hasn't been given enough responsibility, that starts to make it a bit more human. And when he gets down to Earth in the film – and that's absolutely the piece I started with in terms of my connection to the material and to Marvel Studio – my feeling when I got the gig was, we must have a large section... maybe even half of this movie must be on Earth and it must be about the fish out of water. It must be about the god being deconstructed.
PD: And is that also true with 'Wallander', 'cause, as I watched it (and I think you're very fine indeed as Wallander) I kept thinking, he couldn't have done this earlier. This kind of non-heroic stuff comes with middle age.
KB: I think you're probably right. Not only does it come with the passing of the years...
PD: You put it in such a literary way. ‘The passing of the years’. They eat away at you and knock you about and break your legs.
KB: [Laughing] Well, that's a very beautiful and robustly poetic way of putting it. I think with something like 'Wallander', part of what caught my attention with the books was, I don't know, the direct ease and access that I felt I had (and many people clearly had as well) to a character who was obsessing about hairlines and waistlines, alongside the philosophical questions. And the run to chase the dog suddenly cost more effort and probably entailed a little indignity and humiliation. And I sit with you today, having done a run through of the play The Painkiller, in a fit of adrenalin-fuelled comic acting. I threw myself down in a dead faint onto the floor, which I thought was funny, but failed to do it properly and completely stubbed my finger, bent it backwards, so I howled in pain, killed the laugh, of course, and regretted the fact that I was doing this at fifty years old and that I needed to warm up a bit more than I probably had.
PD: I always think your comic self has been much underestimated.
KB: Well, do you know, one of the few times I did a really self-centring thing when I left drama school was to determine - and I don't know where this intuition came from, but with my then agent at 21 saying, ‘The one thing that I won't do and won't go up for and won't audition for are situation comedies’. And she said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because I think I might turn out to be good at them, and, if I do one really well, I don't think I'll ever get out of it’. And I had a strong instinct that that might be possible. It may sound rather vainglorious.
PD: The first thing to do. ‘I think I'm going to really good at this, so I'm not going to go near it’!
KB: Well, you're talking a little bit about the heroic, and maybe the way that some of that world has made up part of what I do. I also, I suppose, thought, I'm not necessarily Number 1 choice for some of these heroic roles and this heroic material. I'll need to tell people that they might want to think about me in that way, because I don't want to give them an excuse to think about me in the comic way, if it stops me doing the other.
PD: There's more defensiveness in you than I realised.
KB: Less defensiveness, but more... I suppose you'd call that an intuition about how and where one wanted to work and how it just might be easy to fall into something where my choices might be limited.
PD: I want to come back to 'My Week with Marilyn' later, the film where you're playing Olivier, who defined a certain kind of heroism, and you had the masochism [KB laughs] to go where Olivier often went. And I suppose 'Henry V' is the classic example, the film version, where inevitably, whether you like it or not, where you lived in the shadow of the ’44 Olivier... one of the things I thought you did with that was precisely to chasten the jingoistic or nationalistic dimensions there. Even 'Henry V', which everybody thinks is this great heroic paean to England, something you struck me as uneasy with.
KB: Yes. In playing the role in the theatre felt the strongest connection with language in the play that expressed the man of doubt. It seemed to be in the play. There are many readings available of such a play, and the play within the play, if you like, a secret play, was, if not an anti-war play, at least one that had Henry V really voicing explicitly the arguments at least, if not actual doubts and concerns, about the legitimacy of whether the claim to the throne of France was real in the first place. But then, even if it was confused, and sometimes it was, dramatically and interestingly around areas like the death of the boys, where, depending on your point of view, you might say he affects a deep hurt about the French ‘cheating’, when it might be argued that, historically, the opposite might be true, but it seemed, anyway, the complexity of the play was stronger. That was the evidence that I experienced in doing it in the theatre. That's what I wanted to bring to the film version.
PD: A man of doubt. It's interesting, because we began this conversation with you saying you had a very secure sense of identity from Belfast. But I always think you've suffered, like many have suffered, from being the Englishman in Ireland and the Irishman in England, and at that level, I always think the strength and the complexity of your position comes from actually not belonging. Hence your concern about quite what counts as heroism, 'cause you can't be Olivier – and I know you never did want to be, but that's the mantle people gave you, but it's hard to have that role if belonging is a very complicated thing. The one thing Olivier did was belong.
KB: Well, in a way, yes and no, because I believe on one level, he did, in as much as he was a boy from Surrey, a church boy, and went through a particular kind of theatrical progression and created a theatrical dynasty, but in the sense that he was an actor and not an intellectual and not an Oxbridge creature, he was to some extent, in the way actors are in that sense outsiders. And so he was a creation - he was partly a creation of himself - a wonderful creation, which he lived up to wonderfully. But I agree with you that, even without trying to be an amateur psychologist with myself, it is true that I left Belfast at nine with a tremendous sense of security and who I was and that was very, very, very profoundly shaken by being not in a massive extended family of relatives and neighbours and friends, but in a tiny nuclear family, talking differently in a slightly more middle-class world having been in a clearly working-class world, where you knew all the rules, and there was no problem about knowing what an avocado was or what spaghetti was – it sounds ridiculous it sounds like a Monty Python sketch, but these were factors. The whole class thing came and hit us. Place settings! A whole series of things to brand on the imagination of an adolescent.
PD: Did it unnerve you?
KB: Yes, most certainly. You didn't know what you were supposed to be; you didn't know how you were supposed to talk; you didn't really know where you fitted in. And also it was quite clear that my mother was very, very depressed when we came over and found it very, very difficult. That was a very difficult atmosphere that one didn't even realise one was living through until much, much later, when she spoke of how very, very difficult it was. So there was a sense of isolation and that home in itself, away from Belfast, was a sort of escape and a bit of a cheat. And then you'd go to school and that would be another, sort of, performance, where, gradually, you're acquiring this English accent, because, frankly, people didn't understand a word.
PD: You belong at one level to a long tradition of these ‘provincial boys’ who come to town. [KB laughs]. Okay, three Welsh guys – Stanley Baker, Hopkins, Burton – Peter O’Toole from Ireland. But you lack (at least to my knowledge, you lack) their cussedness and their anger about the metropolis.
KB: What you talk about is part of a generation ahead of mine, where alcohol played an enormous part, where machismo played an enormous part, and where the idea of what you might call a working-class hero, an angry working-class hero, somehow exploding the part of the world that they occupied, in this case the classical theatre, with people like Tony Hopkins and O’Toole drinking heavily and walking out of theatres and generally being madcaps and provocateurs, as part of what went with their brilliance. I've never been much of a drinker. And also, frankly, I think this from my father, I think I have the curse, the gift, the burden of some semblance of politeness or civilisation of some kind, that on the whole wants to be nice.
PD: I think it was Joyce who said that, after Shaw (two Irish guys), ‘I will not come to England and be jester at the court of the English’. There is a kind of role for those ‘Celtic’ fringes and actors have been like that.
PD: So you didn't feel you had to resist it: it was just never an option for you?
KB: Yeah, it was also... In some cases my view of some of that stuff was that it was a pose – a pose that, in some cases, produced a narrowness of work; that had a kind of chip on its shoulder that would sometimes make for very fiery, very definite work, but sometimes very limited work. And I also sometimes would look at the careers of some of those who might have expressed that and feel that there might have been something missing as well. That there might have been a price to pay that wasn't one that I wished to pay.
PD: You make it sound beautifully rational. [KB laughs] And my view about life is that we're all volunteered for stuff as well as volunteer. In other words, you're right. It's partly a generational matter, isn't it? I think you're right. You were born in ’60, so you're too young to have been part of that ‘soixante-huit art’ generation; you're the wrong place to have been a punk. So you had to find other models.
KB: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
PD: Olivier wasn't a model, because you weren't a boy from Surrey and you didn't pass through... So what I'm interested in is, ‘Where the heck did your models come from?’
KB: Well, the model, I think, became ‘the theatrical tradition’: the great theatrical tradition, as discovered in books and then discovered in magazines about the theatre. It became the tradition that included roisterers like Keene from way back and all the great actor/managers. And it became the idea, first of all, which was revolutionary from this boy from Belfast/Reading, of being an actor. And then being, once one tasted a little bit in the amateur world and at school, of being a classical actor – somebody who, perhaps, aspired to be in the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre or play classical roles in a repertory companies and then, perhaps, come to London. There was a model there. It was right at the end of its shelf life, where people would leave drams schools, have three years in representative, have their first show in London: these were the careers of the McKellans and the Jacobis and that generation. And they'd end up with Tony Hopkins and everybody else in the National Theatre of Laurence Olivier. And then they'd go on to be film stars. But the idea of the model of the classical theatre was the classical actor in the classical theatre. And so the names that struck me, when I was sixteen and starting to delve into my piles of Plays and Players, realising that a light had gone on and now I'd found something I was passionate about, enthusiastic about, was to read through the list of spear-holders in Olivier's Othello and see the name ‘Michael Gambon’. So that’s my model. I'm happy (it didn't work out this way), I'm happy to stand at the back for a long time, and then, maybe, I get a chance to be Cassio in Othello and then, maybe, I get a chance to be... That, it seems to me, could be an honourable life.
PD: So some sort of apprenticeship/meritocratic route?
KB: I would say so. Yeah. I would say so. I think that's a fair characterisation of it. A life in the theatre. And sometimes I have felt that I was born out of my time and I'd have been much happier, much more fitted, a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago for that kind of a life.
PD: Yes and no is the answer to that, because the other thing about you is you’re a child of the television age. It's partly why you, I think, act so well on television: you understand its grammar. It's why when you do Shakespeare films, you often fill them - fill them is the wrong word, but you often have television actors. You understand the intimacy, don’t you, that comes from television?
KB: Well, I certainly – and I don't know if you have vivid memories of this, whether you watched much television as you were growing up – but this is where big images were stamped on my memory and it was things like (and I remember it so clearly) Sunday night, Belfast. This would have been 1969. Maybe I'm misremembering it: maybe it was Reading. But I remember it as Belfast and it was my dad reading the paper and my mum knitting and me sitting watching Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet. This is Sunday night. Nine o’clock on a Sunday night in Belfast. They let me stay up. And why? They weren't watching it. And I was watching. And there was this fellow called John Gielgud who was playing the Ghost. And Richard Chamberlain we knew. I think maybe we were watching, because she knew him from Dr Kildare. But there it was in the corner of the room. This thing that we would never have gone anywhere near - never have read, never gone to a theatre to see - arrived in our lives via the little box in the corner. And so did many other things: the films of Laurel and Hardy, matinees of sword and sandals epics that might have sown a few seeds for later on. And watching the matinees on BBC2 on a Saturday afternoon when they went out shopping and my brother was left in charge of me.
PD: If that's the case, then that partly helps to explain what happened to you in the 80s with the Renaissance Theatre Company. It is that old, to use the word in all respectful ways, that ‘welfare culture responsibility’ to get the stuff out as widely as possible, 'cause some of the loftier critics disliked some of the things you did – in Henry V adding a back story.
KB: Yes. Yes. Yes.
PD: But of course the reason they partly disliked it is because they already knew the back-story and I take it one of the things you were saying is ‘I'm doing it for an audience who doesn't know the back story...
PD: ... of English history. And therefore I've got to tell them’, which to the purist is ‘really not proper, Mr Branagh’.
KB: I suppose not. I've always tried to think about what's the audience I'm playing to. Yes, I like as you say to ‘get the stuff out there’. I remember Martin Scorsese saying about his ambitions for film, he just wants enough people to see this film to be allowed to make the one after that. And sometimes artists have as crude an ambition as that. I felt that had the best chance of happening if people who had never seen a Shakespeare play or knew anything about Henry V could come in and understand that Henry V knew Falstaff. 'Henry V', the play, doesn't give you that: two masterpieces prior to that do, but you need to know them, and a new cinema audience that we hoped we might be able to touch didn't.
PD: Let me add another aspect to it, 'cause I like your theatre tradition, but I only like it so far, because you're also a child of your time, which means you're growing up in the 70s and 80s, when a certain kind of entrepreneurialism becomes the order of the day. So you're that point (if I turn you into an object of history now) where that welfare culture tradition also meets entrepreneurialism, because you didn't mind starting up a company. In fact, I get the sense you quite liked that entrepreneurial dimension of running the Renaissance.
KB: I did. And I'll tell you for a couple of reasons, and some of which I find stick with me today. One of the things I was proud of doing what we did was because of the way we managed we paid actors, and we paid actors, stage management and everybody in the company the same wage. And we paid a wage in 1988 and again in 1990, when we were on tour that is still higher than most regional repertory companies are able to pay today, and, indeed, in some cases, the national theatres. And when we went into, for instance the West End for our season that was directed by Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi and Geraldine McEwan at the Phoenix Theatre, we were able to make a profit and divide the profit equally amongst all the people who were in...
PD: Did you vote for Thatcher?
KB: No. And it was funny to be cast as one of Thatcher's children, when, in fact (this is all with a small s and a small p) it was run on much more a socialist model. Although, to be honest, of course I cannot deny for a second that I was the benign dictator at the centre of that, who chose the plays and played the big parts...
PD: Were you benign?
KB: Well, of course, I'm going to say benign. We split the profits at the end, so to the extent that that represents a benign quality, yes. I would say so. I like people and I wanted people to be happy and I felt that I recognised to some extent, in as much as I could at that age, ways in which... and here's where I'll answer your question, did I enjoy doing it. Yes. Did I enjoy bringing a group of people together and working out how a creative group of artists could get on? And, frankly, money is important. If you want people to go out on tour and they've got two kids, you need to pay 'em properly, so that's the first thing to do. And then the way in which you work. It also made me understand that it was so intensive and so demanding that it would only really last, span, one creative period. It turned out to be seven years, and I think that's, probably, a natural period for these things, where the relationships and the demand of time, creative energy etc. had run its course. And the choice then was either get corporate, get a building, or do something different.
PD: But in that sense you were - and I don’t mean Thatcherite in the woman who stole milk from children, but I mean Thatcherite in so far as she appealed over the head of the elite...
KB: That's interesting, yeah.
PD: ... and in that sense, I think that's one of the things that you were doing at that stage. 'Cause you got a lot of bruises for what you did from the critical fraternity.
KB: Sure. Sure.
PD: But in that level, you were an 80s child. You appealed over that settled theatrical consensus to a new audience... you didn't mind pulling in Stephen Fry or Hugh Laurie for the films or whatever. 'Cause, actually, that was more important to you than pleasing the powers-that-be.
KB: I jumped committees. I was impatient with certain kinds of processes. And it seemed to me that it could be simpler. Where I earned some money in some well-paid job, it was a matter of no consequence to me to put all that money into... for instance, the first couple of plays we did with the Renaissance Company, both of which lost all their money. For me it's easy come, easy go. The one, of course, must go to the other. And one did that partly to circumvent the idea of needing to be bound by any bureaucracy or joining a club. I wasn't anti it particularly, but just sometimes...
PD: The Arts Council world.
KB: Well, yes, I think I can say now, there was a sense sometimes of a certain amount of politicking, a bit of who you know, and a little bit of that going on, that I just didn't have any time for and I just wasn't interested in and wasn't particularly good at it. I didn't particularly want to antagonise people, but we just wanted to do the work. I wanted to get on with the work.
PD: What excited you about speaking Shakespeare?
KB: I saw 'King Lear', 1977, Donald Sinden in a Trevor Nunn production with Michael Williams as the Fool. And I sat down to watch it. It had real rain in the production – I remember that excited me about Shakespeare. I opened the programme and scorched in black in a white text was ‘when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools’. That sent a shiver down my spine. I didn't really know why. It seemed, perhaps, like the remark of someone much older or born out of different kind of experience than I, at sixteen, could possibly have, and yet it stirred me. I wanted to say it out loud. It seemed to activate something in me - whatever it is that poetry does to people. That production I found very thrilling. I had a terrific English teacher and I found that, somehow, reading and hearing Shakespeare, it sang for me; it transported me; it acted like music on my senses; I found myself weeping easily at it and I found myself captivated when in the theatre, I heard it spoken, where at one and the same time, both things occurred. I believed I was hearing humanity and reality and a real, genuine living person and also sometimes the voice of some great ageless poet or sage, whose thoughts, whose phrasing, whose expression illuminated the human condition for me. It made me feel better about it. And also most of the time, I didn't know why it was doing it, but I left excited from a theatre, or even from just reading it.
PD: It's interesting, because we began by talking about heroism and that a modern hero has to have deflation built into them. And, of course, to be thrilled by Lear is to be thrilled by a man who, in a sense, can tell the worst jokes on earth. ‘I remember thine eyes well enough’, he says to the blind Gloucester. But there are certain things that can't be democratised and one of them is Shakespeare’s great speeches. But you, by impulse, are somebody who wishes to democratise things.
KB: Yes, I am, I think. I wish to share them. I wish to have them open. I wish to have people have the possibility of being excited by not just Shakespeare but by the arts in general. I feel as though, to go back to the Belfast of it all, that there was a sense of a connection to words, painting, song, music, dance, movement that was much closer to the general everyday experience of people, and that that in itself had quite profound, soulful, therapeutic effects. And I see it less these days and I wish it more for people.
PD: Why do you think it is less?
KB: Maybe specialisation, technological revolution, the omnipotence of facts, omnipotence of information, repression of poetry, poetry hard to find in the everyday, attention spans resisting the long thought, resisting the detailed expression, wanting the economic ‘twitified’ reduction of the message, sometimes beautiful in its own way, but that harder to find poetry has not quite emerged in my view from the current social media. And it sends me back to a meditation; it sends me back to trying to focus my attention. I was much more of a multi-tasker when I was a younger man in the mid-80s and pre-internet. I was happy to do a thousand things at once. And now, not in some curmudgeonly, crusty fashion...
PD: Although there are moments when you begin to sound curmudgeonly.
KB: Well, then, that's good. Then that's good. I find that I want to enjoy every single moment of my life and sometimes that means those moments can be very long with a long book or a long poem or a long piece of music.
PD: But isn't it also the case that when you were running Renaissance, you were multi-tasking, you were at your most publicly visible. By circumventing the bureaucracy and by jumping over it, of course, you exposed yourself. And there was a time in which ‘Get Branagh’ looked like a reasonable journalistic career. [KB laughs]. It can't have been pleasant.
KB: It was not pleasant, and I remember being surprised reading at the beginning of a radio review for our Hamlet, and it was by a journalist, a smart journalist, who began his review by saying, ‘Where were you the day the media decided to turn on Kenneth Branagh?’ Quite happily, chirpily, acknowledging that, for what it was worth, it was at least worth being comic about such a fictitious moment. But, yeah, no, it was bloody difficult, to be perfectly honest, and not always comfortable, but I regarded...
PD: Did you think you deserved it?
KB: Deserve, schmerve, you know. I was doing things that I wanted to do. You're absolutely right, I was very visible and I understood, right, if you're in the arena, that's what happens. Sometimes I could have done with, perhaps, picking up that lesson in other ways. But some of the things that I'm proud of in the thirty years now that I will have been doing this, were moments like in the wake of a critical thrashing for our film of Frankenstein, I remember at the end of six weeks going around the world to universally negative and aggressive, often vicious, personal criticism and talking to everybody who wanted to talk to me about it and taking it on the chin and getting up. And I was so chuffed with myself. I was beaten, bashed and battered – really tough to hear that kind of stuff from Stockholm to Bangkok, but I remember at the end of six weeks, thinking, well, it was just a film that some people didn't like and they said some tough things. I'm still here. And I started my next job two weeks later. On we go.
PD: The next thing you've got out is 'My Week with Marilyn', where you're playing Laurence Olivier, in a film that explores the making of a film that he, Olivier, made with Marilyn Monroe called 'The Prince and the Showgirl'. And I remember Norman Mailer saying that Olivier simply misunderstood film acting, 'cause he turned to Marilyn one day and he said, ‘ Act sexy, Marilyn’, not understanding, according to Mailer, that you don’t act on film but you ‘be’ on film. Do you think you've mastered stage/television/film acting better?
KB: No mastering, but I think I'm better at it, yeah. I think I am in the process of trying to understand the way to reduce effect and take things away and find a way to ‘be’. You're absolutely right to describe that as the aim for film acting. I think Olivier speaks very candidly in his written accounts of the Marilyn experience. He also gave a very interesting interview to Michael Parkinson in the late 60s, where he spoke about it – again, very, very honest. And I think he was also philosophical and resigned to the fact that she had (perhaps in a way that was almost immediately beneficial) shown him a certain way to act on film, because his next great and, as I think absolutely magnificent performance on film was as Archie Rice in 'The Entertainer'. It was just one year later, just a few months after the film was completed, he received the script for The Entertainer and he did. It was a part he said was amongst his favourites. He did it for a long time in the theatre and he was really breathtakingly real. He was ‘be-ing’ all over that screen, and I think Marilyn (who knows) might have had quite a lot to do with that.
PD: One of the issues about you: tragic characters always want to come to the end quickly – Romeo, Macbeth. In the Grossman that's going to be on Radio 4, he's one of those figures who keeps going. It seems to me that there's something in you of the man – you're more Horatio than Hamlet. You want to stay on the stage: you don't want to exit.
KB: [Laughs] Do you know, I have a great admiration for effort in sporting heroes. I have a great admiration for the sheer effort, the endurance. I played Shackleton: it's a story of huge endurance. Victor Strum in 'Life and Fate' is someone who though troubled and in part marked by crisis of conscience, issues of conscience, hangs on in there, partly because he is, to some extent, bound by his gift, his scientific gift. He is a brilliant man. He must be true, perhaps beyond all, to this God-given gift, in his case, for science. It's also sometimes a rationale for personal betrayal, but underneath it all, if one takes away the self-righteousness of trying to judge him by some other standard and just looks at what it would take to, perhaps, hang on in Soviet Russia in 1942 and make a contribution to your family and be there, to some extent, for your family and for your work. I think that kind of character, as flawed as he is, as human as he is, as heroic and unheroic at one and the same time as he is, is a very fascinating character to play.
I didn't want to be a hero. I just wanted to struggle every day to try and be a decent man. Struggle for the right to be kind even, especially because I would fail, again and again. I took out my wallet and looked at the last letter from my mother, written as she knew they were coming to kill her. And I thought, maybe I will have enough strength. Your strength, Mother.PD: Let me put this to you and then you can say I'm wrong. The thing you did first for the Renaissance was 'Public Enemy', something you wrote. Here's James Cagney, a neurotic, Irish by descent figure, on whom 'Public Enemy', the film, is the main actor. You play a kind of Walter Mitty kind of thing. It always seems to me there is always this controlled, ordered, English Kenneth Branagh, but there's another one, which is the one of 'Thor' and the one of 'Frankenstein' – a much darker, Gothic guy, but you keep him under...
KB: [Laughs] ... keep him on the leash. Well, one thing that I've tried to pursue in the work that I do sprang from a note that came from a very brilliant director, David Williams. He played the role of Vaughn Cunningham in Julian Mitchell’s play, 'Another Country' and, like Hugh Cruttwell, he was a great mentor of mine. He came to see me play Romeo in 'Romeo and Juliet', a production that I had financed and then I had directed. I didn't direct it very well and I wasn't terribly good as Romeo, but I gave it a go and I was very keen to see his reaction. And he said, ‘Very, very, very, very, very good.’ I said, ‘What does that mean? That means you didn't like it, doesn't it?’ He said, ‘No, no, no. It was very, very good – not wild enough’. It's a remark that's stuck with me and every now and again, in a performance, in a line, in a film, I hear David Williams saying, ‘Not wild enough’, and then I let the Gothic, Irish roisterer out. And sometimes that produces a few effects.
PD: But he is still there?
KB: Oh, yes.
PD: Why do you hide him so much?
KB: [Laughs] I think, inevitably, some sort of snake through a career, which, as you say, has gone through various kinds of phases - a few bruises here and there, a few highs and lows... And then I think, for me, there's almost a surprise in watching and experiencing the process. I'll give you an example of playing Wallander. I find Wallander, a piece of television drama on a Sunday night that is in a genre, the procedural crime drama. I find playing that role requires me to take off an entire layer of skin, so that the entire process of filming, I am an anxious, nervous wreck. I worry; I don’t sleep very much; I physically shake; I weep at the drop of a hat. And my wife worries on my behalf. I have bad dreams. I would say that that wild, Irish boy is there allowing that to happen. It's not very comfortable. To talk about it sounds a bit pretentious. ‘So what?’ All I would say is that, for me, in as far as I can observe it, that's that part of my character coming out, 'cause it's sometimes dark. It's certainly very uncomfortable. It's very vulnerable. It's raw - very, very, raw. But I put myself in that position, 'cause that's what I read in the books and that's what I think screen acting requires. You almost have to keep yourself unready. Here is practically what I do. We do my close-ups first and we shoot them without rehearsal, so that I, literally, am not ready. I might have learnt lines: of course I've learnt lines and we might have done a rough camera blocking, but we make sure we shoot before it's actually ready, so it means that when shooting one is, practically, a nervous wreck. And so you don't know when the next line is going to come; you're not sure what you're going to say. And so your absolute determination is to ‘be’, to listen and respond and to be as honest as possible. And you have to get comfortable with being deeply, deeply uncomfortable. And I would say that that is the development in the acting. So there is the comfortable English, Reading boy out the door and the raw Irish boy is there, feeling that pain, not being comfortable, but realising... and also being glad of the privilege of saying, ‘Well, I feel as though I have some connection with this; I think this is what the character demands; I think this is what Henning Mankell wrote; this is what I see and hear and respond to; and this is what I'm going to try and embody. I'm going to try and be the vessel for this’. And I would say that that's a development that is unusual to me.
PD: So the upbeat Reading boy just masks, like in all Calvinists [KB laughs], a kind of dark and a troubled boy.
KB: Well, maybe a feature of a life where something that begins with such a strong sense of identity and belonging, where a Belfast boy in a large Belfast family knows who he is, is ripped asunder from that and thrown into a different kind of landscape, means that across, in this case, four decades, it's a very interesting journey to come back and find out who you are. And maybe through some of the work I'm doing right now that's emerging. Maybe it's a fusion of all of these things or maybe it's a return to something that was there in Belfast all those years ago that was more certain and that is, I don't know, breaking through something. What I would say is that, at 50, the work that I do for me provides more excitement and discovery than it ever has done, so that I feel, strangely, like I'm starting all over again with the gift of experience – no certainty, no assurance, but the gift of experience – and sometimes the courage to just have a go and be raw, vulnerable, stupid, make mistakes, and know also that you can, if you can just put one foot in front of the other, get up and, maybe, in this curious world of performing art that we do, make that breakthrough that changes your talent, maybe changes your life and, maybe, through great literature or great words or great images, maybe changes the life of other people.