The Man Who Would Be King: Rising Star Kenneth Branagh
People, May 26, 1991
by Kim Hubbard
Kenneth Branagh wants it known
that he is tired of being called the new Laurence Olivier. Sure,
he has the young Olivier's presence and promise, and, yes, they
both directed and starred in popular film versions of Shakespeare's
Henry V--Olivier in 1944, Branagh just last year. Still,
says Branagh, "the comparison is ludicrous to me--so much
puff. I find it extraordinary that people can compare a man who
produced a lifetime's work with someone still under 30."
In other words, we haven't seen
anything yet. For 29-year-old Branagh is intent on greatness.
In addition to his triumph with Henry V, which is still
playing across the U.S., he has already forsaken Royal Shakespeare
Company stardom to form his own successful acting troupe. He
has written an autobiography. His current project--directing
and acting in productions of King Lear and A Midsummer
Night's Dream at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum--caused so much
excitement that advanced ticket sales set a record. And Branagh
is still planning ahead. "Think of the surprises I might
be laying on people in the next threescore and 10," says
Branagh, who will first take the plays on a world tour. "If
they wait long enough, I'll play the dark parts. I'll do the
cripple. I'll do the detective and the sports star. A lifetime
seems such a short time in which to do it all."
Such confidence--combined with
success--tends to set one up for criticism. And indeed the British
press, which invoked the name of Olivier in the first place,
has recently taken to Branagh-bashing, upbraiding him for cockiness
and wooden acting. Branagh takes it in stride. Now "they
can go off and build somebody else up," he says. "And
I can get on with my work."
Born in Belfast to a carpenter
and his wife, Branagh was uprooted at 9, when the family moved
to a London suburb to escape the turmoil in Northern Ireland.
When Kenneth's new schoolmates jeered at his thick brogue, he
retreated into reading, "which was very unusual in our family,"
he said. He liked theater magazines best, and by high school
he was skipping afternoon sports to see the latest London shows.
At 18, he was accepted by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
His talent was quickly apparent.
Actor Patrick Stewart, who now appears on Star Trek:The Next
Generation, remembers seeing Branagh at a TV audition in
1978. "I had never seen anyone transform himself in an instant
from a charming, rather modest individual into this highly strung,
nervous person--he was auditioning to play an epileptic,"
Stewart says. "I thought, 'He's a phenomenon. We'll be hearing
a great deal from him.'"
But Branagh wanted to do more
than just act. After two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company,
he decided to strike out on his own. At 26, he formed his Renaissance
Theatre Company, he says, because "I wanted to do things
for a mass audience that would also make people think. I'm anti
these barriers of high and low culture. I tend not to underestimate
Branagh brashly enlisted the
sponsorship of Prince Charles for the new troupe, which pays
all its actors the same salary--about $650 a week. Its sold-out
tours--of plays including Hamlet and As You Like It--proved
Branagh's instincts were right, as has the box office success
of Henry V. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker declared
him "an intensely likeable performer, with a straightforwardness
that drives the whole film ahead." A savvy entrepreneur
as well, he raised the necessary funds himself, then completed
shooting on time and under budget.
Branagh met his wife, actress
Emma Thompson, 30, when they co-starred in the BBC miniseries
Fortunes of War. She was not immediately smitten. "acting
is all about attractivity," she says, "so you have
to be wary of thinking you're in love when you're not. It's a
work hazard, in the same way falling down a mine shaft is."
But fall she did. After Henry V--in which Thompson plays
Henry's betrothed--she and Branagh were married.
Today, they make their home in
an unpretentious London flat. "Money's not a big thing with
us," says Branagh, "although we do like to eat, drink,
and be merry, have a nice bottle of wine." To relax, they
repair to their cottage in Scotland and "watch the mice
run around," says Emma. It's a far cry from L.A., where
the couple is living for the Mark Taper run. (Thompson plays
the fool in Lear.) I can't believe I drive to work past
the Hollywood sign," Branagh says. "If you're born
in a terraced house in Belfast, you think, 'I'm in the movies
You also know better than to
lose your head about it. "Things are coming my way now,"
Branagh says. "But it's all about heat in this business,
and I'm working on that principle. In that two minutes of heat,
before I become tepid--force that hand down onto the dotted line."
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