Ken Again

Premiere, September 1991
By Martin Booe

It is a luminous afternoon in Los Feliz, one of the older residential neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Santa Ana winds have all the car-door handles crackling with static electricity; the sun is intense, in stark contrast to Henry V's muddy marches through France. On an appropriate piece of Los Angeles architectural kitch called the Shakespeare Bridge (for its pseudo-Elizabethan spires), Kenneth Branagh is taking a beating from actor Campbell Scott, who has a small role in the film. The director chases him down the length of the bridge, jumps him, and starts to bring him down. But Scott wheels around, kicks Branagh karate-style in the head, and then adds another nasty kick in the groin. It's not just an idle stage kick; there's force behind it. Branagh is left crouching on the pavement adjusting his protective groin padding as his wife, Emma Thompson, breaks out laughing. "Ha! He wants more padding!" she says wryly. "His masculinity's at stake here."

How do you follow up a brilliant film debut directing and acting in Henry V, garnering two Oscar nominations and a cartful of film awards on both sides of the Atlantic, while showing that Shakespeare isn't the exclusive domain of academic tight-asses the world over?

If you are Kenneth Branagh, you spend the next year picking through parcels of rarefied, orphaned "art" projects, none of them very interesting. It's a daunting proposition, and no less so if you've been stigmatized as your basic enfant terrible. Or worse yet, as a genius, which is something like walking through Hollywood with a KICK ME sign taped to your behind. The story that broke the impasse is Dead Again. Written by Scott Frank (Plain Clothes, Little Man Tate), it's a romantic thriller whose clockwork plot springs from a preoccupation with immortality and reincarnation. Branagh not only directs and stars (again) but plays two parts, as does his wife.

One of Branagh's parts is that of Mike Church, a jaded private detective who scrounges a living tracking down heirs and missing persons. His task is to learn the identity of one of Thompson's characters, who mysteriously has lost her memory and is tortured by what gradually proves to be someone else's nightmares. As this story develops, another unfolds: that of the ill-fated marriage of Roman and Margaret Strauss--also played by Branagh and Thompson--several decades earlier. When Mike discovers that Roman was executed for the murder of his wife, he comes to suspect that he and his memoryless mystery woman were, in their previous lives, Roman and Margaret. Will the murder happen all over again?

While this may sound like a moonlight swim in the mainstream for princely Hal, Dead Again is as important to Branagh as Henry V, as challenging, as satisfying.

From a distance, Branagh gives the impression of being a colder person than he is. Clearly, the Irishman in him--he was born in Belfast--is still alive and well. More specifically, the short-assed, fat-faced Irishman (Branagh's own words, page 148 of his autobiography).

Anyone capable of such self-deprecation can't be all that bad. Certainly, he's not matinee-idol handsome, but what his features may lack in chiseledness, they more than make up for in the range of expression they register. He projects the kind of good nature that, although genuine, is perhaps learned, a survival skill acquired by an Irish boy uprooted to English schools. By turns, he can be skillfully circumspect and disarmingly ingenuous. Yes, he has a lusty love of the classics. But he's also the kind of person who reaches for his saber when he hears the word "culture." At heart, Kenneth Branagh is a populist.

"I am interested in popular entertainment," he says. "Strange as you may think it, the chance to do a romantic thriller set in Hollywood about a detective and a woman who's lost her memory is something I feel comfortable with." His voice trails off with a smudge of tentativeness, as if he's not sure how this will be received. The blows not forthcoming, he continues. "I was brought up much more with this than the theater. Growing up in Belfast, I was never taken to theater."

As a child, his yearning for escapism drew him to movies with escape as their theme. He worshiped Steve McQueen for The Great Escape. He loved the British POW drama The Wooden Horse, as well as The Birdman of Alcatraz.

"When I started directing theater, I would often refer to classic film scenes," he continues. "That's more where I come from than someone"--here he feigns the diction of a withering snob--"'with some great sense of being a great actor from a great tradition of people who do it much better and more properly.' Because that really gets me, it really does.

"Film is a medium that can cross those barriers, much more than theater. You do theater for certain reasons, and you don't reach the people you're doing it for."

"We were looking for a stylist, someone who had a combination of visual style and tremendous heart," says Dead Again producer and president of Sydney Pollack's Mirage Enterprises, Lindsay Doran, who took the project with her from Paramount Pictures (now distributing the picture) when she moved to Mirage. "When we saw Henry V, we said, 'That's the guy.'"

Branagh received the script while on the boards at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. "I couldn't put it down," he recalls. "I found it so mysterious and gripping and witty," He breaks into a broad grin, "I thought, this is right up my street, the kind of picture I'd grown up watching. In the vein of Rebecca, Dial M for Murder, that whole vaguely noirish world, but popular in that sort of Hitchcockian way. I said, 'I really fucking love this. If you're really serious about this, I'd love to do it. But only if I can do it the way I see it.'"

He saw it this way: not only would he direct, he and his wife would each play both of the male and female leads. The inclusion of his wife was "part of the whole chemical balance" that he needed, the same reason he cast Thompson as Princess Katharine in Henry V.

Doran's idea was that Branagh would direct, but she says she took Branagh's conditions in stride. True, the script was originally written for four actors playing the two couples, but enough people had suggested that two actors play the four parts that no one was shocked at the suggestion.

At the time this was under discussion, Branagh and Thompson were doing Shakespeare at the Taper. On a given Sunday, Branagh would be playing the foolish fop in A Midsummer's Night Dream and then Edgar in King Lear, with Thompson as Helena in Midsummer and the fool, a part usually played by a male, in Lear.

So for each of them to play two roles "didn't seem like the ravings of a madman," says Doran. "These were classically trained actors. It's not hard as if it were suggested by an actor who'd been perpetually locked into the same persona."

In a return to his roots, Branagh is shooting film onstage. At the landmark Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A., for the role of Roman Strauss, he has donned a starchy tux to conduct an orchestra that includes pianist and wife-to-be Margaret as featured soloist. It is during the crescendo of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini that Margaret lets loose with the surreptitious wink that unravels Strauss's Germanic composure and leads to their love affair. This wink has to be perfect, and after a dozen or so takes, Thompson finds her eye twitching involuntarily.

Meanwhile, Branagh is having his own problems. Less pressure than this has driven nearly sane people to take hostages in convenience stores. He says he is "totally paralyzed by fear of having to play the conductor. I was conducting real musicians; we had the first violinist of some hot-shit orchestra. I'm quite musical in the bathroom, but even having to pretend to be musical in front of anybody scares the hell out of me."

Thompson had practiced the Rachmaninoff for months so that Branagh could film her actually playing the piece. "She was quite cross with me, because I ended up not using her hands, and I did use a lot of me conducting. Which," he adds, "just shows the power of a megalomaniacal director."

All this talk of megalomania makes one wonder. After all, this is the man who published an autobiography at the age of 28. Though his demands on Doran may sound like the product of an overactive ego, it is more likely they sprang from fear of egos. Says Branagh, "I'm not sure I can deal with massive movie-star egos."

On the set, wearing the hat of director, he telegraphs neither superciliousness nor false humility. His facial expression of choice is generally a grimace tending to a scowl--what he calls his "James Cagney face"--only occasionally slipping into a dark-spirited smirk. "He threw some temper tantrums early on, then he lightened up," recalls screenwriter Frank. "He insisted on pin-drop silence on the set. I think it was important for him to let [everybody] know he was serious."

Frank reports that although the actors loved Branagh, it was a different story with the crew. "He absolutely hated to wait. And waiting is how you spend about 50 percent of your time on a Hollywood set. He can get very impatient waiting for the lighting to be set up, say. The crew aren't used to working that fast, and he rubbed them the wrong way. [But] it was important for Ken, doing his first studio movie, to keep things moving."

Branagh cops to the charge of impatience. "If I have too long to wait about, I get frustrated." He points out that it's tough to act and direct at the same time. "It's important not to get too far removed from the role," he explains. "I have to get a rhythm going. Because I prepare so hard, I expect other people to do the same. I almost work partly as a first [assistant director] myself, keeping people...'Is this ready to go, are we all set yet?'"

He can be profane in the course of running the show. "It's a work in progress, not a bloody funeral. I've found that here people want to treat me a little bit reverentially; I think they expect me to come on the set in a suit of armor, riding a white horse. But sometimes they get a shock that I'm a bit fartier than that. Swearing, it's real tension loosener."

He sidesteps any suggestions that his judgment in casting himself and his wife may be questioned if the movie doesn't do well. He says, "I don't think I'm an egomaniac. Lots of actors could play these roles as well or even better than I have. I was very clear with paramount about what I wanted and would have understood if they turned me down. Look, I'm not a genius, I'm just able to bring a strong vision of a piece. It has to do with getting the work right rather than trying to be a movie star."

Frank finds him an intriguing hybrid of wide-eyed outsider and canny player. "He has no tolerance for prima donna behavior of any kind," he says. "He dismissed several actors during casting for fear of that. But in some ways he's more Hollywood than anybody. He's incredibly well informed on what's happening. He likes to know how to play the fame."

"He's got a very old head on very young shoulders, our Ken," offers Derek Jacobi, a mentor of Branagh's who appears as an eccentric antique dealer cum hypnotist in Dead Again. "He hasn't time for nay rubbish. "But there's a paradox: he plays to the feeling that it isn't important, but at the same time, it is wildly important. To get too serious and all masturbatory about acting is not in his vocabulary. Neither as an actor nor as a director is he interested in what a being a director or being an actor is the eyes of the public is. So he doesn't play the part of either."

What part does he play? How does he see himself these days? Stage actor? Film actor? Director? All of the above?

He shifts in his seat wearily, his face crinkling into a mirthful wince. "I don't fucking know what I see myself as," he says with an earnest shrug. "I'm tentatively beginning to see myself as a filmmaker, but every time I do, I laugh. IN the theater, I always thought of myself as just somebody who works in the theater. Maybe that's it! I'm just somebody who works in films. I've been lucky enough to act sometimes and lucky enough to direct sometimes. I hope to earn the title 'filmmaker.' In the meantime, I'm lucky enough to work in films and work in the theater."

"I often catch him staring upward with his eyes very wide and his mouth a little round O, just like that staring into space. That's him looking into dreams, you know." Emma Thompson, Branagh's costar of four years and wife of two, pours tea. She is sitting on the patio of their temporary home in the Hollywood Hills. A spectacular panoramic view of the city spread out in the distance, lightly shrouded by a gauzy curtain of smog. "I tried for months to get a photograph of him like that," she adds. "He would always catch me looking at him and change his expression."

She is, of the two, more naturally gregarious, but there's a wariness about her as she stares into the water of the Windex-blue swimming pool.

"I think if five ago someone had said to Ken"--she affects the voice of a clairvoyance--"'You'll be in Los Angeles, you'll be living in a house with an oval swimming pool,' he would have laughed out loud."

Would she call him...shy? After all, there's a reserve there. He's hard to put a finger on.

"He's a walnut," she answers.

A walnut?

"Very difficult to pry open."

Now Branagh is trying to convince himself he needs a rest. His twenties just recently put behind him--he turned 3- toward the end of the shoot--he can look back on a decade of serious scrambling. From the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, his years in the Royal Shakespeare Company, and his struggle to form his own Renaissance Theatre Company, his twenties were a time of ceaseless effort.

"The project I have in mind next is to stop for a bit," he says, again with an air of fearfulness that someone's going to call him a slouch or a laggard. "i mean, for me that's as difficult a decision to make as anything. I need to let some air blow about my system. I've been working nonstop for ten years, really. Finishing one job on a Saturday night and starting another one on a Monday. Never really having a break. I want to allow this particular experience to percolate. I would love to reflect on the whole thing. And see what it makes me feel about making films. To have a chance to know what I feel. That's a casualty of the kind of schedule I've lived on."

Perhaps his biggest regret about directing, he says, is that it deprives him of the esprit de corps he knew when he was only an actor, the shared stories, the jokes. The note of wistfulness in his voice recalls the scene from Henry V when young Hal visits his troops in disguise on the eve battle, yearning for the camaraderie that is forever barred to him.

On his 30th birthday, the cast and crew presented Branagh with a cake, a sharp likeness of his face done in the icing. Shooting finished for the day, the chorus of "Happy Birthday" echoed in the soundstage. Branagh stood through it, forcing a smile, trying to relax, but his mind was obviously elsewhere, on the myriad details involved in keeping the production moving. There was a bit of the obligatory as he barked "Thank you, thank you" in a tight voice. It seemed as if the personal attention made him uncomfortable.

But then the puckish grin reappeared. It was the grin of a small boy who knows he's the center of attention but will be damned if he'll let on. He refused the knife someone offered him and wordlessly plunged a pair of scissors into the confectionery re-creation of his own throat. With cake in one hand and a Coors in the other, he disappeared through a door, leaving Thompson cheerfully serving cake to the crew.

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium