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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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.
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