O, Thou Empty Villain!
Toronto Sun, December 28, 1995
by John Coulbourn
Kenneth Branagh gives an understated
portrayal of Iago
NEW YORK - They are questions
just begging to be asked.
Kenneth Branagh is hyping director
Oliver Parker's new celluloid take on Othello. In the movie,
which opens in Toronto tomorrow, Branagh plays Iago to Laurence
Fishburne's Moor, and his Manhattan promotional appearance is
causing quite a stir.
It's not the affable actor's
celebrity status that's causing ripples, though. Instead, it's
his hair, dyed a sunny blond for his upcoming performance in
a new movie adaptation of Hamlet, which he'll direct.
So, Ken, do blonds really have
"They get much more teasing,
is what they do," he says with a wince, adding that the
new look is something he's trying out in preparation to play
the Melancholy Prince of Elsinore.
But just because Hamlet is a
Dane, does it follow that he has to be a blond? "He doesn't
- and he may not be," Branagh says, fingering the shiny
straw-colored beard. "This can best be described as a work
Othello, on the other hand, is
a work completed, and Branagh is obviously pleased with the work
he's done. His Iago is a study in understatement.
"It's all so extreme,"
he says of most other takes on the character. "There are
many people I've met who are not even closet Iagos. They're right
up there. Sit in the green room or get drunk with a bunch of
"Oliver described him as
an onion man," he continues in obvious agreement. "You
peel the layers away and there's nothing there."
It is Iago's emptiness, Branagh
asserts, rather than his evil, that leads him to destroy Othello's
marriage and his life. It was that emptiness, as much as anything,
that framed Branagh's take on the role.
"I wanted the events (in
the play) to surprise him as much as they surprised Othello,"
But working with Fishburne meant
one surprise too many, he confesses with a laugh.
Recalling a scene in which Othello
grabs Iago and plunges his head under the ocean, Branagh says
both actors had agreed that Fishburne should do it as the spirit
moved him. After being unexpectedly ducked into water that he
describes as "f---ing cool, leather pants wreaking havoc
on my nether regions and my mouth full of snot, I said to him
`Okay, we've done surprises now. Surprise is good, now I'd like
to try planned.' "
Planning, in fact would seem
to be the order of the day in Branagh's life. He's gearing up
for his Hamlet, which will feature Robin Williams as Osrick and
Billy Crystal as the grave digger.
And after that? "I've been
doing sunny juves a bit," he says. "Now it's time to
head for the more mature roles - King Richard, the Scottish gentleman
whose name I won't mention because I'm pathetically superstitious."
That's about the only name he's
loath to mention. He talks about his defunct marriage to Emma
Thompson without batting an eye.
"You end up just being philosophic
about it," he says, adding that he hopes the two of them
will work together in the future.
The break-up, though, has taught
him a thing or two.
"I feel sorry for anybody
who's got to deal with something personal under an intense public
spotlight," he says softly lighting yet another cigarette.
"I keep myself pretty clear
of all that stuff, for obvious reasons."
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