Vogue, September 1991
by Georgina Howell
Kenneth Branagh had just flown
back to New York from Los Angeles in the Paramount private jet,
an experience he describes as "sproncy." At JFK Airport,
eight limousines awaited the party of eight.
"I said to them, 'Just drop
your spare cash in a wee mug and send it to us. We'll make a
film with it. We'll save the British film industry with it!'"
Britain's rocketing thirty-year-old
theatrical prodigy is still collecting transatlantic anomalies.
"I'm always looking over
my shoulder as I get on the plane," he says. "I keep
thinking this isn't quite me."
No two or three job descriptions
are sufficient to contain the talents of a classical and modern
actor and a director of plays and films who has his own successful
company and is also a playwright with the first installment of
his autobiography already in paperback. Hollywood in 1991 doesn't
quite know what to do with this brand-new Orson Welles, but never
mind, he took what it had to offer. He seized the wheel of his
own star vehicle, Dead Again, directing and playing two
roles opposite his wife, Emma Thompson, and has fed a large part
of the resulting cash into his company, Renaissance, to fund
a sparkling production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya's.
In New York, Paramount swept
its freshest virtuoso into a gala preview of Harrison Ford's
new film, Regarding Henry. Branagh watched the arrivals
from the crowd until a hardworking publicist slipped the word
to a CBS correspondent and escorted Branagh to a camera.
"Right," said the presenter,
leafing through his notes in search of Branagh's name. "What
part did you play in this film?" "I'm not in this film,"
said Branagh. "I'm here because--"
And then a car drew up, the cameraman
screamed, "Christ! It's Richard Dreyfuss! Over there!"
and Branagh disappeared behind a frieze of flailing arms and
Telling the tale in Snowdon's
London studio, Kenneth Branagh tucks his old shoes under his
chair, his sandy hair on end, and his treacly clarinet voice
spreads itself on the air with the mesmerizing rise and fall
of the Irish storyteller--Belfast flavored, a rasp in its lower
register, a sense of the words being edible, the use of repetition
with a velvety emphasis. Once the worst-dressed student at the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he still wears brown leather lace-ups
with the blue jeans, and his open-necked striped shirt still
climbs out of his pants.
Outside the studios, he's hardly
"I was hanging round this
shop on Rodeo Drive, trying to attract the assistant's attention..
I wanted to buy some pants, but he was too busy fawning around
the heels of some television actor who'd come in behind me."
Branagh slides into a laugh. "Finally the guy left, and
the assistant made out my bill in a kind of dream. He said, 'Do
you know who that was? That was Sam Elliott. That's who that
was.' Then he looks up and slowly his hand floats up to his cheek,
and he goes"--in a queeny California accent--"'Oh,
my God! Oh, my God! I know you, don't I? You're famous, aren't
you? You're the one who played Henry VIII!'"
Kenneth Branagh may not be famous
yet, but he will be. No one who saw him in Henry V will
"In California I was the
latest version of the European director with a hit of a kind.
I'd won a couple of wee prizes, and it was Smilesville. Suddenly
it was, 'Oh, hello. Perhaps he's talented. Or something.'"
The opportunist grins. "So I get to direct this kind of
Hitchcock movie and play an American detective and a German composer."
Mr. Putty, he turns a haughty profile; his hairline raises half
an inch. "I eyebrow my way through the film as Roman
Strauss! And it's fiendishly clever. The whole is fiendishly
clever. I've watched Dead Again for five previews, and
no one gets it."
At twenty-seven, Branagh was
the entire force behind the award-winning Henry V. He
owned the company, he raised the money, he directed it, cast
it, adapted it for the screen, and starred in it. Then he wrote
about it in his autobiography, Beginning, and funded a
further season for Renaissance.
The saga of getting the film
onto celluloid fills the last forty-two pages of Beginning
and rivals Shakespeare's own plot for drama and suspense. No
one thought Kenneth Branagh could do it. David Puttnam, scheduled
to be executive producer, was about to slot the last million
pounds into place when he lost confidence.
"It is my absolute belief,"
Puttnam said on the afternoon of the West End press night for
Branagh's Hamlet, "that this film will not be made."
It may be the last time anyone
will underestimate Branagh's ability to make things happen. The
film is history. It was made with a cast that included every
British actor of note and went on to win the Best New Director
award from the New York Critics Circle. Branagh was nominated
for Oscars for Best Director and Best Actor, and he won the British
Academy of Film and Television Arts Best Director award. The
film--which Branagh describes as "a dodgy play about war"--was
grounded in the idea of the king as a killer, a brilliant patrician,
and a doubting, dangerous young professional.
The critics were spellbound;
people lined up who had already seen the film four or five times--for
many, this was the greatest film or theatrical event of the decade.
Sir Laurence Oliver is dead, long live Kenneth Branagh!
Actors believe Kenneth Branagh
has an Olivier fixation. Branagh is more Cagneyish, more belligerent,
but there is the same technical mastery, the power and presence,
the rapid rise to great roles. There is the filming of Henry
V to mark the connection, and even the similarity of the
lower half of the face, with the lipless mouth above the same
strong, dimpled chin. Some see a resemblance in Dead Again
to Olivier's famous movie of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca,
in which past and present also merge in a murderous cliff-hanger
with gothic overtones.
"I'd say he uses Olivier
as a useful template for how to pace his career," muses
actor and mimic John Sessions, who has known Branagh since they
were students at RADA. Britain's fastest-talking comedian, Sessions
is in the first week of his one-man show for Renaissance, Travelling
Tales. "A life plot? Oh yes. As he achieves his objectives
it becomes more and more distinct. Kenneth intends to go down
in the history books."
His rivals have another name
for what Branagh chooses to call "a measure of ambition."
Did he really feel he couldn't play Henry V without consulting
Prince Charles about how it felt to be the Prince of Wales? It
may not have contributed much to the ultimate performance, but
it certainly oiled the wheels in anther direction. Today Prince
Charles is the supportive and interested patron of Renaissance,
and a signed foreword on Kensington Palace letterhead on the
front page of the Renaissance program for Uncle Vanya
wishes you an enjoyable evening in the theater.
Kenneth Branagh has come very
far very fast for a boy who grew up under the shadow of Gallagher's
tobacco factory in the heart of Protestant Belfast. His early
life was an Ulster remake of On the Waterfront. His grandfathers
lined up for work on the docks, and his father, now retired,
was a carpenter. These days, he passes the graffiti-sprayed streets
smoldering bonfires of Tiger Bay in a taxi on his way to the
Grand Opera House, but the background will, one day, be a great
feather in the cap of Sir Kenneth Branagh, K.B.E. Already, in
Beginning, he dwells lovingly on the details: how he was
born on Saturday, December 10, 1960, just in time for the football
results; how his mother would scour the streets for cigarette
butts when her father was broke and out of cigarettes' how she
pawned her coat at twenty-one to pay her way to Manchester. The
Branaghs moved to Reading after a street riot of window-smashing
Protestants from Shankhill Road, and Kenneth began a second,
more personal war, which he describes as learning to be "English
at school and remain Irish at home."
He suffered a patch of bullying,
but nothing too traumatic; Branagh was already in control, already
a star. In the blink of an eye he way captain of the rugby and
football teams, writing children's-book reviews for the local
paper, and at sixteen he was juggling four parts in the school
parts in the school play. Another blink and the Central School
and RADA were competing to offer him a place. From here on triumphs
came in pairs, and there are those who accuse Beginning
of being little more than a well-disguised boast.
"Ken was right up there
from the start," says John Sessions. "Seven or eight
of us who'd just got into RADA had to redo our audition pieces
for the voice teacher, Robert Palmer. We all tried to show what
we could do. Then Ken got up and did Hotspur's 'I deny no prisoners,'
and that was it. Color of voice, sheer presence, technical control,
attack--twenty-five things you could name were already in place.
We knew straightaway that Ken was first division."
By this time the famous theater
school had presented him with its ultimate bouquet, the Bancroft
Gold Medal for outstanding student of the the year, he was bowing
out as the prince in the traditional final production of Hamlet
and using his old Belfast accent to play the lead in a concurrent
television play, his first professional role. The Royal Shakespeare
Company offered a leading juvenile part, but Branagh chose instead
the passionate, witty role in which he beat Rupert Everett to
the SWET (Society of West End Theatres) Award for Best Newcomer.
He chose Judd in Another Country, the Julian Mitchell
play set in a private boys' school. "Was I putting on a
voice?" He signals derision. "Is the pope a Catholic?"
Married to the actress-comedienne
Emma Thompson, Branagh has no car and lives in a somewhat bleak
north London house with three bedrooms and a garden just big
enough to eat in.
"Em cooks. A couple of mates
come round. We stay in. We don't go to dos. Absolutely not our
They have seen so little of each
other this year that they have made plans to spend a couple of
months together when she finishes filming Merchant Ivory's Howards
End, the E.M. Forster novel, with Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa
Branagh and Thompson met while
playing the leads of the BBC television series of Olivia Manning's
Fortunes of War, and after a pause for thought and a damaging
stag night at Madame Jo Jo--London's transvestite club--the wedding
of theaterland's new prince was celebrated with a celestial thirty-thousand-pound
garden party at Cliveden. Many an actress's heart ached under
the summer sunshine that day, as it circulated that the bride
had exacted an eve-of-wedding vow from the flirtatious Branagh
that his relationship with his leading ladies would be, from
now on, unswervingly professional.
He now gets ribbed on talk shows
for giving the lead roles to his wife, an aspect of Branagh-knocking
likely to increase after Dead Again, with its lingering,
soft-focus final clinch. She has played Alison to his Jimmy in
the Renaissance Company's Look Back in Anger and Princess
Katharine to his Prince Hal, but still, the accusation is not
quite fair to the talented Thompson.
You have to catch planes to keep
up with Branagh, whom I next encountered yawning on a kitchen
chair in a dressing room of Belfast's Grand Opera House. In a
town that kills with kindness he can't enter a pub without being
bought a half dozen drinks; on local television he's "one
of our own, now." Unawed, people come up to him in the street
and tell him, "Good you're back, Kenny." When work
is done and there are friends to drink with, he can revert to
his Tiger Bay archetype. His family occasionally still has to
pull him in, legless and steaming, let him sleep it off, and
bring round with the famous three-egg Ulster fry-up. In his hometown
he is a hero, but he travels on public transportation and can
become invisible at will. His tough Northern Irish features slip
easily into the Belfast scenery. One Kenneth Branagh steps off
the bus as you pass the stop; another emerges from the swing
doors of the Crown as you cross the road. But it's as if he's
on dual control.
"He comes on like a plumber,"
a friend said recently. "Then he does this other thing."
Before the camera or onstage
the full face narrows and hardens, the eyes gleam, he adds three
inches to his five feet nine and half inches. Still, he is not
wrong when he calls himself a "short-assed, fat-faced Irishman":
when he had to strip for Julian Mitchell's play Francis,
a colleague hissed derisively, "I've seen more meat on a
Coming to the end of an enormous
effort--commuting to L.A. to finish the film while tracking Uncle
Vanya's tour of Britain--Branagh catnaps on theater floors
at odd times of day; he now looks rumpled, as if he might have
been doing this just prior to my arrival. Under his direction
Richard Briers--Britain's familiar television sitcom king--had
produced, on the previous evening, the most explosively violent
Vanya I have seen in five productions.
"I didn't want Renaissance
to be the Kenneth Branagh Gets All the Big Parts Company,"
says Branagh. "It always makes me think of the conversation
that goes, 'Isn't it great about Ian McKellen and the Actors'
Company? This week he's playing Hamlet, and last week he was
in something where he just played the footman.' 'What was the
play called?' 'The Footman.'"
"But could you go back to
being an actor now, without directing the thing too?"
He leans back and laughs. "Very,
very easily. Utterly, simply...Why, do you have something you'd
like me to do? I can job in and be a lovey any time you want."
A "lovey" is Branagh
for actor. Just as the four-year-old Renaissance was becoming
known for its popular and accessible approach to the classics,
its artistic director mounted a campaign to stamp out the "darling
Dickie" era of theatrical posturing. Adjusting classical
performances in keeping with the realism and pace expected by
movie and television audiences, he has punctured the incestuous,
inflated tone of voice he calls "that arty-farty, rose-tinted,
old stagy thing." He puts on a "lovey" voice.
"Darling Jolly Jiggy came to see me in Worthing, came to
stay...offered me a season...mahvellous."
"I crossed some kind of
scary Rubicon on the read-through day of Henry,"
he says. "I stood up in front of a group of about fifty
actors including Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Judi
Dench, and Alec McCowan and launched into a preamble that said,
Let's not be loveys, lardying away. I said, We're making a movie,
we're not making a historical theatrical document. I used the
words 'I don't want any acting.' What I meant was I didn't want
curtain material. Which is costumes and a lot of this..."
He draws himself up, sucks in his cheeks, puts one hand on his
breast, and looks into the middle distance. Then in a precious,
sonorous voice he intones, "Because when people stand like
this, their arse gets a bit tighter, and suddenly the don't talk
like human beings anymore, they start talking like someone from
His voice softens, and the rod
goes out of his spine. "I said, Don't do that thing when
you get a funny till in your voice that I don't believe. If you
do that you'll look silly. You'll just look silly. Which was
very cheeky coming from me. But I had nothing to lose. What were
they going to do? Walk away?"
Even as a novice, Branagh would
fight whenever his performance was threatened by mediocrity.
He usually won his point. Making a film for an Australian director
who prided himself on turning out the maximum number of pictures
in the shortest possible time, he once protested. "Hold
on, hold on, we've only done it once. I'd like another go."
"It's dialogue, Ken. We
need to get on to the fucking action."
"The dialogue is interesting,
you philistine git."
"OK, the fucking Queen of
May gets another take."
Since those days his scorn has
accumulated, and his scorn is beginning to be feared. In Beginning
he castigates the powerful Trevor Nunn, joint artistic director
of the Royal Shakespeare Company, for his prolonged absences
from the company. It may finally have reached Nunn's ears that
members of the RSC, not unprompted by Branagh, who joined them
for a year, had written to a popular British children's television
program called Jim'll Fix It begging to be introduced
to their director. In any event, Nunn put in a surprise appearance
to inform his actors that, like Marin Luther King, he "had
a dream," and that dream was to see all the RSC shows being
performed at Stratford within a fortnight.
"I imagine that subsequently
he woke up and found other things to do," says Branagh.
"The next time I saw Trevor was twelve months later. Still
dreaming, I presume."
When Trevor Nunn finally caught
the penultimate performance of Henry V at the end of its
second, Kenneth Branagh found himself enveloped backstage in
Nunn's hairy embrace, and he describes the scene with relish
in Beginning: "Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugely enjoyable......"
(The body language was pure Uriah Heep) "...may I just say
that it is my very great ambition to work...with you" (he
started to move backwards) "...really..." (one hand
out the door) "...and I really mean that...Byeeeee!!"
The whole thing had taken a minute and a half.
Yes, I'd been "Trev'd."
Branagh does not hide his own
light under a bushel, but he doesn't claim blanket success either.
Triumphant as he has been, he admits his failures, notably in
Hamlet. He returns again and again to the role that obsessed
and baffled him and that he can hardly wait to try again. "Oddly
enough, I have the whole play absolutely clear in my mind as
a movie. But in the theater I tired to play Hamlet, and Hamlet
played me, and finally it just defeated me." He puts both
hands in the air and waves them above his head.
"I felt as though this whole
theater were Hamlet and I were a Ping-Pong ball knocking about
in one room. In order to play it I need--"reaching up, he
grasps a water pipe near the ceiling with both hands and uses
it to pull himself out of his chair--"that! I need an anchor.
To stop it coming out whatever way it wants to. What happened
is that I just became an enormous bundle of playing intentions."
Then, still holding onto the
pipe, he looks down at his chair as if something nasty were emerging
from underneath it.
"Oh, fuck! Oh, crikey! I've
done that a bit too quick! What? Oh, God, I've got another big
speech in a minute...What'm I...Now I've got to run round the
back and...Whoops! The closet scene! You've got to scream at
your mother for twenty minutes! And four hours later you get
to the end and there's a sword fight! By that stage you're..."
Kenneth Branagh is on his knees on the floor, offering me a dusty
"'Kill me! Kill me quick,
He falls back into his chair.
"Gielgud writes a wonderful essay about the process of playing
Hamlet it in his book Early Stages, and it's like someone
describing running the Grand National."
Branagh cannot resist performance.
When not acting the whole of Hamlet in five minutes, he's
telling stores or running through a quick characterization. Through
the airport check-in, when asked if he packed his own case, he
sometimes varies the script with "No, a terrorist packed
it for me when he was slipping the bomb in." Choosing a
shirt for a photo session, he demonstrates the pockets in in
his new suitcase, and as he does so, by indefinable degrees he
becomes a traveling salesman hawking ladies' underwear. "Sock
jobbie, shoe thingy, what can I show you? A bit of a suit...Oh!
Which I apparently chose not to put in at this special time.
As it happens I have a slip of a blue cardy here...Christ, the
digital lock's broken."
Branagh the actor is permanently
on display, but I was able to watch Branagh the director that
afternoon in Belfast, auditioning a nineteen-year-old actor who
came dejectedly out of the shadows onto the stage of the Opera
House, carrying a shopping bag.
After the first run-through Branagh
was onstage in a flash, talking inaudibly to the boy and returning
to the seats with a "Good! Very good! But physicalize it!"
The student again intoned from
Branagh came right up to the
end of the stage. "Less king," he said, strutting about
with a hand on his hip. "More this." He did a pratfall,
face down, on the edge of the stage.
Four or five tries later Branagh
is bending over his pupil, who is now prone on the floor, insisting,
"Roll over, be quite fetal about it. Let your voice come
out of the solar plexus. Come on! He's so ashamed, he's
in such a state."
"This is torture,"
groans the actor.
"Good," says Branagh,
very calmly and pleasantly. "Try it again! Try not doing
any of that" (flails arms) "or that" (rolling
sailor's walk) "or that" (runs hand through hair).
"Now. Stand up. Remember, you own this theater. You own
Branagh is in a position to steer
his career in any direction he chooses, but asked about his future,
he evades the question.
"Too many people think I
have some canny agenda. God knows there are enough films I'd
like to make, God knows there are enough plays I'd like to do,
but you get blocked through tiredness or this crazy schedule.
No, I don't want any of those jobs that will give me an ulcer.
I don't want to end up running the RSC."
Dead Again is an entertaining, if quirky, film,
but it hardly scratches the surface of Branagh's talents. He
has, today, just turned down another film script and has talked,
not very convincingly, about basing Renaissance in Belfast. Do
his ambitions lie in another direction? Would he accept the National
Theatre should it be offered to him one day?
For the first time in two hours
he looks put out, a little flustered. This is not a question
he wants to answer now.
"Uh, ah, um...Candidly...no.
But you see, I would actually be able to deal with it if, as
of next week, I had no work again. If I could still act, I'd
be OK." He examines this in uncomfortable silence and says
he is not sure what the next move will be. He says it twice.
The title of his autobiography was taken, of course, from As
You Like It:
I will tell you the beginning:
And, if it please your ladyships, you may see the end.
for the best is yet to do.
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