October 1995
by Gary Susman

It's easy to forget that Kenneth Branagh, who is almost singlehandedly credited with reintroducing Shakespeare to the filmgoing masses, is still a young guy in his mid 30s whose directing career spans just six features in seven years. Last September, when he visited the Hub to pick up the Boston Film Festival award for career achievement, he seemed nonplussed at being included among such august company as fellow honoree Vanessa Redgrave.

"I did say to Vanessa, `What the fuck am I getting one for?' She's a fucking genius. It doesn't seem to be anything to do with me. It's probably being connected with Shakespeare. People shove another 20 years on your age or assume that you are endowed with greater intelligence, which is, I'm afraid, not the case."

Branagh's current film, A Midwinter's Tale, shows off both his love of Shakespeare and his knack for light entertainment, a combination that makes him difficult for producers to pigeonhole. "I keep being asked to do big, high-concept pictures, and people are very interested in hiring me because I make films on time and on budget. Even Frankenstein, which was obviously a big disappointment to the studio, took in $106 million worldwide. We didn't go way over budget, and they'll get their money back. There are worse things. So I'm not such a risk.

"Then there's a critical or audience response that would just have me do Shakespeare films. My tastes are eclectic. To do Shakespeare well, either in the theater or on film, it's healthy if you're involved in watching or making more overtly popular entertainment. Making a film is so difficult that it needs to be something that really fires me up. I can get fired up about making a really entertaining, popular movie."

Branagh's memories of his hungrier years inspired Midwinter, a backstage comedy about a road-show production of Hamlet. "Everything in it is based on personal experiences, from mad audition sequences to the frenzy of trying to get a play on. The first Shakespeare I ever directed was Romeo and Juliet, which I put my own money into. It was always going to lose money. We built the sets. We rehearsed it in three weeks. People were playing three or four parts. They would go off one exit and come on another dressed in another robe, which often got a laugh. Girls were playing boys. There was a series of cock-ups. People couldn't find their way back on. I was in a film during the day. We'd go on at eight o'clock, and I'd sometimes get there at five to eight. When you're in those things, you're so wrapped up in them, you believe nothing else exists. It's like being in Southern California."

Throughout the rehearsals, the actors wonder why they're working so hard for so little reward. "The conversation that goes on in the movie, I have all the time with myself. Like we say in the film, kids are watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on a Saturday morning. What, are we going to say, `Hey, let's go see this 400-year-old play about a depressed aristocrat! That'll be fun, kids!' And yet, when well done, it's a life-enhancing, positive experience. I get frustrated and depressed about whether there is a point to it. But when you make a connection with a live audience, lives change. Mine certainly was by contact with this playwright. Or a movie, like Much Ado. All across this country, teachers have seized on this and other movies, not just mine, to be living examples of why they might be interested in these stories. The kids write to me and say that it was neat or cool and ask for more."

Branagh's protagonist is an idealistic actor/director who would rather put on Hamlet for culture-starved schoolchildren than make a Hollywood movie, but the real Branagh is cynical enough to know how hoky that sounds. "Actors want hoky endings. Actors want to be in that story. They want to make the decision not to go to Hollywood because they'd always run out. They'd never stay. Part of them feels that their artistic soul would prevent them from doing it. But they'd be on a fucking plane straight away. As one of the actors in the movie says, `We're actors. We're beggars. Everybody's expendable.' I haven't met a great actor who didn't have a sense of his own sell-by date."

Branagh is certainly a convincing actor; during our interview, he gave no indication of the trouble in his marriage to Emma Thompson that would lead to the announcement of their split just a week later. I caught up with him in New York when he was promoting Othello, where he had just this to say: "I'll talk about the personal inasmuch as it's pertinent to the professional career that people have a legitimate right to be interested in. When it comes to things that are more personal than that, I'll be perfectly happy for people to ask questions, and of course, I'll answer to the degree to which I feel it's their business, and no further."

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