Reigning Shakespearean Actor Hits Film Fame 'Dead' On
Atlanta Journal and Constitution,
August 18 1991
by Joe Rhodes
LOS ANGELES - Even before the
1990 Academy Award nominations were announced, Kenneth Branagh
could sense that the game was on. He was being courted by Hollywood
executives left and right, and not necessarily because any of
them had liked or even seen his critically anointed film version
of Shakespeare's "Henry V."
"The way it happens here,"
Mr. Branagh was saying, relaxing in a Beverly Hills hotel suite,
recalling his first encounters with American studio decision-makers,
"is if you've had a European hit, then in order not to miss
the next directorial talent, they have to try and get you. Just
in case. It really is a game with them. So, no question, people
were very eager to meet me."
And when word got out that Mr.
Branagh, all of 29 years old, had received best actor and best
director nominations for his work in "Henry V," that
eagerness turned into an absolute frenzy. As good fortune would
have it, on the January day when the Oscar nominations were announced,
Mr. Branagh was in the heart of Tinseltown, having just brought
his Renaissance Theatre Company to Los Angeles for a three-month
run of "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream,"
both of which he directed. Talk about being in the right place
at the right time.
Branagh agrees, offering up a sardonic smile, "I was here
at the white heat of my flavorsomeness.
"I had three meetings the
morning the Oscar nominations were announced. We hadn't planned
it that way, because we didn't really think we'd be nominated.
But when it did, well, the first meeting I went to, everybody
came into that meeting, the chairman of the studio, everybody.
And they all had these Cheshire cat grins cause they were thinking,
Bloody hell, we can have this boy.' "
Mr. Branagh, slouching comfortably
in his chair, wearing blue jeans and an open-necked shirt, seems
as far away from the stiff-upper-lip stereotype of a classically
trained British stage actor as you can get. Listening to him
in casual conversation, swearing like a stevedore, you would
never peg him as someone who, before his 30th birthday, not only
had snared the Oscar nominations, formed his own theater company
and been widely hailed as Britain's most significant Shakespearean
actor since the emergence of Laurence Olivier, but had also published
an autobiography, titled "Beginning."
None of which has given Mr. Branagh
any illusions about the level of stardom he's achieved over here
in the colonies. "Essentially," he says, "no one
here knows who the expletive deleted I am."
Which, actually, he doesn't seem
to mind. As passionate as Mr. Branagh is about Shakespeare, as
proud as he is of the accomplishments of his Renaissance Theatre
Company, he does sometimes feel the pressure of people who expect
him to be "Sir Kenneth O'Lovey." One of the things
that pleases him most about preview screenings of his new film,
"Dead Again," which Branagh directed an in which he
plays an American private eye, is that audiences don't recognize
him from "Henry V." It opens nationwide on Friday.
"They think I'm a young
unknown American actor," he says, laughing. "And not
one of the preview audience survey cards - cards of death, as
I call them - has come up with a remark about the accent."
Producer Lindsay Doran, at the
time a production executive at Paramount, was the first to approach
Mr. Branagh about directing "Dead Again," and she says
that in spite of the fact that "Henry V" was the only
film he had ever directed, she had no doubts about his ability
to direct a modern-day thriller or play a believable American
"It was very clear from
talking to Ken that this is a populist guy who wants to make
sure everybody has a great time in addition to being exposed
to great art," Ms. Doran says. "And there's something
very American about Ken. There's a physicality, a kind of earthiness
to him which you don't think of when you think of English actors."
Maybe it's because Mr. Branagh
was born in Belfast. His dad was a carpenter who was worried
about the ever-increasing "troubles" between Catholics
and Protestants and moved the family from Northern Ireland to
Reading, about 50 miles outside London, when Ken was 9.
Mr. Branagh was accepted at London's
Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts when he was 18 and at age 23 he
became the youngest actor in the history of Britain's venerable
Royal Shakespeare Company to play the title role in "Henry
V." Struggling to understand the inner feelings of a young,
lonely monarch, Mr. Branagh, with the brashness that would become
his trademark, solved the problem by arranging a meeting with
Prince Charles at Kensington Palace so he could ask him, face
to face, "What's it like to be a king?"
At 25, frustrated with the internal
politics of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mr. Branagh and partner
David Partiff did the unthinkable, breaking away to form the
Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987. Offering up a mixture of
classics and new works, the troupe became the talk of the theatrical
world. The inevitable Olivier comparisons had begun even before
Branagh adapted "Henry V" as the first Renaissance
film production, following in the footsteps of Sir Laurence's
1948 screen adaptation.
"I know a lot of the attention
I've received isn't so much about me as it is about Shakespeare,"
Mr. Branagh says, "this 400-year-old genius who somehow
manages to make people feel good still. So anybody who interprets
him for people gets imbued with some of that same special power,
even if it's only for a short time. To me these plays are like
a jewel-encrusted mine in which we wander along with a flashlight.
All we do is shine the light."
Once "Henry V" was
released and the glittering reviews started coming in, Mr. Branagh
says he was approached with a number of film projects, including
three stories about the life of Shakespeare, one about the life
of Anton Chekhov and "lots of war things and battle scenes."
When the Oscar-nomination frenzy kicked in, Mr. Branagh told
the studio executives that the script he really wanted to film
was a screenplay of Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native."
"But trying to convince anyone to do that one," he
says, "was like picking up heavy weigh
Mr. Branagh says he was captivated
the first time he read the script for "Dead Again,"
a complicated thriller involving a woman who's lost her memory
but keeps having nightmares of a murder from a former life. Even
so, he insisted on a number of creative controls before he agreed
to do the picture. Among them: that he would have control over
casting, that he'd be allowed to bring much of the creative team
(including production and costume designers) from "Henry
V" and that he would have final cut. In other words, the
studio would not be able to put in or edit out any scenes without
It was an audacious set of demands
considering that Mr. Branagh's only directing credit was "Henry
V" and that he'd acted in a grand total of three films.
Amazingly, Paramount gave him everything he wanted.
"I just felt that in the
midst of my inexperience and ignorance, that it would be of immense
value for me to have a solid creative base, people with whom
I already have a rapport," Mr. Branagh says, explaining
why he cast his wife, Emma Thompson, as the female lead and longtime
friend and mentor Derek Jacobi in another pivotal role.
"If they'd brought in big
stars to play the roles, they might expect the wrong thing from
me, people who would only know me from Henry V' and think, Ohhh,
Shakespeare. He must be clever,' rather than seeing a guy who's
just making his second movie and will, inevitably, be a king
of disappointment to them."
And now, with "Dead Again"
behind him, Mr. Branagh is heading for a vacation he meant to
start a year ago. In April, the Renaissance Theater Company celebrates
its 5th anniversary, and Mr. Branagh plans to stage a major Shakespearean
production, something that will give him a juicy lead role.
"I see film and theater
as parallel things in my career," he says, dismissing the
notion that making movies is something he does to bankroll his
theater company. "Film is tremendously important. If only
because it is economically more accessible. There are too many
people who simply can't afford to go to the theater."
Which means, sooner or later,
Mr. Branagh will find himself in Hollywood again, facing the
executives with the Cheshire cat grins, back to playing the game.
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