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.

"Fortuitously," Mr. 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 detective.

"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 his approval.

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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