Ken Goes Way Down South

Birmingham Evening Mail, July 24 1998
by Russell Rhodes

Unusually for John Grisham adaptations, The Gingerbread Man isn't lifted from one of his best-sellers.

Rather it's an early screenplay written before any of the novels were published. Unusually too, it's not served up by some hack director running through the formula (even Francis Ford Coppola played straight hired hand on The Rainmaker) but gets a personal investment and distinctive edge from the legendary Robert Altman.

And, to complete the trilogy of unusual attributes, the role of the self-serving somewhat sleazy Southern lawyer (another Grisham departure) is being played not by any high rolling Hollywood star but by Kenneth Branagh.

"I think I was four millionth choice," he says with due modesty.

"They asked me and I said I'd be interested if they had a director who could take it by the scruff of the neck and do something that was not what you'd expect from Grisham.

"I'd taken to heart something Julie Christie told me on Hamlet, to be led in my choices by who was directing it. A great script and a bad director will end up a poor film. So when Altman said yes, so did I.

"He didn't want to make the standard straight up and down thriller. He wanted something far more sinister and weird. Don't forget that before he got into features, he'd done Alfred Hitchcock Presents on TV, so he knew where he was going.

"Also, I like this kind of genre, the whodunnit with a bit of a chase. Mind you I lived to regret ten nights of being completely soaked to the skin on a boat in the middle of a storm."

Aside from being so wet he thought he'd never dry out, Branagh also had to accustom himself to the Savannah accent required of his character, Rick Magruder. He's done American before, but Southern's a bit different. And especially hard to manage when you're working the Altman way.

"The real problem was that Altman likes to improvise a lot and that's really hard when you're working with an accent and trying to remember how they talk.

"At one point you'll hear me say 'I gotta go to hospital'. Now they would never say that, they'd say 'to the hospital'. Altman left it in just to annoy me. Then there was the scene with the car where I think my children are in the back. I was improvising away and getting a bit full of mysel banging on about 'they're in the boot, they're in the boot'. And Altman's saying 'trunk, trunk!' Still, I said boot like a Southerner though."

Although there were times when, soaked to the skin and being tossed up and down on a stormy sea, he might have been happy to swap roles with Altman, Branagh says he's not yet got any huge desires to get back behind, as well as in front of the camera himself again.

"I will direct again when my guts tell me the time is right, but I don't have a particular timetable. Right now I'm following my nose in terms of following good scripts and working with other directors."

In following the director, Branagh's not just limiting himself to the big screen. He's recently completed The Theory Of Flight, a film for the BBC about motor neurone disease, directed by Peter Greengrass and co-starring the new woman in his life, Helena Bonham Carter.

"I play a small time crook, a little crazy but with slightly more appealing qualities than Magruder. Helena plays the one with motor neurone disease and she's terrific in it.

"It's an extraordinarily devastating disease and I hope the film will help people understand it more. We've shown it to sufferers and they all feel the depiction is accurate."

And after that he's to be seen alongside Will Smith and Kevin Kline in Barry Sonnenfeld's big screen version of cult comic cowboy TV series The Wild Wild West.

"I play the brilliantly diabolical Dr Loveless. I can't give too much away, but suffice to say I have a secret lair and a lot of equipment and I'm surrounded by lots of glamorous people. You'll see that horses don't play a huge part in my life for a very specific reason, but I'm saying nothing more."

But while TV and movies continue to keep him busy, the theatre it seems remains at arm's length.

"I've no plans to go back to the stage yet. I enjoy working with films and the access people have to them. The theatre is so expensive and still relatively exclusive. As and when I do return I would like to make it more affordable for people, but I have to say I do feel more at home with films. It's what I was brought up on."

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium