Much Ado About Branagh

BPI Newswire, May 1993
by Matthew Gilbert

When Kenneth Branagh, the Young Lion of British Acting, walks into a room, the molecules are hardly disturbed. He's no power storm, this compact 32-year-old, not the press' raging wunderkind wanting to one-up Sir Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles before noon. With carroty brows, true-blue eyes and paper-thin lips, Branagh is the young whippersnapper as Ordinary Bloke, whose affection for D. H. Lawrence recalls his own working-class Belfast youth. You won't hear much roaring from this Young Lion.

Surprised? Branagh, after all, is the brazen actor-director who, at 28, remade Shakespeare's ``Henry V,'' challenging Olivier's classic 1944 version. He is the fair-haired boy whose second directorial effort, the playful ``Dead Again,'' established him as Very Hot Property in Hollywood. With his wife, Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, he is one-half of the heaviest acting couple since Burton and Taylor. His next project, produced by Francis Coppola, is a high-profile remake of ``Frankenstein'' starring Robert De Niro as the monster. And the Renaissance Theatre Company that he founded six years ago, featuring Class-A British actors like Derek Jacobi and Dame Judi Dench, has as its patron none other than the prince of Wales. He is, of course, destined for a knighthood.

Today, in fact, the Young Lion sounds more like an anxious colt. His star-studded film of Shakespeare's ``Much Ado About Nothing'' is about to have its New York premiere, and he's at ``that nervous stage'' of wondering how the world will receive it. The comedy stars Branagh, Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton. ``I can't watch it with people anymore,'' Branagh says, Woody Allen gone U.K., his accent briskly casual. ``I've always assumed disaster is right around the corner -- the bad review, the terrible backlash, some awful accident. So when you get away with things it's just a relief. I feel less joy, more relief.'' Thompson is in Ireland filming ``The Gerry Conlon Story'' with Daniel Day-Lewis, and so Branagh will face tonight's klieg lights on his own.

Branagh's anxiety for ``Much Ado'' may be well-founded: Purist critics, especially in England, have slung arrows of outrage at his popularization of the Bard. With his subversive, earthy ``Henry V,'' which won him two Oscar nominations in 1989, and numerous stagings with Renaissance, Branagh has tried to take Shakespeare back from the scholars and make him user-friendly. Within the first 10 minutes of his ``Much Ado,'' for instance, the actors are frolicking naked in a lush Tuscan villa. ``That's what he was, he wrote for a mass audience,'' Branagh says. ``His plays were watched by the groundlings, by the aristos, by royalty. ... He was pretty shameless in his attempt to please everybody. He was a populist.'' The academics who ``deify'' Shakespeare ``contribute to the wall of intimidation about this great figure.''

In keeping with his populist impulses, Branagh cast ``Much Ado'' with a naturalistic and variegated cast. He says he didn't want the ``wall-to-wall mellifluous British thing,'' but rather ``the clash of different acting styles.'' He deliberately went after Americans like Denzel Washington and Michael Keaton: ``I was intrigued by the Italianate, passionate element in the play, so I wanted visceral acting.'' He admits he would have gotten a smaller budget with an all-British cast, but he insists this didn't guide his casting. ``There was no pressure to put a young hunk in to get us that audience. ... I'm sure the whole `Bill and Ted' audience won't come to see Keanu Reeves in this.''

Branagh says he can picture himself making only Shakespeare films, except that he needs to ``keep one foot in the commercial world'' with films like ``Dead Again.'' ``You might want to make a film of `Pericles' where you'd want an old galleon on an ocean and it would be sort of epic. And you'd wish you had enough commercial clout to say, `Listen, it's going to be a $20 million movie.''' He also likes to challenge himself with a variety of genres. In making ``Much Ado,'' he says, he consciously tried to diverge from ``Henry V'': ``I did not want to feel I was at the beginning of something like the BBC Shakespeare series, which did all the plays and got duller and duller as it went on. That's my response to those who say too many people are enjoying my Shakespeare. Do you want too few people to enjoy it? Watch the BBC Shakespeare -- it's a cure for insomnia. It's a dead, dead thing.'' He says he can imagine filming ``Hamlet'' or ``Twelfth Night,'' or even making an animated Shakespeare.

The centerpiece of ``Much Ado'' is the famous banter between Benedick and Beatrice, played in the film by Branagh and Thompson. Naturally, audiences will wonder whether the characters' witty love-hatred mirrors the actors' own rapport. ``To some extent,'' Branagh says, ``it was not difficult for us to use a certain kind of ongoing irony that we use with each other. Certainly I recognize a lot of myself in Benedick. ... He's so imperfect, so silly when he's in love, and yet you feel he's sort of a steady guy. And he has his own honor code. It felt, if not easy, then natural to be playing it with Emma.''

Branagh met Thompson, who is 34, while filming ``The Fortunes of War'' for the BBC in 1986. Since then, the couple has appeared together repeatedly, in ``Henry V,'' ``Dead Again,'' the BBC's ``Look Back in Anger'' and ``Peter's Friends,'' Branagh's 1992 take on ``The Big Chill.'' Branagh says he and Thompson nevertheless consider themselves separate professional units: ``It was great that Emma won an Oscar for a picture with which I was utterly unconnected. And I think that's done much to say, `Listen, we are independent creatures.' We don't do interviews together. We don't cultivate being joined at the hip. There's a line that we go to in terms of talking about ourselves in relation to the work, and beyond that we don't pursue any extra celebrity. We aren't chasing around at premieres or doing anything more to be in the public eye.''

Most likely, Branagh says, Thompson will not appear in ``Frankenstein.'' But they will undoubtedly continue to work together, ``unless we just literally weren't getting on.'' The last thing he'd do is avoid acting with her for appearance's sake. ``I would hate to deny working with that talent. I've never worried too much about what other people think. That way madness lies.'' When they perform together, their marriage remains at home. ``We don't use acting to work out our problems,'' he says. The other people on the set serve as ``a kind of filtration system for anything I would say to Emma. ... If Emma's being driven potty by me, then she can go and bitch about it to someone else.''

Branagh appears to be innately practical, and that may be the source of his professional strength. At 28, for instance, he wrote an autobiography to finance the fledgling Renaissance company. Practicality shields him from the Hollywood seductions that spoil the most promising of talents. ``I choose to do things entirely based on the material,'' he says. ``I have the luxury of doing that because I don't (ital)have(endital) to direct films. It's an acute privilege for me, but I really see myself as an actor. If I was told I'd never be able to direct another movie, it wouldn't be the end of my life. At least if I can think that, it gives me a certain strength of position.'' When ``Frankenstein'' came his way, he says, he was ready to pass if he couldn't film it in London.

``Frankenstein,'' of course, will take Branagh centuries away from Shakespeare. He says his version of Mary Shelley's classic, in which he'll play the doctor, won't be a horror film: ``The book `Frankenstein' is so different from what's been done on screen. It's really a Gothic fairy tale with lots of moral meat.''

Until he was 9, Branagh lived in Belfast, where his father was a contractor. To escape the violence of Northern Ireland, his family moved to an English suburb, nipping Branagh's cocky urbanity in the bud. At 15, he saw his first play, ``Hamlet,'' in which he would later star numerous times. After a visit to Oxford, Branagh writes in his autobiography, he decided to go straight into acting: ``I smiled and shifted nervously in my seat, moving an enormous working-class chip from one shoulder to the other, and thought that this definitely wasn't the place for me.''

From then on, there was no floundering in Branagh's career. He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and by 23 had become a principal at the Royal Shakespeare Company after a few West End jobs. Unhappy with the bureaucracy and caution of the RSC, he quit to create the Renaissance company with actor David Parfitt. Branagh has often said that his goal with Renaissance is to make accessible plays that his parents can see. In 1987, he starred in his first feature film, ``High Season,'' and has since acted in ``A Month in the Country'' and ``Swing Kids,'' along with his own films.

Throughout this ascent, British critics have consistently been unpleasant to him, Branagh says: ``But that's part of the British experience. If I was as casual with my lines in a play as some of the British press are about their facts, I would be laughed off the stage. I just don't think about it anymore. I've gone though the stage of getting upset or wounded.'' People are less impressed by their own countrymen, he says, and the Brits might like him if he moved to L.A.: ``In the wake of Emma's Oscar, suddenly they seem to like us again.''

In America, Branagh is treated with more respect. But he's equally resistant to the brighter side of fame. ``This scenario, where you're going from a hotel room to a limo to a premiere -- it all gets a bit off the ground. The next day, there's another 58,000 films opening. New York is not waking up wondering where I am and what I'm doing.'' Once he's finished promoting ``Much Ado'' and Thompson finishes ``Gerry Conlon,'' they'll leave behind business and celebrity to go away for a few weeks. In 1991, the couple took a four-month walking holiday, staying at bed-and-breakfasts throughout Scotland and Ireland.

``I love a good drink,'' Branagh says, images of the good life passing behind his eyes. ``When we go to Scotland, there are various lovely beers to be had there. I really love a lovely pint of beer. I like wine. My idea of relaxing is a few mates and a nice meal. Simple. That really is my idea of heaven.''

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