British Stars Put Film Ahead of Relationship

Calgary Herald, January 17 1999
by Jamie Portman

More than 30 years ago, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton launched a torrid romance that almost derailed the filming of Cleopatra and plunged 20th Century-Fox studio into near bankruptcy. The intensity of the two stars' affair made international headlines and disrupted production of what at that time was the most expensive movie in Hollywood history.

In 1991, a comedy called The Marrying Man turned into a production nightmare when the love affair between stars Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger spilled over onto the set and led to angry confrontations with veteran writer Neil Simon and director Jerry Rees.

The moral of these stories is fundamental: if you're a romantic item off screen while working together on a film, make sure it doesn't cause damage to the project.

At least, that's the way Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter see it. Which is why they want to get one thing straight: the fact that they're currently a "couple" -- and the target of sharp scrutiny by the British tabloids -- has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that they're co-stars of a new movie, The Theory Of Flight, or with the quality of the performances they deliver.

The bottom line is that they consider themselves professionals. That means it was their responsibility to keep their relationship on the back burner during filming.

They also find it ludicrous that anyone should suppose that actors who have a relationship in real life will automatically be more credible together on the big screen.

"From my point of view, it would be foolish to think I have a better chance of making the relationship in this film work because of acting with Helena," says Branagh. "My faith in this project started absolutely with the script."

Branagh says that people have the strangest ideas about the acting profession. He argues that if you're a pro about your craft, it shouldn't matter whether you're acting partner is someone you've known for 10 years or someone you first met last week.

"Great things can be achieved if you already have a rapport with someone," he admits. But he stresses that the same results can be achieved "with someone you just met this morning."

Bonham Carter, 32, agrees with Branagh that being a couple in real life doesn't necessarily lead to a more persuasive relationship on screen. She does admit that good off-screen chemistry can be a help in front of the camera, but she also warns of pitfalls -- the kind of pitfalls that plagued Cleopatra and The Marrying Man. She talks balefully of performers "taking advantage of a movie set to play out their couple fantasies."

"You do have to be professional about it," adds Branagh, 38, who was previously married to actress Emma Thompson. "You can't allow something like this to be some kind of excuse for playing out your relationship."

Both actors say that the quality of their new film was the first consideration when each of them decided to do it -- not the fact that they would be working together.

Bonham Carter -- diminutive and forthright, her hair sprouting the rat's nest tangle which is an off-screen trademark for her -- treats questions about her relationship with Branagh with a mixture of amusement and exasperation.

"Maybe it's none of my business," a reporter asks her at a media session, "but are you two actually living together?"

"You're right," Bonham Carter replies sweetly. "It is none of your business." But she does admit she recently bought a house in London after years of living with her parents. Branagh won't confirm whether he's sharing it, but does confess he enjoys puttering about the garden.

In The Theory Of Flight, Branagh plays a frustrated young artist who experiences a life crisis and ends up in trouble with the law. Instead of being fined or going to jail, he is sentenced to community service; that brings him into contact with Bonham Carter's character, a feisty young woman in the later stages of Lou Gehrig's disease.

The Irish-born Branagh says the task facing both himself and Bonham Carter was to make audiences "believe the central dilemma of these people -- her actual paralysis and his spiritual paralysis." He believes he can view the contribution of his co-star objectively.

"She's a very disciplined and funny professional. I knew that she would commit herself totally to communicating her character's condition in a way where people who actually have this condition would feel happy and well-served. She took that very seriously -- as she did realizing the other side of the character, which is alive and funny and provocative and quirky and eccentric and joyful."

Although it's a British film, The Theory Of Flight has yet to open in the United Kingdom. When it does, the two actors expect the Fleet Street press to have a field day.

"We're definitely a target couple with them," Bonham Carter shrugs. "Individually, we're targets, too. We both had a rough time with the press before we were together . . . and it's boring to have these constant arrows, but inevitable in this kind of situation. But it's also a sort of protection because it's not connected with who you really are."

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