Doing It For Woody

Daily Express, November 20 1998
by Neal Watson

Branagh takes up the challenge

NEW YORK -- He's played Hamlet and Henry V, but Kenneth Branagh's most outrageous fortune was to find himself cast in the role of Woody Allen.  

 OK, Branagh's not actually playing Woody Allen in the filmmaker's latest, Celebrity, opening Friday. But as any fan knows, the male lead in an Allen film is almost always the Woody role - even if Woody isn't in the film. And Allen and Branagh are polar opposites as actors - like trying to imagine Dennis Franz as the gay friend in My Best Friend's Wedding and Rupert Everett as NYPD Blue's Det. Sipowicz.  

 So it is a surprise, even a bit disconcerting, to see the classically trained Branagh reducing his awe-inspiring voice to a Woody-ish whine for Celebrity.  

 But Branagh cheerfuly admits that playing his character, Lee Simon, the way Woody would have was part of the deal.  

 "I made the radical step of suggesting that my character wear jeans - which is something rather extraordinary in a world of corduroy - and there was a lot of discussion," said the amiable, entertaining Branagh, casual in jeans and a blue T-shirt, but speaking in long, well-formed sentences. "This was very big, a couple of day's drama, and when I was getting changed into the very pair of jeans that found their way into the movie, on the other side of the screen, I heard Woody say to the costume designer, 'But I would never wear jeans.' So in that sense the line between him, the character, and me was blurred."  

 Branagh refers to a scene with Leonardo DiCaprio, in which Branagh's character, a celebrity journalist, is trying to sell a script idea to DiCaprio, playing a young movie star.  

 "It seemed the whole comic energy of that scene depended on my re-creating the nervous, neurotic, twitchy, physically agitated, dignity-out-the-window character.  

 "He directed me a lot in that scene and it was basically direction all getting me up to Woody-speed. When it was slower, (the scene) it didn't work. It wasn't as funny. It was exposed for what was kind of a farcical set piece in what appeared to be a naturalistic sequence. Any slower and you expose it. It only worked when it's so quick that you can accept all that silliness.  

 "I felt that side of the character overtook me rather than a deliberate attempt to do it. He seemed to want to cast me more for what I might bring to the more melancholic aspects of the latter part of the picture ... where the character is maybe more exposed and real. I got the impression that Woody felt he found it harder to accept himself in those sequences."  

 Branagh, who showed up for a round of Celebrity interviews wearing a modified handlebar moustache for his next film, Wild Wild West, simply accepted that the lines Allen had written required the particular rhythms of Allen's own delivery.  

 So, he got up to Woody-speed - like so many of the big names who take pay cuts and do what they are told to be in a Woody film.  

 "I was ready to do exactly what he wanted me to do," admits Branagh. "I just wanted to get it right for him.  

 "I'm in awe of him as an artist. I think his track record is extraordinary and the films are never less than interesting."  

 Celebrity, believes Branagh, fits very comfortably with the Allen canon.  

 "This is another exploration of that Woody-alter ego that in his search for some form of happiness bumps up against all the humourous conditions that illuminate our experience in funny ways and sad ways and this, I think, is both funny and melancholic."  

 Unlikely as it may have seemed, Branagh is now part of that exploration.

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium