Branagh and Allen Click in Making of 'Celebrity'

Detroit News, November 20 1998
by Susan Stark

English actor Kenneth Branagh says he was driven to please Woody Allen.

NEW YORK -- Now here's Kenneth Branagh, who made his name on screen with Shakespeare's Henry V, waving around his hands, rolling his eyes and speaking a particular brand of New Yorkese heavily punctuated with "ums" and "uhs" and hesitations galore.

The movie is Woody Allen's newly opened Celebrity, a seriocomic meditation on fame in the '90s. Allen simply directs. He has no role in the film.

The role that you'd expect him to play, that of a neurotic New York writer looking for love in all the wrong places, is in fact played by Kenneth Branagh. Make that Kenneth Branagh, of all people.

He's the first actor ever to stand in Woody's shoes on screen and, frankly, the choice couldn't be more surprising: A hail, hearty, handsome young English actor with a heavy Shakespearean pedigree doing duty for Woody's increasingly frail-looking, archetypal New York neurotic?

Why Branagh?

'Cause I've been a great fan of his for years," Allen says without hesitation.

"But I had no idea if he could do an American accent."

He can, of course. His classical training in English theater would seem to assure that. But Allen, who these days looks even more fragile in person than he does on screen, calls himself "very, very lucky" that Branagh came through for him.

He also says he could never, ever have played the role himself.     How come? Branagh's perpetually angst-ridden, lovelorn character is a variation on themes Woody's persona has explored on screen for more than a quarter century.

"I could never have played this part because I wrote it for a more attractive person," Allen says.

"In writing, I thought of Alec Baldwin: An attractive man who was a loser.

"Branagh played it that way, and I guess that kept him interested through the 10 or 12 weeks we shot.

"I would never interfere with what made him happy."

For his part, Branagh says his only goal in the work on Celebrity was to keep Allen happy.

"When I first read the script, I thought, 'Christ, this is very bleak,' says Branagh.

"I asked him why he cast me. I think he prefers not to act in his own films at this point. And also, the bleak-sad side of Woody is something that he feels the audience doesn't want to see, won't accept. I think maybe he cast me because he thinks the audience will accept that from another, not-funny Woody."

At one point in the picture, Branagh's frenzied, scattered writer is chasing Leonardo DiCaprio's spoiled, self-indulgent superstar in the hope of selling a script.

Branagh and DiCaprio wind up in a jumbo Las Vegas hotel bed together, along with a pair of babes rented for the night. You get the sense that the scene could go anywhere, but as it turns out, the guys stick to their basic, heterosexual turf.

Which makes it impossible to ask Branagh how it was to kiss Leonardo DiCaprio.

Mention that and Branagh guffaws.

"I thought for a second it might happen," he quips.

More seriously, Branagh says he jumped at the chance to work with Allen.

"I'm in awe of him as an artist," the actor allows, "so I was ready to do exactly what he wanted me to do.

"This character has been in his films for a long time now: anxious, funny, hypocondriacal. Actually Woody's the most hypocondriacal man I've ever met.

"But we didn't really ever discuss the character, not up front.

"He sent me the script. Six months later we had a conversation on the set. I suggested that the character should wear jeans, which would be something extraordinary in ... (Woody's) world of corduroy. There was a two- or three-day drama on that.

"Then I overheard Woody say to someone, 'But I would never wear jeans.' "

Take a guess: Does Branagh wear jeans in this movie or not?

Branagh, the Brit who stands in for Woody in Celebrity, gave it his best shot -- and a considerable shot that is. Finally, though, just as Allen says he wanted to make his leading man happy, his leading man only tried to return the favor.

"I just wanted to try and get it right for him," Branagh says simply. "Even the neurotic, twitchy, obsequious, dignity-out-the-window bits."

Odd choices, great talents. Now you can see for yourself if it works.

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