Kenneth Branagh Goes Hollywood

Fresno Bee, November 4 1994
by Bart Mills

Kenneth Branagh looks chipper as he saunters up a side street near London's Oxford Circus one fine afternoon. You might mistake this jaunty figure in jeans and scarf and long, curly, ginger hair for a student who's been up half the night studying for a final he's sure to get an A on.

But this ever-peppy Irishman who talks like an Englishman actually is the leading candidate to succeed Laurence Olivier as First Lord of the Theatre -- if only he'd stop making movies. After following Olivier's example in demonstrating that Shakespeare is filmable ("Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing"), Branagh, 33, has now directed and starred in his first big-budget, Hollywood-backed movie, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."

A little lesson

Branagh looks around and ducks into a hotel bar he chooses for its "very English" lack of customers. He orders some sparkling water and quickly demonstrates that he's more like a professor than a student. "The original book has many aspects that weren't in previous 'Frankenstein' films," he says.

"Victor Frankenstein isn't just a mad scientist. He has emotional and intellectual reasons for his quest. We've told it as a story about a man driven mad by his determination to do something to conquer death, this arbitrary process by which we are claimed back by an unheedful universe."

The film was originally planned as part of a trilogy by Francis Coppola, starting with "Bram Stoker's Dracula." "But Francis found that 'Dracula' took longer than he thought," Branagh says. "He decided at the end of it that he'd done what he wished to do with the Gothic. He'd originally also thought of doing a wolf-man picture."

Coppola recruited Robert De Niro to play the Creature (Branagh is careful never to call him a "monster"). De Niro is bidding to make audiences forget Boris Karloff, the most famous of many actors who have played the role in previous film versions of the story.

Branagh says of working with De Niro, "It's hard for Robert not to tell the truth, as Meryl Streep said of him. He didn't bring any 'legend' baggage. I got on very well with him and we became good friends indeed. We spent nine months building up the trust he likes to have when he works. I'd go over to the States once a month or he'd come over here."

Peculiar sound

They consulted doctors and plastic surgeons to learn about the movements and behavior of people whose limbs have suffered damage and been restored to use. They studied speech-impaired people because in this version, Dr. Frankenstein's creature isn't a mute character. In fact, Branagh says, "The creature actually sounds as if he'd been put together from bits and bobs of other people's bodies and trained to live again. When Robert speaks, you won't recognize it as a contemporary sound. What you'll see will be worth your $ 7.50. You will be scared."

As for Branagh, he is worn out. During this water break from his sprint through the final weeks of post-production of his film, he alludes often to madness and getting away from it all after two years of work. As he speaks, he's thinking that he'll be spending the rest of the day in a darkened room judging minute variations in the film's sound effects.

This driven yet affable man is the last person you'd ever imagine going mad. But he is plausible when he speaks of taking time off. He did, after all, write his autobiography at the age of 27. "It's appropriate to stop," he says now. "It's time to stop. We'll travel a bit, Em and I. Take in some sun, see what turns up."

Casting another

"Em" is Emma Thompson, Branagh's Oscar-winning wife and co-star in his Shakespearean movies and "Dead Again" -- but not in "Frankenstein." Instead, Branagh's clinches here are with Helena Bonham Carter. The part Bonham Carter plays was a bit young for Thompson, in Branagh's view.

At least the Branaghs were working at the same studio. While he was finishing "Frankenstein," she was making "Carrington," a racy film about amours among the literary set. Sometimes they could drive to work together, but not often.

"We work mad, crazy hours. We do have lunch together. It's been nice to be at home, the two of us, and have a rather normal life," he says.

Looking back

One particular part of his life is constantly in Branagh's mind, though he hasn't yet addressed it in his career: "I consider myself Irish, even though my family left Belfast when I was 9," he says. "There's no getting away from where you came from."

He expresses cautious optimism that the current cease-fire there will lead to a settlement.

Still, Branagh has happy memories of his childhood. "I remember going to the movies, never the theater. I screamed with fright watching 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.'

"I used to watch American films on television and sit there glued to them, right through to the end of the credits. 'Made in Burbank, California,' it would say at the end. I always dreamed of going to Burbank, California."

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