Married...With Chutzpah

Los Angeles Times, August 18 1991
by Kent Black

No one in England ever accuses Henry V's Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson of being shy. No one in Hollywood will either.

"I felt like a man in a sketch, this British creature driving a Ford Mustang convertible through the gates of Paramount. I was actually living the fantasy I'd had as a boy in Belfast movie theaters," says Kenneth Branagh, engaging in a bit of wide-eyed mugging. "One day someone mentioned we were on the same lot where Orson Welles had filmed parts of 'Citizen Kane.' I felt very romantic about that, like here I was, truly in 'The Land of Movies.' "

"My Hollywood experience was similar to Ken's with the exception of a Toyota Corolla to which I became vastly attached," confides Emma Thompson, the British actress and writer who is married to Branagh. "Every day that I drove to work, with the radio on and the breeze playing in my hair, I thought to myself, 'Good heavens, this is quite thrilling, like "Ken and Em's Big Adventure." ' "

Branagh and Thompson may be fast becoming acting's most formidable couple since Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, but they're evidently concerned that they not be confused for the other as they talk about their new film, "Dead Again." Branagh (who as a Shakespearean actor has been likened to Laurence Olivier and as a director to Welles) and Thompson (whose work in Great Britain has ranged from stand-up comedy to Shakespeare) are receiving members of the press in separate suites.

It is not difficult to tell them apart. While both are articulate and smart as whips, Branagh's salty language is more that of a regular Joe, the kind of guy you share a pint with. Thompson's vocabulary, on the other hand, is descriptive and anatomical; upper middle-class in its conscious naughtiness. Branagh is enthusiastic and earnest in explaining his craft; Thompson tends more toward the ironic. But they both admit to having "a ripping time" making their first American film.

"Dead Again," opening Friday, was directed by Branagh and stars himself, Thompson, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi and Hanna Schygulla in a romantic thriller of love, murder and reincarnation. It concerns a detective hired to help an amnesiac recover her memory. They are helped by an antique dealer and hypnotist (Jacobi) who puts the young woman under and finds that the source of her nightmares and memory loss lies in her strange connection to a young pianist who was allegedly murdered by her composer-husband in 1948.

The contemporary detective yarn and the black-and-white story-within-a-story of the doomed lovers "reminded me of my first experiences watching black-and-white American films such as 'Rebecca' and 'Spellbound,' " Branagh says. "My cinematic vocabulary was established in those movies and to this day when I direct Shakespeare in the theater, many of the references I give are to these movies."

It was in the midst of Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company presentation of "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Los Angeles last year -- and just days after he was nominated for a best director Oscar for "Henry V" -- that Branagh first read "Dead Again" and "felt white hot to do it."

"I remember it so clearly," says Thompson. "We were living in the Oakwood apartments in Burbank. Rain was coming in through the ceiling and we had the four posts of the bed set in water-filled ashtrays to keep the ants out of the sheets. Ken was up all night on the couch waiting for news of the nominations. There was a receiver-shaped dent on the side of his head. It took all morning to get him off the ceiling. After that, the scripts came in by the truckload."

At first, Branagh and Thompson saw nothing they liked. "Seriously, I was sent 4,000 lives of Shakespeare, several lives of Chekhov, and lots of scripts with battles in them . . . 'Yeah, let's get that Branagh kid, he's good with battles!' " Branagh says, mimicking the prototypal thick producer, flicking ash off an imaginary stogie. "I wanted to do 'Return of the Native,' but I don't think most of the studios knew quite how to take me. Then I picked up 'Dead Again' off the script pile and literally could not put it down."

Producer Lindsay Doran had commissioned the script from Scott Frank (who also wrote the upcoming Jodie Foster film "Little Man Tate") while at Paramount in 1986. After moving to Sydney Pollack's Mirage Productions, she and Frank began looking for directors. "We wanted someone with a committed visual style who was also a humanist and would not sacrifice the characters for the visual . . . and that is a difficult commodity to find," she says. Doran grudgingly went to see "Henry V" as if it were a homework assignment but after a few minutes, she knew she had found the director who possessed both the visual and humanist styles she sought.

"I went in with this terrible negotiating stance," recalls Branagh. "I said, 'You have me in the white heat of enthusiasm, I'd love to make this movie, and here are my conditions.' I know that sounds terribly cocky, but I really think in this business you have a choice of dealing straight with people or having a nervous breakdown."

Branagh's conditions were that he come with the coterie of Brits with whom he'd worked on "Henry V." Included were Thompson, Jacobi and actor Richard Easton, composer Patrick Doyle, costume designer Phyllis Dalton (who had won Academy Awards for "Doctor Zhivago" and "Henry V") and production designer Tim Harvey. Paramount and Doran were agreeable provided one or two well-known American names counterbalanced the relative obscurity of their British cousins.

Not so fast. Branagh had just one or two other minor points to clear up. In addition to directing, he wanted to play not only the role of the American detective, but also the '40s flashback story's German composer, Roman Strauss. And Emma Thompson would not only play Strauss' doomed wife, Margaret, but her possibly reincarnated amnesiac self.

"I had originally written it for four people with the idea that there were many more twists to the plot," says screenwriter Frank. "But Ken said to me, 'Let me be your Lon Chaney.' I thought of 'Dr. Strangelove' and I realized this could work."

Doran also overcame her initial misgivings. "We realized through several meetings that the idea of these two souls meeting up again in another life is really more fun with the same two actors," she admits. "And, after all, 10 minutes with Ken and he can talk you into anything."

"No film means enough to me to start hiring this actor or that art director because it equals big box office," says Branagh. "I believe the baggage that a big star carries with them can be enormously distracting to the audience and the story. None of the things they could have offered me were as important as having the conditions under which I wanted to work. If everyone said no, I'd have thanked them for their time and left town."

According to David Kirkpatrick, president of Paramount's motion picture division, the outcome was never really in doubt. "We all knew very well that when you buy Ken Branagh, you buy the whole package."

Decidedly not part of anyone's personal package, Thompson is the 32-year-old daughter of actors, both of whom, she believes, hoped their daughter "would either marry Prince Charles or become prime minister, but definitely not act." A graduate of Cambridge, she wrote and directed that college's first all-female revue before joining up with Fringe radicals such as Robbie Coltrane for the variety show, "Alfresco." A singing and dancing stint in a London production of "Me and My Girl" was followed by the TV series "Tutti Frutti." In 1986, she was cast opposite Branagh in "Fortunes of War," a seven-part BBC series broadcast here on Masterpiece Theatre, concerning the dissolution of an English couple's marriage as they traverse the eastern Mediterranean in the first years of World War II. She has since created her own television show, "Thompson," played the Fool in RTC's "King Lear" and starred opposite Jeff Goldblum in last year's "The Tall Guy." She and Branagh married in August, 1989.

Branagh is a package unto himself. Born in Belfast in 1961, he was raised from age 11 onward in Reading, England, when his parents decided to escape the "troubles." Ambitious from an early age, he threw over a career in journalism for theater and was accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at age 18. While there, his reputation as a workaholic and walking encyclopedia of theater trivia and lore was firmly established. Finishing his final year in school by winning the academy's highest award, he made his professional debut in a West End production of "Another Country" opposite Rupert Everett. Though his performance in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Henry V" was roundly hailed, he quit in a storm of acrimony over Royal Shakespeare's bureaucracy, believing his own company would be more responsive to actors. He then started Renaissance Theatre Company with fellow academy grad David Parfitt. Since then, there have been productions of "Midsummer," "Lear," "As You Like It," "Hamlet," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Look Back In Anger" among others. His films include "Henry V" and "A Month in the Country," he has written and produced a play, "Public Enemy," and written his autobiography.

Some might think it odd, therefore, that a noted Shakespearean actor-manager and such an unabashedly "British creature" would choose material that was thoroughly American. "Fair enough, but I felt the reasons I had for doing it were the right ones," he says. "I believed I could bring to this story a heightened quality, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes comic, but not naturalistic. I wanted to give it the pace and drive of old B-thrillers that allowed audiences to suspend their disbelief and just go with the entertainment."

"It never struck me as odd to have a British director for this," says Frank. "My favorite films, the ones that inspired me, were all directed by foreigners: 'Chinatown,' 'Rebecca,' 'Sunset Boulevard.' Hell, ("Casablanca" director) Michael Curtiz could barely speak English."

At first, Branagh admits, he was a bit intimidated by working in Hollywood. "You walk around the set and hear all these people saying things like, 'Wasn't it great working on that last one with Meryl?' 'Yeah, I love working with Nichols.' So I try to carry a little of my own English snobbishness around, so the crew will whisper, 'Yeah, he's read Shakespeare, he must be a genius.' Of course, that all goes down the weather the first time you forget to yell 'action.' To tell you the truth, I used to get physically sick before directing. I suppose on this picture the element of doing two things (acting and directing), for those who choose to be impressed by it, is useful for engendering respect. But I found the real key is to come prepared and be decisive."

"He is so focused sometimes he only filmed a scene once or twice," Doran says. "Those were the shortest dailies I've ever attended."

Actor Andy Garcia said he was most impressed by Branagh's willingness "to get in the trenches with you. He is a man of great, great gifts and at the same time, he works very hard to develop those gifts. After all, it's a craft and he's the first one to realize it."

Aspects of Branagh's craft that may seem unusual, even subversive, to many American practitioners is his faith in the written word and his insistence on extensive rehearsal. Not only was Frank allowed to attend rehearsals and filming, he was consulted before any changes were made to the script. "He comes from the theater, so to him the written word is everything," Frank says. "In the States, actors are always 'working' on their characters, which usually means they are trying to enlarge or enhance the character you wrote. But you don't do that with Branagh. Everyone -- Derek (Jacobi), Andy (Garcia) and Robin (Williams, in an uncredited cameo) -- walked on and did their parts word for word."

Branagh believes faith in the written word comes from adequate preparation. "First of all, rehearsals break down everyone's nervousness. It is a place to establish a trust and rhythm with the actors. You can settle all the arguments over interpretation and character before the cameras ever start rolling. For me, it is like putting a flame under things to get them hot, but not quite to the boiling point. For instance, Andy and I worked extensively on his journalist character: What did he write like? What about his social life, his drinking, his smoking, his family life . . . not one inch of which will ever make it onto the screen, but no matter. The point is to give an actor every conceivable tool with which to prepare."

Thompson found there was more to playing an American than simply acquiring a neutral North American accent. "First of all, I realized that European women tend to speak with a lower register," she says, pointing mid-diaphragm. "American women speak higher, more breathy. But the major thing for me was to cut out all the irony. The way I speak and act is determinedly ironic and most American women are not that way at all."

Branagh's contemporary detective, Mike Church, is not strictly of the hard-nosed, wisecracking L.A. street detective genre and Branagh took pains to instill him with an Everyman quality. "I didn't want him to be 'Mike Church, Man of Steel'! I was on a case. Lady lost her memory. My job: Find it. I wanted him vulnerable, more apt to screw up . . . because that's the kind of hero I can identify with. I believe the big heroic, romantic gestures are often accompanied by tripping through a doorway."

Branagh also worked with three dialect coaches to get his California accent perfected. "I screwed my courage to the sticking point once and went to the movies here to see how I'd do. I went up to the counter and ordered a Diet Coke and popcorn and prattled on about this and that before I realized the counter person was from Mexico. I think the next person I talked to was Chinese. I soon realized it would be a long time before anyone in this melting pot woke up in a cold sweat to wonder if Ken Branagh had finally got that accent down."

Branagh dismisses the notion he tries on too many hats at once. "There is part of me which pigheadedly is determined to fly in that face of people who are bamboozled by the idea of this young man doing more than one thing at a time. I don't understand the perplexity. For 400 years theater has been run by actor-managers. The idea of a specialist director is a 20th-Century one and has generated a snobbish attitude toward actors who choose to direct their own work. Complete nonsense."

Of casting Thompson as his co-star, Branagh said: "In this picture, the chemical thing is paramount to the love story. Also, I admire her tremendously as an actor and, like Derek Jacobi, she's been an integral part of the Renaissance Theatre Company. Just as the personal is important, there is also an acting repertoire which is essential. It is the same reason I'd like to act with Andy Garcia again. Emma and I are not joined at the hip. She and I both possess a certain amount of actor's selfishness, meaning we're both out for ourselves."

Thompson, while acknowledging the artistic imperatives, is nothing if not pragmatic. "I think once the executives at Paramount got a look at me and decided I wasn't a total dog, it made everyone rest a lot easier," she relates with typical Thompson-esque irony. "Also there is a familiarity with a little edge of sex which exists between us that really adds to the characters. To Romeo and Juliet, no; but to Beatrice and Benedict, definitely!"

Thompson also acknowledges that a sometimes hostile British press have made them cautious. "In our country we find a certain resentment toward our success. People don't like you to overreach. I think of it as when you are walking down a road and you see something in the distance coming toward you and only at the last minute realize it is a gigantic boot. The British press had one ax to grind toward me and another toward Ken, so when we got married they were delighted to combine it. I suppose they are infuriated to find two people young, happy, moderately successful who enjoy working together."

Nonetheless, there will not be another collaboration any time soon. Thompson has just finished Merchant Ivory's "Howard's End" with Anthony Hopkins, and Branagh, rather shockingly, plans to take the rest of the year off before gearing up to direct a movie version of a Shakespeare comedy. He won't name it, no doubt for fear that a Hollywood producer may try to rush another version into production with the cast from "Who's the Boss?"

They both feel no matter how "Dead Again" is received, their adventure in Hollywood was well worth doing. "During 'Henry V,' I remember Ken was so exhausted and stressed out, I had to cradle him in my arms after the day's filming," Thompson recalls. "But it has been very different here. It has a lot to do with being married, settled, having a background. It's made us both feel bigger, stronger against the knocks. He was only a boy during 'Henry V' and now he is a proper grown-up man."

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