'My Week With Marilyn': Kenneth Branagh Interview
Kenneth Branagh is not only one of our most celebrated stage actors, he is also an enterprising cinematic figure. At a special Bafta tribute evening, he talked about his wide-ranging career and his latest role as Laurence Olivier
The Telegraph, 25 November 2011
Francine Stock I’d like to start with your earliest acting experiences. You arrive here in England from Belfast in 1970 – and the accent goes?
Kenneth Branagh Yes. I came here with a very, very strong Northern Irish accent. I suppose that was my first bit of acting, the acquisition of an English accent. It was really just an attempt to be understood.
FS You went to Rada and then to the RSC, so you were not obviously headed towards a film career at that point.
KB When I came into the business it felt as though the film industry in this country was going through one of its periodic troughs and it seemed ludicrous to imagine that one could have a film career. In any case, I was someone who had become very interested in acting through amateur dramatics, through reading copies of Plays & Players [theatre magazine] that told me about how people like Michael Gambon and Anthony Hopkins and Derek Jacobi and Geraldine McEwan and Maggie Smith all started in small parts then went through the ranks and got leading roles. That seemed a thrilling career to aspire to.
FS After the RSC you co-founded the Renaissance theatre company, and then you thought of directing your first film, a version of 'Henry V' which you’d already made a great success of on stage. Were you absolutely clear how it was going to work? One gets the sense of it being this great venture in which everybody’s pulling together and you’re working with the actors that you knew and loved. Was it that straightforward?
KB I can’t imagine being absolutely clear about anything at that point: I suppose ignorance was bliss. Orson Welles once said if you’re making a film, either know very little or absolutely everything. It was quite clear I knew very little then but I had a strong instinct about the story and I had a familiarity with the play and a sense of how certain scenes played. But then I had a chance to take advantage of things that I felt could be especially served in film, for instance the role of the French king, played by Paul Scofield. Scofield brought his unique Mount Rushmore presence to this part, and I remember I had read about the supposed mental illness of the King of France and when Paul was – struggling is the wrong word – but when he was having a little bit of a problem with the role during rehearsals, I remember being bold enough to give him a note.
It said: “Forgive me, Paul, but would it help to know that for long periods in the grip of this mental illness, the King of France thought that he was made of glass?” And you saw his eyes light up. I never had to say another word to him. When he first comes into the movie, his fragility is so compelling that watching it, knowing that that was something which sparked his imagination, was exciting. I thought he brought a dimension to that character one would not have seen without film, and without somebody of that talent.
FS Immediately afterwards offers came in, and you went to America to make [LA noir thriller] 'Dead Again'.
KB That was like a trip into a world of film-making that one had watched with wonder off the television. We made it at Paramount [in Hollywood]. Walking in the first day to be told that this was the stage on which Orson Welles had begun shooting 'Citizen Kane' was part of the romance of the movie, of the subject matter, and going there as a theatrical type landing in that genre, in that town, felt very exciting and exotic.
FS There followed a tremendously prolific period in which you make 'Peter’s Friends', you make 'Much Ado About Nothing', you win the Michael Balcon Award from Bafta and you make 'Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein', which seems to me a wonderfully reckless picture.
KB You’re probably right – it’s a good way of putting it. In a way there’s Victor Frankenstein’s madness in there, a passion to defeat death, partly motivated by simple anger that God seems to have this scheme that takes away people whom one loves too early. The physical movement of the camera in the film, the visceral physicality of the characters, all of it had a kind of crazed energy. It was big, old-fashioned moviemaking and I guess, maybe yeah, had the seeds of a certain kind of madness in it.
FS And, of course, you were also continuing to appear in other people’s films, including, in 1998, 'Celebrity' by Woody Allen.
KB Let me tell you, this is how I got the part: a letter arrived one spring day. It was from Woody Allen. I opened it very slowly and took it out, it said “Woody Allen” at the top and already I felt like I was in the movies. Very exciting.
It began “Dear Kenneth Branagh, please look at the role enclosed.” This was a big thrill, I was getting the whole script, not just a few pages. “Enclosed is the film Celebrity, please look at the part of Lee Simon. When I wrote this part, I knew that there was only one actor in the world who could play it. Alec Baldwin. And he’s not available. So I thought for a while about Mel Gibson, but in the end decided that you would be more correct.” That was his ringing endorsement [of me], followed by a wonderful line where he said: “Lee Simon is essentially a loser, but he is attractive to women, therefore no facial hair.”
FS In 2001, you won an Emmy for a very different kind of role, as Reinhard Heydrich [in television miniseries 'Conspiracy'], who was the prime mover in the drawing up of the Final Solution.
KB That was a very interesting role. He was a very, very dark individual. Friends of mine have talked about when they play the role of the Scottish king in Shakespeare, which I’m not going to name in this theatre because I’m stupidly superstitious. They said that playing the role, you get dreams and you become possessed by things and that, however resistant you are to that kind of notion, the role gets to you in some way. This certainly was the case for me with Heydrich. I found it a very disturbing part to play. I didn’t sleep well. I found it very unsettling in my life because I suppose on a daily basis, I found it profoundly difficult to understand how he could be the way he was.
FS It’s time to introduce 'Wallander', I think. Do you find more interesting facets of the character as you go along?
KB Well, he doesn’t have a series of things that particularly characterise him, except – one might say – misery, and in the first film of the new series, which is called 'An Event in Autumn', even I put the script down at the end of that one and went: “Bloody hell, wow, that’s a tough time he has in that film.”
But it’s quite touching in that film. He says, when someone points out how tough it is to be around him: “Well, I think I’m basically quite a cheerful person.” I think he thinks he is. But he does empathise, sympathise, feel the pain and the appalling nature of these violent crimes.
FS I suppose one of the great joys of it is actually that it is the kind of series that allows you enough time to travel with him into his reveries.
KB Well, we try to, yes, through images and by taking people into that [Swedish] landscape. We’re filming [the second series] out there at the moment – I’ll be back there tomorrow night. On Friday we were shooting a scene by the beach, and the quality of the light is very, very unusual. The autumn light really was magical.
We were, of course, finding a horribly mutilated body, but you turn around and there’s this great carpet of earth stretching endlessly, as are your questions about this crime, and the two things somehow go together. It really has been feeling, as we’ve been doing it this time, that you’re walking into the kind of shot that you might expect in a Bergman film.
FS Then, you went from that kind of contemplation to 'Thor', a superhero action adventure on a vast scale. A number of people were quite surprised when they heard that you were taking that on as a directing project.
KB Maybe I was thinking this is my Scandinavian period – I had the Swede on the television and the Norseman in the films. It was a surprise to me, but I was familiar with the character from my childhood and was full of vivid memories of this mixture of superhero and archetype wearing brightly coloured clothes, but somehow, inside all that, having a Viking quality that was entitled and brutal.
That kind of darker, primal energy underneath this comic-book material, was something I was very drawn to. It didn’t seem to me a vastly different world to 'The Magic Flute' [which Branagh directed for the cinema in 2006]. People fly and cross time and have superpowers, all of those things which, frankly, 'The Magic Flute' messes around with a bit as well. It was so exotic and extravagant that it was made for cinema.
FS Now we’re going to come right up to date with 'My Week With Marilyn', a film set in 1957 in which you play Laurence Olivier. There are so many aspects of him that you could pick up on, what did you decide to concentrate on?
KB The fun thing was to try to physically transform a bit. He didn’t have facial hair – he would have been well cast in a Woody Allen film – but he did have this wonderful square chin with a cleft in it. He didn’t have the large spots on his chin like I have, so we took those away, we put a prosthetic chin piece on, we gave me a bigger bottom lip – nice to have a bottom lip for once in my life!
I would listen to him on headphones give his dramatic reading of the Bible, which he does in its entirety. I just tried to find his voice, with that curious kind of lisp. He was one of those people who was very quiet when he wanted people’s attention – people would lean forward. He had complete command over his voice.
But Gielgud used to say of Olivier that it was sometimes hard to find the man himself, so it was interesting to play him at this moment – when he was exactly the same age as I am now – which was a kind of a midlife crisis moment for him, it seemed. That’s what he wrote of consequently. He was looking for Marilyn to renew him, to associate him with the new and the youthful and the vigorous and the sexy.
He felt that he was becoming a bit too establishment. Then he went on to do a transcendentally brilliant performance as Archie Rice in 'The Entertainer', which seemed to benefit from the experience of having watched Marilyn. He certainly became a quite different actor after that.
FS And what do you think he would make of your portrayal of him?
KB When Derek Jacobi played Mr Puff in 'The Critic and Oedipus' – in a double bill of characters and plays that Olivier had made famous – Olivier sent him a telegram on the first night which simply read “cheeky bugger”. I suspect I’d be very lucky to have got a “cheeky bugger” remark from him, but maybe that’s what he’d have thought.
This is an edited transcript from a conversation which took place last Saturday in London as part of the Bafta Life in Pictures series.
'My Week With Marilyn' is out tonight.