How 'Frankenstein' Has Created a Hunk

New York Times, November 9, 1999
by Alex Witchell

She hovers, dark and forbidding. Dressed in black, moving in shadow, she watches, waits, while he sits in the light and laughs, beguiles. And then, inevitably perhaps, she strikes, rushing toward him, drawing back her arm. He faces her, gravely now. She lunges at his heart.

With a lint brush.

Kenneth Branagh has a groomer, a woman who is paid to fuss with his hair and makeup and swipe bits of imaginary dust from his lapels. After directing and starring in Tristar's $44 million "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which opened last Friday, Mr. Branagh, who is 33, seems to be trying to go Hollywood. In all the interviews he's given, everywhere but Golf Digest, it seems, he uses the word "buffed" as he chats cozily about running and lifting weights.

Weights? Is this alumnus of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art actually trading his Shakespearean taste and talent for the American grunt-and-flex school of acting? Has he so sickened of the comparisons with Laurence Olivier that he chooses instead to ape the preening Bruce Willis in "Pulp Fiction"?

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!

Ah, well. No one ever loved Hollywood for its mind. And as it happens, Mr. Branagh's attempts to turn himself into a hunk have worked. A Byronic hunk, perhaps, with his covertly tended mane of hair, but a hunk all the same. A week before "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" is to open, he shows up at Michael's for breakfast after a turn on the "Today" program ("He got Bryant!" his publicist exults) for his last New York interview before flying to Los Angeles. The night before he had been on "Letterman," and here he is in the same suit, shirt open, looking very morning after.

He sits down to be photographed at the back of the restaurant, and while everyone watches, he is up, on. He sips San Pellegrino water and keeps his banter animated. Once the camera is put away, though, and he settles into a one-on-one conversation, his energy sinks.

Why is he sitting in profile? He looks startled. "Am I?" Yes, and he kept his face turned on an angle, too, in the photographs. He turns his chair abruptly forward. "It's fear, I think," he says, forcing open his suddenly sleepy blue eyes. He ate earlier, he says, and no, he doesn't smoke. He was up late the night before, seeing a preview of his play, "Public Enemy," in its American premiere at the Irish Arts Center, about a young man on the dole in Belfast who becomes obsessed with Jimmy Cagney's gangster persona.

His exhaustion is palpable. He has spent his week here recounting his brilliant career (the Academy Award-nominated "Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Dead Again"), glossing over the not-so-brilliant parts ("Peter's Friends"), all to promote "Frankenstein." He gamely sat opposite Charlie Rose for the highbrow sell (the effect of the Industrial Revolution on Mary Shelley's writing) and played along with David Letterman for the lowbrow sell (imitating a sleeping lion). The effort has left him in a state that can only be described as pre-opening wallow. Not all the advance word on "Frankenstein" has been good, and some early reviews have been downright negative (it opened over the weekend with a disappointing $11.2 million gross).

But Prince Charles made the trip to Los Angeles for the film's premiere, grateful that Mr. Branagh had shot it in London, helping the British film industry in the process. Can a knighthood be far behind?

Especially since Prince Charles is a personal friend; the two met after Mr. Branagh requested an audience, so he could better prepare to play Henry V.

Is there a man alive who knows less about being a king than Prince Charles?

To his credit, Mr. Branagh laughs. "It was more about the kind of atmosphere you pick up off him," he says. "There was a sense of isolation, a tremendous melancholy and loneliness, and I suppose it was that side of Henry V I was trying to get to. To see what the job does to the human being. It would eventually drive you mad, I suspect. Every time you sneeze someone is writing a book about it. Even for the folks who are involved, it becomes hard to know the truth about feelings and events."

The answer is no, a knighthood cannot be far behind.

Now for something new and different. "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which co-stars Robert De Niro as the creature and Helena Bonham Carter as the love interest, is less classic monster movie than moral dilemma about man's interference in the natural process of life and death.

"It is a family tragedy, like Shakespeare," Mr. Branagh says. "There are lots of echoes of 'Hamlet' in it, I think. Victor Frankenstein is the opposite side of the same coin as Hamlet. Instead of forming a philosophy of death and our journey toward it, he resists it. He says, 'Let's stop them dying and see if we can do it better.' He replaces Hamlet's intellectual pursuit with physical action. And still isn't happy."

He stares glumly down at the tablecloth, looking nothing like the "nervy young man in a hurry" Vincent Canby described in The New York Times a few years back.

He's done everything in his career so fast, it would seem he's on schedule for a midlife crisis. Born in Belfast to a carpenter and a housewife, he was raised in a London suburb, where his first conflict was nationality. Next came career, but once he had established himself in the theater, he immediately wanted film. While he acted Shakespeare, he was equally compelled by the contemporary. And now that he has cornered the international wunderkind market, he seems seduced by the prospect of becoming the thinking man's Kevin Costner.

"People think I must be wired, though I don't feel that way," he says. "There's been no master plan, just an underlying sense of 'let's live now.' You can drop off the twig, be run over by bus." He shrugs. "Cliches, Irish sentiments. Now I have no plans to do anything. I'm sort of spent with this project. There have been so many big things consuming me while making it. An obsession with death. The usual pathetic search for the meaning of life. It's friendship and love that make life worth living, and even those things are tremendously confused."

He pauses. "I think I'm tired," he says. "I've said a lot in my work, and now I want to enjoy the massive sense of relief that this film is over. I said to Emma, 'It's like a cloud hanging over you that doesn't go away until it's delivered.' "

Emma is his wife, the actress Emma Thompson. Though the two have collaborated professionally, her most acclaimed performances, in "The Remains of the Day" and in "Howards End," for which she won an Academy Award, were projects in which he was not involved. The two refuse to be interviewed together, to discourage the perception of them as a package deal, though Mr. Branagh says: "Thank Christ we're in the same business, so I have a friend. Em is a great soul. And she can talk me out of my despair pretty well."

So where is she now when we need her?

"I do feel vulnerable," he says. "I've put all that effort into this movie. I know there are the people lining up to say, 'Isn't that awful.' Being at the epicenter of that is not very pleasant. You just want to say, 'Everyone like me, please, please.' "

One movie producer says that Mr. Branagh is perceived as an artist in Hollywood. "He is very well respected out here, even if people think he's, well, a little fancy," he said.

Told this, Mr. Branagh nods. "I seem to benefit from a spurious credibility from my association with Shakespeare," he says. "One executive didn't want to give me the 'Frankenstein' job. His parting shot was, 'Please don't make a Merchant-Ivory movie.' " He looks outraged and disgusted and helpless.

"I expect the criticism," he continues, "but I wanted the movie to be more than a blow-'em-up action thing." He was supported, he says, by its executive producer, Francis Ford Coppola. "He gave very constructive criticism. I still can't believe he's involved. He's such an exotic figure, really."

"It's all like being outside myself," he goes on. "Robert De Niro, big budget, big premiere. I'll see all these famous people who'll say: 'Oh, there's Johnny Brit with his pointless stories about not very much. Who is he, anyway? Introspection Man.' Maybe that's why I'm stopping to work now. I'm bemused, I think."

He thinks?

"I'd like a little more peace of mind," he says. "I'd like a break from existential despair -- why are we here and what's the point of anything. I'd like to just be here instead of living in imaginary futures."

As if by telepathy, his assistant, who's out in the limo, starts sending emissaries over to the table to pull him away earlier than planned.

O.K., last question. So much has been made of his being born in Belfast and moving to England with his family to avoid the violence, which he says caused him a lifelong identity crisis. Does it still affect him?

He nods. "I feel more Irish than English," he says. "I feel freer than British, more visceral, with a love of language. Shot through with fire in some way. That's why I resist being appropriated as the current repository of Shakespeare on the planet. That would mean I'm part of the English cultural elite, and I am utterly ill-fitted to be. My parents still live in England and still consider themselves Irish. They go back to Belfast alot. But it is a question of where you belong. I don't think I know that yet. I live in London but I don't enjoy it. I haven't found home yet."

What an exit line. As he goes, he is the only one of his entourage to stop and thank the New York publicist who has worked with him all week. Aha! Not only an artist with existential despair, but an artist with manners, breeding.

Shame about those muscles. It doesn't look as though Hollywood is going to be home, either.

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