Branagh Puts Bard on Hold to Go 'West'

Philadelphia Daily News, July 2 1999
by Mal Vincent

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - My first meeting with Kenneth Branagh, then unknown in America, was over a veal chop in the dining room of the Beverly Hills Hotel on a summer night in 1987.

And did we talk about Shakespeare? Not at all. Branagh, who had never before been to the United States, had been flown from London to Hollywood by PBS for a TV mini-series, "Fortunes of War." In it, he co-starred with his then-fiancee Emma Thompson, who was seated at the next table.

Already, even in 1987, Branagh had been hailed as the golden boy of British theater - "the next Laurence Olivier."

Since then, a lot of water has passed beneath London Bridge. He formed his own theater company. He married Thompson, and co-starred with and directed her in "Henry V," "Dead Again," "Peter's Friends" and "Much Ado About Nothing." They became known internationally as the gorgeous Ken and Em. Just like Sir Larry, he was nominated for an Oscar for both directing and acting in a film version of Shakespeare's "Henry V."

But things went awry. His version of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," with a budget of $43 million, was a disaster. He said that he "had to make an appointment" to meet his wife. When asked about having children, she said, "Ken is so tired, his sperm are on crutches." They broke up. He now lives with ultra-pale British beauty Helena Bonham Carter, whom he met on the set of "Frankenstein."

Flash to the present. He sits at the Four Seasons Hotel, just a few blocks from our first meeting, and he's talking about starring as the villainous Dr. Arliss Loveless in the summer release "Wild, Wild West," which opened Wednesday.

So, is he continuing to follow in the footsteps of Olivier?

"The performance skills required are the same in a mainstream movie," he says. "You simply have to have the ability to play to a crowd."

He refused to watch any episodes of the 1960s TV series, saying "I didn't want to be influenced by it. I took this part because of one factor - Barry Sonnenfeld directed it. The director is the most important thing to me, and Barry uses humor in a way that makes everyone relaxed on the set."

The movie, like the TV series, is set shortly after the Civil War. Furious with the South for having surrendered, Loveless now wants revenge on both the North and South. His main weapon is an 80-foot-tall robot called the Tarantula. It's not quite Shakespeare, but he says it's just as difficult to play."I thought of Hitler in developing the part," he says. "Hitler would always work himself up to a level of possessed, demonic frenzy in his speeches."

Come to think of it, Dr. Loveless is not so far from Macbeth.

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