The Boy Can't Help It

Sainsbury's, The Magazine - February 1997
by Martyn Palmer
**thanks to Cindy Williams

Kenneth Branagh is a pale, frail, chain-smoking bag of stubble-chinned energy. He is a man who looks badly in need of a holiday, a fortnight in bed or, at the very least, a couple of hours under a sun lamp. He has the air of one recently back from a major expedition to the outer reaches of his own talent.

This is, in fact, precisely where he has been--scaling the heights of his phenomenal list of achievements, erecting a flag at the very pinnacle with a new screen version of Hamlet. The film was adapted by Branagh from the original and directed by him also. It is an obsessively perfect piece of work featuring the man himself in the starring role, flanked by a Who’s Who of acting greats including Jack Lemmon, Julie Christie, Judi Dench and many many more.

The result is, perhaps, the definitive work--the production that out-Hamlets the rest of them. At almost four hours long and featuring the complete text, it may well be a masterpiece.

‘A friend of mine came and saw a rough cut of the film the other night,’ Branagh says, ‘and afterwards he said, “I don’t think you’ll ever do anything as good as this again. I don’t know what you are going to do after this...” I said, “Well thanks, I’m only 35!”’

Still, Branagh detects in himself a certain pleasing emptiness -- as though he has expelled all the necessary to bring Hamlet (who he has played on stage to such acclaim) to the screen. ‘I don’t know if it will leave a void now that I’ve done it,’ he admits. 'At the moment I do feel pleasantly empty, although when I watch it--which I’ve done quite a few times--it is a very emotional experience for me. It’s very choking in a way, to see it, because it seems like so many more things are wrapped up in it.

‘I don’t feel any great worries or expectations, although I do want people to go and see it, God knows that I do. It’s just that it was very important for me personally to do this. I always felt that if I didn’t make this film I would end up old and gray, saying to myself, “I should have done it, I should have done it...” But now that I have, I feel that I have to let it have its own life.’

We talk in an empty oak-paneled room near his office in Shepperton Studios, a place that must seem more like home to him nowadays than virtually anywhere else. The paleness and tiredness etched in his face is the result of too many late nights in an editing suite. But the following day he is off to America. Surely a holiday is in the cards?

‘No, I’m acting in another film, Shakespeare’s Sister, with William Hurt in Boston,’ he says. ‘It’s a good contrast and you know what they say about a change being as good as a rest...’

It will be interesting to see exactly what Branagh does next because if there’s one thing you can be certain of, it’s that he won’t sit still and rest on his laurels. His friend, who so crudely highlighted his relative youth with that backhanded compliment, could well be right. Who knows? But you’d expect that our Ken will find another all-consuming project to pour that creative energy into.

Branagh has traveled a great distance in a short time, but the journey isn’t over yet. The second of three children born in York Street, Belfast, his father was a joiner who moved his family to Reading when Ken was nine after ‘the Troubles’ had taken a strong grip on the city. Branagh, a Protestant, has recalled how he found himself in the middle of a riot when a mob from the Shankill Road came after some of his Catholic neighbours. As streetfighting and looting raged around him, the young Branagh was drawn into it, helping himself to something from a shattered shop front. ‘Such was the brilliance of my mind that I came back with a packet of Daz. My mother clipped me around the ear and made me take it back immediately,’ he recalls.

When the family settled in Reading, Branagh, consciously or not, realized that an Irish accent wasn’t going to make for an easy life. Within a year, any trace of a brogue had completely disappeared, leaving an English accent free of any hints as to where it might actually have come from. ‘I’d managed to become English at school and remain Irish at home,’ he says.

In his teens, he developed a passion for watching the box--not so unusual--and for firing off letters to TV companies and his heroes at the time, Morecambe and Wise, who sent him a nice letter back that encouraged him to write even more. At 15, he appeared on stage for the first time in ‘Toad Of Toad Hall’ prompted by his English teacher, Stan Grue, who to this day Branagh remembers as a big influence.

After school he went straight to RADA where, according to his mentors, he displayed ‘charm and fearlessness’. And he still wasn’t afraid to write or ask for help--he wrote to Sir Laurence Olivier for advice on the role of Cherbutykin in ‘Three Sisters’ and he took notes on playing Hamlet from Sir John Gielgud.

Once out of RADA, his career took off at a ferocious pace. Six weeks after leaving, in 1981, he made his West End debut in ‘Another Country.’ He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 to play the title role in ‘Henry V’ and in 1985 he wrote and directed ‘Tell Me Honestly’ for the stage.

By 1987, with film roles in ‘A Month In The Country’ and ‘High Season’ behind him, he formed the Renaissance Theater Company and, in its first season, directed ‘Twelfth Night.’ His productions of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘As You Like It’ and, especially, ‘Hamlet’ (in which he was directed by Derek Jacobi) earned him comparisons with the great Olivier. He also seemed able to combine his theatrical work with a blossoming film career - in 1988 his marvelous ‘Henry V’, his first as a director, was heaped with nominations and awards.

Then he switched to the very Hollywood movie ‘Dead Again,’ directing and co-starring with his wife Emma Thompson (they are now separated, more of which later). He then returned to the Bard once again for ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, directing a blend of theatrical talent alongside recognized LA stars such as Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington. It worked, and, if anything, paved the way for his beloved ‘Hamlet’.

Along the way, he had met and married Emma, a female version, at least in the public’s eyes, of himself. They were talented and bright, and together they made the perfect British screen couple. They fell in love while making the BBC drama series ‘Fortunes of War’ in 1987, and married two years later. The marriage broke down, apparently, some time around 1994 while Branagh was making ‘Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein’ and Thompson was about to film her Oscar winning ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ He won’t talk about the break-up except to say, ‘Any marriage ending is sad and ours was no different.’

The tabloids had a field day, of course. Ken and Em had been built up into some kind of alternative royal couple and when the time came to knock them down again, the press set about them with a vengeance. It was not an easy time, he admits now. Was he ever tempted to move permanently to America, where he is regarded as just about the best actor we have?

‘I guess it can be tempting, and at various times it probably was. But my mates are here and my family is here and, in the end, those things in the press are like mini storms - irritating at the time but they blow over. I don’t really believe in flouncing off over there to get away from it--I have consciously stayed here.

‘The most spectacular opportunities opened up in America after ‘Dead Again’ because it did very well there. You are number one in the box office and suddenly you get all the hot scripts. But for me it wasn’t really on. I like America and I enjoy my time there. For me, every time I go there it feels like I’m in a movie - whether I’m in one or not. I think it’s all those years of seeing New York and LA on the telly, and it’s pretty exciting. But culturally, for want of a better word, I don’t feel at home here. You know, reading the ‘Malibu Bugle’ or whatever is not the same as ‘The Guardian’.

'I feel a bit disconnected over there; it’s like a big adventure. Making ‘Dead Again’ in Hollywood was like living out some kind of fantasy. You pull it off, you get away with it and one of the ways you get away with it is by coming home again afterwards. This is a hard enough business anyway, and one of the things I like about being here is that I feel me, I know who I am over here and over there I don’t. I’ve got a lot of American friends but I don’t feel that the American lifestyle really suits me.’

There was a time, he says, when he went through a crisis, wondering exactly who he was. The media had praised him, forever calling him a thoroughly ‘decent chap’, and then turned on him; he had a marriage that was breaking up and he wasn’t quite sure where he was anymore.

‘I used to wake up and think, “What’s going on?” But now I don’t analyze it. I think some people might find that rather bland - they would rather I announced that I have some terrible dark side and confess that I wander around with drugs hanging out of my arm, falling into the gutter or something.

'And on the other side I’ve had that decent-bloke thing, which became a bit of a cross to bear. I think over the past three or four years, I was really losing a sense of who I was. The media construction of my personality was changed according to whim and I was never sure whether to second-guess it, to be it or not to be it, or just get very paranoid about it. Now I just say to myself, “Well, you are who you are. You have done these things and there is no point worrying about it or trying to analyze it.”

He does manage to live a fairly normal life, he says. The whirlwind engulfing his personal life has moved on and, for now, he is able to do mostly what he wants - see his friends and do what he wants to do (admittedly, just lately, that seems to be working).

‘I try to live life without leading a secret squirrel existence. You have to, otherwise you go the other way and become a paranoid fucker who is so careful about what you do that you never actually do anything. I suppose some people might think that it's a quietish life, but it’s noisy enough for me. Work will sometimes find you in a big glitzy hotel, doing a promotion or going to an opening, but I don’t feel comfortable going to lots of showbizzy restaurants.

‘I don’t have too much attention [from the press] now. I mean, I’m in one film a year or something and they’re hardly action blockbusters. I think TV soap stars have many more problems leading some kind of normal life than I do. I have mates who I see on a regular basis. You have to work at seeing your friends and make sure that you’re not getting sucked into some kind of martyr existence. So we go on a few benders, we have a laugh.

‘In fact, we had a great laugh on ‘Hamlet’. We formed a crap band called the Fishmongers - you know, three cord wonders, and we had a real giggle.'

One of Branagh’s many talents is his ability to motivate. He has the knack of persuading people like Billy Crystal (First Gravedigger), Robin Williams (Osric) and even dear old Ken Dodd (Yorick, seen in flashback ) to get on board the Hamlet special. He also, perhaps with a steady eye on the all-powerful American box office, mixes and matches his cast so it reads like some hybrid of the American and British versions of the Actor’s Directory - there’s Charlton Heston (Player King) alongside Brian Blessed (Ghost), Jack Lemmon (Marcellus) with Richard Briers (Polonius). 'I like the clash it provides, and it makes for an interesting atmosphere on set. The various techniques come together. Someone like Robin [Williams], for instance, was great. He liked to improvise and was able to do so, within the framework of the lines, and that’s very helpful in terms of getting some of the spontaneity into Shakespeare. Some of the outtakes are hysterically funny. But he was shitting himself, let me tell you. Jack Lemmon was up for the gig. But he was very nervous too.'

Branagh was also able to persuade the big-name cast to do the job for a fraction of the fee they would normally receive. ‘Most of them earned the kind of money that was the equivalent of a week’s expenses on any other film.’

He has been intrigued, some would say obsessed, with the play since he fist saw it as a 15-year-old. ‘I was completely stuck by the power of it. I was astonished by what a terrific thriller it was. It had everything - murder, violence, passion, a ghost - and I experienced a part of what made ‘Hamlet’ so profoundly powerful. It was utterly compelling.’

It has taken him seven years to bring the play to the screen (he has wanted to do it ever since he finished ‘Henry V’). Filmed on epic wide-screen 70mm - the first British film in more than 20 years to use the format - ‘Hamlet’ used up five soundstages at Shepperton, with exterior shots at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. It looks, quite simply, magnificent and, as Branagh says himself, if you think Hamlet by necessity means gloomy castles, dour costumes and pudding-bowl hairstyles, think again. The sets are scrumptious, the costumes luxurious and the whole thing positively glows on screen. Branagh has, undoubtedly, given an awful lot of himself into it.

‘Coming back to this project was like digging my feet in the earth,’ he says. ‘They are publishing a screenplay and a diary of the project and I was asked to do a foreword. I said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it right now. I have nothing else to say because it’s all in the film.” And that’s how I feel.

‘It’s been full of anxiety and responsibility, directing a film like this with a finite budget and in a certain amount of time, but it was really enjoyable. This was the last point when I could fill the age requirement for ‘Hamlet’ and, at the same time, have the right amount of life experience to inform the part in ways that, perhaps, you are not even conscious of but that somehow lend it a bit more weight.

‘The film has a kind of maturity, or at least I hope it does. By virtue of me having made more films and having had some practice with the part and the play, it’s a more assured and naturally confident piece of work. It’s not apologizing for itself, it’s not too hysterical. I didn’t feel I had to try too hard, and that allowed me to enjoy the experience of directing much more than I have done in the past.’

In other words, the man we see before us is more confident and at ease with himself. For all those years when the world was telling him he was a genius, he didn’t quite believe it. Now, after he’s been criticized and endured what was probably the worst time in his life, he has come out the other side.

‘There are things that have happened to me that I don’t really understand, but I feel less worried about it now. I think it’s quite a hard thing to get a great level of success when you are young. Somebody once said to me, “ You’re supposed to go through a period of obscurity, do a bit of rep, have some hard times and be out of work now and then, and if you don’t then there’s a price to pay.” Well, I think there has been, and I’ve paid it.

‘Certain things have happened to me, things have gone by - including a great deal of peace of mind - over the past few years. But I think I’m heading into some sort of light now, I really do...’

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