Branagh Keeps Perspective Through First Hollywood Adventure
Salt Lake Tribune, September
by Terry Orme
At the relatively tender age
of 30, Kenneth Branagh has been called a lot of things: Shakespearean
wunderkind. The next Olivier. Genius. ``I reserve
the right to make a complete ass out of myself as, no doubt,
many people already think I have and, no doubt, I certainly will
in years to come,'' he said last week over the phone from Los
Angeles, his home away from home for the last few months.
Nonetheless, the applause continues.
The Belfast-born, London-educated
Mr. Branagh took the movie world by storm two years ago with
his accessible, exciting and boldly anti-war ``Henry V.'' He's
being pelted with hyperbole again with the release of his new
movie, ``Dead Again,'' a surprising about-face from ``Henry V''
and the other Shakespearean pursuits that, up until now, have
dominated his career.
``Dead Again'' combines the Hollywood
staples of film noir and the romance of the '40s with such new-age
themes as reincarnation. There's a little of Hitchcock's ``Rebecca''
and ``Dial M for Murder,'' and of ``The Third Man.'' Mr. Branagh,
who directed the film and plays two roles, displays an affection
for Hollywood classics in ``Dead Again.'' He also delights in
throwing in some devilish satire of the genres.
It was the aura of Hollywood
homage in Scott Frank's script that attracted Mr. Branagh.
``I didn't set out to do something
180 degrees from `Henry V.' The `Dead Again' script didn't just
amuse or divert me. It socked me between the eyes. Scott Frank's
script has a lot of references to the moods of other films, to
the world of filmmaking that many of us have grown up watching,
if only on television. The world of the classic black-and-white
mystery.'' In ``Dead Again,'' Mr. Branagh plays
Mike Church, a modern-day Los Angeles private eye, and Roman
Strauss, a European composer whose marriage to a musician in
the '40s ended tragically. She was murdered; he condemned to
death for the crime.
The director-actor co-stars with
his wife, Emma Thompson, who had a small, but prominent, role
in ``Henry V'' as Princess Katherine of France. She recently
was featured in ``Impromptu.'' Ms. Thompson, too, has dual roles:
Grace, a mysterious woman who has lost her memory and becomes
involved with Mr. Branagh's private investigator, and Margaret
Strauss, the musician whose life ends in operatic tragedy.
Ms. Thompson and Mr. Branagh
have been professional collaborators for four years, appearing
together on the London stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
They have been husband and wife for two years. Mr. Branagh says
the daily segue between their personal and professional lives
is easy and natural.
``We have a professional relationship
during the day, and a personal one at night. Thank God we worked
together for a long time before we got involved. We always work
on the acting separately. We never talk about it at home. And
then we share with each other, and the rest of the actors, at
rehearsal. I don't like to work with Emma on our performances
without the other actors. I don't think that's fair.''
The director assembled a varied and high-powered cast for ``Dead
Again.'' Derek Jacobi, who directed Mr. Branagh in a Royal
Shakespeare production of ``Hamlet'' three years ago, plays Madson,
an eccentric antique dealer and hypnotist who begins to unravel
the mystery of Grace. Andy Garcia plays a hard-boiled journalist
of the '40s. German actress Hanna Schygulla, the star of such
Rainer Werner Fassbinder films as ``Berlin Alexanderplatz'' and
```The Marriage of Maria Braun,'' also has a role.
The biggest casting surprise
is Robin Williams in a small, but unforgettable part as a slightly
seedy psychiatrist who has been banished from the medical community
While Mr. Williams has a reputation
for ad-libbing, and changing dialogue to his liking, Mr. Branagh
said the actor approached the script to ``Dead Again'' with kid
``Robin knew that my approach
was to be as faithful as possible to the author who, after four
and a half years of working on it, would always come up with
something better than we could,'' said the director.
Mr. Branagh's respect for writers
is unusual _ if not unique _ for a director and actor working
in the movie business. As he says: ``In Hollywood, writers are
used like Kleenex.'' His reverence is partly explained
by the fact that he has spent most of the last decade interpreting
Shakespeare. However, he extends the same considerations to all
``I enjoyed enormously working
with a living writer instead of with a dead one,'' he said only
half-jokingly about making ``Dead Again'' and collaborating with
Mr. Frank. ``Writers are the true creators. What I do as an actor
is interpret, and a director coordinates other people's efforts.
The very best film directors do create. But you are only there
because of the writer.'' Mr. Branagh jokingly refers
to the fact that he wears three hats in ``Dead Again'' as ``that
whole megalomaniacal thing.'' He goes on to explain, however,
that he's not a control freak, but directing and playing the
film's two major roles seemed the most logical way to get the
``I felt strongly that the twists
in the plot would be served immeasurably better with one man
playing both parts, and one woman playing both parts. I told
the studio, `Even if I don't do it, get two actors to play the
four parts.' Emma has such a period face, and I knew she could
do the accent. For me, I've come to be able to view my work as
an actor quite objectively. I can see myself as Kenneth Branagh
the actor when I wear my director's hat.'' Mr. Branagh
also felt that if he had three key creative positions filled
_ composer, set designer and costume designer _ he could direct
the movie. He called upon his collaborators from ``Henry V''
_ Patrick Doyle, Tim Harvey and Phyllis Dalton respectively _
to join his team. He also wanted Mr. Jacobi aboard.
``There was a close group of
people who were my anchors,'' said Mr. Branagh about his collaborators.
``But the rest of it _ making a Hollywood movie _ was really
new. I discovered things as I went along and found out that the
key was months of preparation and not panicking.
``In `Henry V,' we were able
to shoot in roughly chronological order and it helped enormously.
In this movie, the practical and economic logistics of doing
all the 1940 black-and-white scenes first was impossible. It
meant that I was playing Mike Church in the morning, and Roman
Strauss in the afternoon. I would have to go stand in a corner
and take a deep breath. It was like taking out one floppy disk
and putting in another.'' With ``Dead Again'' opening
to favorable reviews and good business at the box office, Mr.
Branagh is ready for a breather. He will go home to London, ``read
a bit, eat, drink and be merry.
``I'll wait for something to
smack me the way `Dead Again' did. If that doesn't come along,
then I'll hang on until the next Shakespeare film gets made,
which I hope would be `Much Ado About Nothing.' It's sexy. It's
young. It's a great comedy, and they are the hardest things to
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