Made In Belfast

Sunday Mirror (UK), August 1 1999
by Hilary Morgan
*thanks to Berni

Kenneth Branagh can hardly take offence at accusations that he's legless in his latest film.

For as the evil, demented Dr Arliss Loveless in comedy Western Wild Wild West, he appears as a mere torso strapped to a bizarre, steam-driven wheelchair.

"It was most painful," recalls the RADA-educated actor, who stars alongside Will Smith, Salma Hayek and Kevin Kline in the film.

"My legs were strapped beneath me in a strange box contraption which was in theory containing my mechanical entrails, and then they screwed a metal plate down onto the box to hold my thighs and legs down, and keep my legs as close together as possible. It was terribly uncomfortable.

"I tried to be a hero for a week or two and then I started waking up with back pains and leg pains. It became blood circulation hell after 20 minutes.

"When you look at the film, you might imagine it's all computer-generated images, but my body is actually there - only painfully screwed up and contorted."

In the role, Branagh, 38, is surrounded by four stunning women who run his operation and tend to his every whim and desire.

"Well, yes, the job does sometimes has its benefits," he laughs.

In real life Branagh has been with actress Helena Bonham-Carter, 33, for four years, after meeting her on the set of their 1994 movie Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, bringing an end to his six-year marriage to Emma Thompson.

Throughout the ensuing media onslaught, the very private couple have maintained a dignified silence.

"A third party doesn't break up a relationship. It just means that you weren't meant to be," reflects Branagh. "Em and I are friends, we talk, although it's sometimes hard for me to watch the films we made together.

"In a sense you've got visible memories of rather happy occasions, although it takes you a while to get to the point where you view them that way. It just is what it is, you know?

"It's always sad, marriages breaking up. But I refuse to be affected over issues like this by how the world at large appears to feel. Suddenly, it's lights, action, cameras. And we're all exposed. And not in a very nice way.

"It was not an easy time, and there were moments I was tempted to move to America to escape it all, but in the end those things that are irritating at the time, they blow over. I don't believe in flouncing off. I used to wake up and think, 'F****** hell, what's going on?'

"But now I don't analyse it. I've got this background, which helps - like an instant switch that I can throw and it tells me who I am, where I came from.

"I think some people might find that rather bland, they'd rather I confessed to some terrible dark side and that I wander around with drugs hanging out of my arm, falling into the gutter.

"But I am who I am. I have done these things and there's no point worrying about it or trying to analyse it."

Kenneth Branagh grew up in Belfast, a place he remembers as a small city with a village feel. His father, was a joiner and both his grandfathers laboured at the docks. He says it's the only place where he's ever been consistently happy and he looks back on his Belfast upbringing as one of the happiest times of his life.

"All we ever did was play on the street. There was no fear. When we were called in for tea mum just stood on the step and yelled our names - perhaps that's where I inherited some vocal projection," he says.

The extended family atmosphere was important to him, and he remembers lots of nights in with his parents listening to their tales of their own upbringings.

"My parents would sit us round the fire and tell us about growing up in their large families in poor neighbourhoods during the war. My aunts and uncles would visit and neighbours pop in and everyone would do their turn."

His dad had been working in England and commuting to Belfast at weekends since 1967, but Branagh's mum and the rest of their family stayed put in Ireland.

But in 1970, The Troubles began to disturb the family's life and Kenneth's mum decided it was time to move. He was nine when they moved to Reading and claims that losing his accent was an act of self preservation.

"They just couldn't understand us. It got me down after a while but I felt very ashamed at losing my accent. So for a while I would be English at school and then come home and be Irish because I was so afraid of upsetting my mother," he says.

Branagh returns to Belfast about twice a year. He is the patron of two charities and all his films have their premieres there.

"It was difficult for us at first," he says, referring affectionately to his blue-blooded girlfriend as Helly, "but we are today surprised and gratified that the British Press has finally realised people around the world don't wake up every morning wondering what I'm doing in my private life.

"I've never really felt victimised. True, I've suffered my share of slings and arrows but it goes with the territory. "What's kept us going is the fact that Helena and I both have very politically incorrect senses of humour.

I think that's what drew us together in the first place," he says, holding a Marlboro cigarette to thin lips set amid jowls that look more accustomed to smiling than frowning.

Compact and evenly built, he is wearing jeans, a dark leather jacket and shaggy hair.

He looks and sounds less like a prince of Denmark or an English monarch than a lad from a rugby team; more comfortable with a pint of Guinness than the china coffee cup he now holds at Beverly Hills' swanky Four Seasons Hotel.

If he is not of the people exactly, he is as close to them as anyone from the Royal Shakespeare Company currently renting a house in Bel Air is likely to come.

While his ex-wife Emma Thompson is now expecting a baby by actor boyfriend Greg Wise Branagh is in no hurry to do the same.

"I love kids. There are lots of friends who can't have them and so I never assume. But we haven't been actively trying, so it may or may not be on my dance card," he says.

While he refuses to reveal whether he has officially moved into the London home Helena bought two years ago, he does admit to enjoying pottering around in her garden and trying new recipes.

"As far as celebrity goes, I try not to get too caught up in it. It's possible to find a normal way through it somehow," he say.

He's a Spurs supporter. He's partial to a drink. And when not penguined out for some gala performance, he wears jackets and trousers that look slept in.

"Woody Allen told me the best thing about being famous is being able to jump the queue at restaurants. I don't know whether I approve of that, but it does have its benefits," he says.

"For most of the time, I'm left alone. It's not as if I'm Brad Pitt or Leo DiCaprio!"

But he's in hot demand nevertheless. Branagh has done five new movies in the space of the past 12 months - sci-fi drama Alien Love Triangle; Wild Wild West; animated feature The Road to El Dorado; and serious drama The Betty Schimmel Story.

"I'm happiest when I'm busy, although I don't know whether that's a good or bad thing," muses the man who once again turns to Shakespeare for his next film - a musical version of Love's Labours Lost set in the 1930s, marking his fourth movie adaptation of a Shakespeare play.

"I'm a much happier guy these days. I've always had so many dreams in my life, and when I take the time to reflect on what I've achieved, it gives me great peace of mind to see that I have realised the greater part of them.

"But by no means do I feel like I've accomplished everything I wanted to do," he adds. "I'm an onwards and upwards kind of guy."

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