Being Branagh

Student Newspaper (Edinburgh) - March 2004
By Abi Doyle

After over a decade in film, award-winning actor and director Kenneth Branagh has recently returned to the stage. He talks exclusively to Abi Doyle, sharing his thoughts on fame, the Bard and his love of the theatre and spring rolls.

Kenneth Branagh watches "I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here". He was an avid fan of the latest run, tuning in each evening for a jungle update. It gets better. Phoning him on a Friday evening, he was just sitting down to a take away with his art director wife Lindsey Brunnock, seemingly a very regular couple, having a quiet night in after a busy week; "We’re just here with a bit of Chinese food, I’ve got my spring roll and a glass of wine. There’s all new "Top of the Pops", "Eastenders", "Friends", and then "Celebrity", so it’s a perfect Friday night". Surely my ears deceive me. Shakespeare’s most prolific disciple is up-to-date with the scandals of Albert Square? Admittedly, what do we really expect of illustrious luvvies at home? They’re hardly likely to spend all their time memorising Chekhov, polishing their awards and practicing their iambic pentameter. Au contraire, highly regular Mr. Branagh watches terrestrial television. He was rooting for Johnny Rotten. He eats spring rolls! He’s really just an average guy like the rest of us. Of course, that’s not entirely true. Whatever you might think of him, Kenneth Branagh is definitely far from average.

"I knew when I was 16 that, like it or not, I felt entirely vocationally set for acting. It was something to which I was completely devoted"

Highly successful, award-winning actor, director, writer and general thespian extraordinaire, Kenneth Charles Branagh first became inspired to pursue a career in the theatre during his teens, after seeing Derek Jacobi play Hamlet on stage. "I knew when I was 16 that, like it or not, I felt entirely vocationally set for acting - once I discovered it through school plays, and had enough encouragement from people who genuinely believed that I had a chance. It was something to which I was completely devoted." At 18, Branagh attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, "I had a great time at RADA, it was perfect for me. I worked with lots of good people, good teachers. The whole experience gave me what I needed."

By his mid-20s Branagh had established himself as the 1980s golden boy of British theatre, with the contemporary press often comparing him to the theatrical legend, Laurence Olivier. He became the Royal Shakespeare Company’s youngest actor to ever play the lead in "Henry V". Branagh would later revive the role in 1989, making his first film of the same title, earning himself two Academy Award nominations at 29, for both Best Director and Best Actor.

With his marriage to Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson in 1989, for several years ‘Ken & Em’ reigned as British film’s royal couple. Rarely out of the limelight, the public pressure was certainly unremitting during this period. Turning his attention to the silver screen, the choice to consistently take on a dual director/actor role in his films incited both acclaim and criticism from the ever fickle British press, often keen to carp Branagh’s ardent ambition. Yet he certainly makes no apologies for his choices in the past; "I’ve less of an agenda than people think. The experience of working in leading roles in Shakespeare is to understand that the approach of the principle actor is so central a part of how that whole production organically emerges. I can’t imagine many directors not viewing any production without a strong kind of connection to how that actor will play the leading part. The two are so interlinked. It’s not necessarily what I would do in the future. I’d be interested to direct a Shakespeare film that I wasn’t in. Although from a money-raising point of view, the financiers are often keen that I am in it, because of previous work, it often draws people in."

The precedent Branagh has set for himself, in being so closely affiliated with Shakespeare on stage and screen, has often created a sense of expectation in anything new he embarks upon. He has frequently choosen roles quite separate from the Shakespearean canon, proving his versatility as an actor, and remains positive when anticipating public reaction; "I think if you’ve had a degree of success, and if you’ve been associated with particular kinds of work, then in the nicest possible way you do create certain expectations. You’re glad that you do, because it means you may work again. I think one ends up seeing it less as the pressure of expectation, and more the enthusiasm of interest. You have to be motivated by your own joy in the work itself, and your own passionate response to the material - rather than too much concern for either not messing up, or trying to second guess what the audience might want, or trying, particularly with Shakespeare, to make it too self-consciously ‘different’ from another production of the same play. I think you have to find a way to be true to yourself."

In recent years Branagh has increasingly shied away from the public eye. With such critical disappointments as "Wild Wild West", and "Love’s Labour’s Lost", to an extent he endured a certain fall from grace. Though his resilient character and genuine passion have always been strong, and with the success of the Channel 4’s epic "Shackleton", and the HBO Nazi Germany drama "Conspiracy", he seems to be making a comeback.

Most recently, from June until November last year, Branagh has been starring in David Mamet’s play "Edmond" at London’s National Theatre, a role for which he has just earned himself a Best Actor nomination at this year’s prestigious Olivier Awards. "It’s another feather in the cap for the National Theatre who are having a big run of excellent work. It’s always nice for a work to be recognised, and be in the company of people you admire. I was very happy".

Edmond charts the events of one night, and a middle-class New York businessman’s descent into madness, murder and demonic debauchery. "The nearest sort of cinema reference would be the Michael Douglas film "Falling Down". It’s the so-called ‘little guy’ finally having enough of his lot, and turning." A typical middle-aged crisis experience is literally stripped to its rawest from, and thus the play presents far more atypical realms of irrationality, chaos and destruction. "We were aware that it was very powerful. There seemed to be a lot of audience recognition, a lot of people thinking ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’. It’s your worst nightmare realised. A lot of people were very moved by it." Playing such a tormented, disintegrating soul certainly took its toll on the actor, "It was exhausting. It was a short play, but very concentrated. Though, you know, when you’re getting a full house, and very strong reactions, and where the story is definitely provoking people, there really was something meaningful about the experience. It was very rewarding."

Branagh’s involvement in "Edmond" has hailed his first appearance on a London stage in 11 years. For over a decade he’d worked tirelessly in cinema, somewhat neglecting the theatrical medium toward which he’d so long aspired; "I was entirely surprised that I’d spent so long away having, prior to the long break, done a play certainly once, usually twice a year. It’s just that there were stories I wanted to tell, and parts I wanted to play and so I didn’t make a conscious decision to come back."

Branagh joins a somewhat thriving trend of cinema heavyweights appearing in the West End in recent months. The thought of slumming it in cramped dressing rooms, with less than subtle wage-cuts, has failed to discourage actors such as Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey and Gwyneth Paltrow, who’ve donned their robes in the name of theatre, and love for the craft. The debate behind the legitimacy of stage versus screen is one which Branagh is all too familiar with; "When I did the play in London, there was all sort of talk of ‘the return’. Now I didn’t view it that way at all, nor do I view basically any difference between trying to get one thing right, or do one thing well, in any creative medium. I don’t go along really with the idea that you can make a judgement between the value of one or the other, but I do recognise that often people do feel that, that there is some sense that your acting chops are better exercised, or more challenged in the theatre. I would agree that it’s a different kind of hard work, and obviously the financial rewards don’t remotely compare. I think it’s different and some might argue more special, because it’s live, and the audience are part of the experience."

"I’m more comfortable doing as little of what being a so-called celebrity involves, as it allows me to continue working."

Branagh might joke about his own enjoyment of shows such as "Celebrity", "It is a guilty pleasure, there’s no question about that", though his thoughts on the concept of celebrity do take a more serious tone; "I think you have to view it in the context of the way the entertainment industry works. The concept of celebrity is the latest version of a tradition, the simplest version of which was, if you were a strolling ‘player’ and you arrived in a village, you’d have to go around and drum up custom. You’d have to tell them you were there, you’d have to sell tickets. It’s part of the ‘beggarish’ aspect of doing what we do. What I’d regard as the ‘excesses’ of it, I’m not crazy about personally. In terms of viewing myself in any excessive way, as a commodity, I’m not really interested in that. I don’t particularly find myself interesting, so why should other people be interested? It just takes too much time away from the actual process of creating work. I’m more comfortable doing as little of what being a so-called celebrity involves, as it allows me to continue working."

Tirelessly driven, Branagh rarely stops unless he has to. He is currently developing three screenplays, one of which is a film adaptation of the hugely successful comedy "The Play What I Wrote", which he directed in 2001 in the West End and on Broadway. However, the determination and fire of his younger years now seem to have been supplanted by a greater sense of calm and contentment in his outlook. Branagh is in his 40s now, and with countless accolades as actor, director, writer and now producer, the ambitions of his youth seem all but fulfilled. While the artistic seeds will continue to sow, the constant pressure to quieten critics and to prove his talent and resilience now seems to have lifted.

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