Kenneth Branagh Wild About Evil Role

Winnipeg Sun, June 28 1999
by Randall King

Branagh the thespian relished his role as legless Loveless

Let's acknowledge, shall we, that there is often a distinction between "actors" and "stars."

Take the summer movie The Wild Wild West, which opens Wednesday. In the role of frontier secret agent Jim West, Will Smith, a former rapper with two hit movies to his credit, is unequivocally the star. Yes, he has acting chops, as he proved in his first film, Six Degrees Of Separation, but in subsequent blockbusters, including Men In Black and Independence Day, he primarily plays a likable guy not unlike himself, in the tradition of stars such as, say, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

Kenneth Branagh, on the other hand, has got "actor" written all over him. The thespian who directed himself in the Shakespearean films Henry V, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, appears in the mind's eye as though he was born in tights.

His presence in the effects-laden blockbuster is initially confusing. Especially when you factor in the attitude of the film's director, Barry Sonnenfeld, whose philosophy of directing actors is summed up in the words: "You don't want them to act."

"You need people to talk fast," Sonnenfeld says, explaining his style of directing comedy, "Because ... if they talk fast, it's harder for them to act. And you don't want them to act."

Branagh, cast as truncated villain Dr. Arliss Loveless, was apparently the exception to the rule.

"Kenneth was always my first choice," Sonnenfeld says, "Because the great thing about British actors is that they can play really big ... and be very theatrical, but really real.

"You wanted someone who would play so big and energize the movie and anytime Kenneth is on the screen, I think the whole movie is energized in a really cool way."

In the TV series that inspired the film, Loveless was played by dwarf actor Michael Dunn. In the movie, the character has transformed into a wheelchair-bound half-man, his legs and lower torso having been blown off while fighting for the losing side of the Civil War.

"I knew about the series and didn't want to be too influenced by it," Branagh says, "Barry said, 'This is going to be a very different Loveless, so don't go and get yourself confused. You won't be a midget in this, but you'll be very short anyway.'"

Short in stature, but evidently not short in power. Loveless is a loud, baroque villain where everyone else in the film is comparatively subdued.

"This kind of film needs a villain like this," Branagh says.

In his own twisted way, Loveless is passionate and even charismatic ... for a megalomaniac. For inspiration, Branagh looked to an unexpected source.

"The accent was influenced in style alone, not content, I hasten to add, by television evangelists and their extraordinarily dramatic delivery," he says, adding he was impressed by the sheer showmanship of the typical southern evangelist.

"Their amazing swoops, vocally, their ability to growl down here in the low registers, then be, a minute later, in a falsetto and when they feel something sadly, their eyes fill with tears ... and then they turn around and they're shouting at you and you're scared shitless," he says. "The whole thing is hypnotic, not for what they're saying but the kind of complete and utter belief in what they're doing."

"Their performing style is very grandiloquent and extravagant and very actorly, often self-consciously so, but often brilliantly done. Every sentence is a five-act drama."

That big approach no doubt compensated for the fact Branagh went against extreme physical limitations in the role. Since his legs and lower body weren't supposed to exist, Branagh had to fit his legs into a box beneath his steam-driven wheelchair.

"They actually had to screw a metal plate down to keep my thighs down and keep my legs as close together as possible," he says. "A half an hour of that and it was blood-circulation hell.

"It definitely changes you," he adds. "It changes your voice, it changes everything literally if you can't put your feet on the ground, which I was never able to do. You have a completely different relationship with the way you move."

As for the wheelchair, well let's just say speech isn't the only thing Sonnenfeld liked to go quickly.

"That wheelchair was very nippy and very agile, and Sonnenfeld always wanted it to go much quicker," he says. "There were a lot of moments where I exit very, very quickly, and then there's a crash off camera."

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium