Kenneth's New World See the photo
Madame Figaro, 29 May 1998
It is raining on London, and the old-fashioned suite at the Dorchester looks like a gloomy living room in the English countryside in winter. Fortunately there are my host's sunny fairness and warm voice. Whereas the British press claims he is haughty, even megalomaniac (didn't he dare to publish his memoirs when he was only 23?), he is all charm, smiles, exquisite manners, and, let's be frank, terribly...sexy. Kenneth Branagh, the French moviegoers' British idol, is much more handsome than on screen!
He is the wizard who made the unforgettable "Henry V" and the amazing "Hamlet", the poet who got tangled in the melodramatic "Frankenstein", the Machiavellian seducer of "Peter's Friends", the golden boy of the Shakespearian theatre who broke Laurence Olivier's record of adulation - and sometimes criticism.
Now he is the tired hero of an American thriller. Looking older and with a crumpled goateed face in "The Gingerbread Man", Robert Altman's new film, he plays a brilliant Savannah lawyer who is at a loss, who chases the girls and gets enmeshed in a love story with a treacherous waitress who will lead him to his ruin. A story "full of cry and fury" [sic], of explosions, suspense and violence, with a cyclone in the background. Whereas just recently Branagh was swearing he would never play in a thriller...
But he hadn't allowed for Altman, whom he reveres because of "his such original view of the characters, his very tactful way of directing, his respect for the actors' personal work". It is Altman's first thriller, and for Kenneth it is a chance to try his hand at this genre and to accept its rules. All the more so since, as a moviegoer, he confesses a passion for shady atmospheres. And he has wonderful memories of the films with Barbara Stanwyck, of Hitchcock's perfectly constructed mysteries, of "Laura" which is one of his cult films.
"So, when the director called me, you can imagine how happy I was to find myself back in my element." His element, really, as a man who is ill-at-ease, rather naïve and even childish?
"But most men are like that! Rather than naïve, they get deceived by appearances because of their vanity, they want to satisfy their drives, the sexual ones among other things, they think they are stronger and therefore protective. This is the human comedy." I quote his colleague, Warren Beatty, the actor/director/womanizer, who said that an actor needs five percent at least of a character in himself to be able to play it, he admits this is well thought out. "The five percent I myself claim is about passion, such a passion that you accept to pay for it, even if you must suffer."
Might these words be the sign of a more intimate confession? Like a male chauvinist, he laughs and says: "Woman is programmed for monogamy, but man wants to prove to himself that he can do everything." For instance, to change his style, his image, his life completely? To be single again, after having been a mythical couple with the divine Emma Thompson? To end his Shakespearian feasts as a director and an perfomer to become just an actor in American films?
He defends himself: "But this is not a denial. I shall go back to Shakespeare, but you must let his works "marinate" in your mind for a while, before you give them a new vision."
About comtemporary theatre, in which he has worked with flying colours so far with his own company or on television, he agrees with Harold Pinter who said recently that, with regard to intellectual turmoil, England is letting up. "This is an inevitable situation. The film industry has woken up and attracts stage actors to the screen, which is more rewarding and more lucrative than stage at this point. Som the theatre managers get sullen and fall fack on reruns, therefore the young playwrights are depressed and prefer to turn to screenplays, which completes the cycle."
As for himself, Kenneth wanted "to go to easier things; to learn other ways of working with foreign directors and to receive the others' suggestions, whereas up till then I was following my own ideas only." Then he adds: "It is a way of giving myself some longer periods of rest."
The ideal rest is "to drink well, to eat well." To love? The new bonds of the ex-legendary couple of the British show business are the talk of London: for Emma Thompson the actor Greg Wise and for Kenneth Branagh the very smart Helena Bonham Carter, who is descended from Prime Minister Asquith and allied to the Rothschilds; she is an actress, too, and Kenneth's favourite partner from now on.
But Kenneth prefers to avoid the subject and mentions other ways of relaxing. Like music: he likes to improvise in a jazzy style on the guitar ("badly") or on the piano ("even worse"). Or like "computer", which he calls "the most relaxing instrument in the world"! And he likes to write screenplays: "I love it and I have a beautiful story afoot, but I won't say what it is because I am superstitious."
But he is willing to talk about his character in Woody Allen's new film, "Celebrity", the first film they have made together: "He is a bit crazy, he has trouble with women... No, it has nothing to do with even five percent of myself. But, with Woody, on the other hand..." Then he will work with Sidney Lumet, who has hired him for a remake of his "12 Angry Men". Then a western with Kevin Kline. Nothing but mythical names which seem to make him dream... And maybe which make him go on, this Irish carpenter's son turned into an international star? He prefers to say: "What keeps me going is pleasure and fascination for savoir-faire. It is discovering the creators' mystery, the film-makers' art, the actors' acting. And of course there is the challenge of reaching my best. Which may seem trifling, which gives you moments of depression too, as well as a lot of joys. But, as Hamlet says, isn't the end of playing to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature?"