10 DECEMBER 1998

Jude Tessel meets with Ken to give him the Ken-Friends birthday present (our list t-shirt and a charitable donation to the organization of which he is patron, the Ulster Youth Theatre in Northern Ireland) and is sweet enough to tell Compendium readers about it...

Click here for Ken's thank-you note

Click here for The Photos

I arrived in New York City on Wednesday, December 9th, with a promise from Tamar Thomas, Ken's assistant, that she would get in touch with me, and a ticket to The Theory of Flight movie premiere and reception dinner. The call came at 10:10 am on December 10th. Tamar invited me to have tea with Ken and her at 4:30pm in their hotel, where they would be working all day. I would have 30 minutes with Ken. I immediately put on my walking shoes and hiked over to their hotel to time the trip...20 minutes, normal speed.

45 minutes before the appointed time, I stepped into a taxi and directed him to take me to Ken's hotel. I thought if I took a taxi I could wear nice shoes and not work up a sweat. There are two hotels with the same name but 12 blocks apart. If I hadn't known exactly where I was going the taxi driver would have taken me to the wrong one. The 20 minute walk was taking 25 minutes which was making me quite nervous, so I made the driver drop me at the cross street and I walked around the block. Up until I arrived at Ken's hotel I had been nervous about getting the meeting and then about being on time, but when I hit the hotel lobby I turned to jelly and had to sit there and calm down. I had 20 minutes wait before I could call Tamar to meet me. While I was sitting in the tiny lobby Helena walked right past me...my reaction time was slow enough that by the time I thought to call out her name she was out the door.

At 4:25pm the hotel staff called Tamar in her room. She said she wasn't quite ready, to have me wait 5 more minutes and then escort me to the meeting room. Well, the meeting room turned out to be a small, formal dining room. The waiter took me to a table at the window across from the entrance. I chose the seat opposite the entrance so I could watch Ken arrive, and so Ken would have to sit on one side of me and Tamar on the other (the waiter removed the place setting across from me). There was no one else in the room. Exactly 5 minutes later Tamar arrived. She finally let me know what Ken had been told - she told him that I had come a long way to attend the premiere and she thought it would be nice to invite me to tea with them in thanks. So that was the set up. Ken has written to me before, but I made no assumption that he connected anything I had sent him in the past to the person he was meeting. Tamar and I ordered our tea, each a different flavor, each served in a silver pot with strainer and strainer holder. I had a huge black duffle bag on the floor between her and me, hiding the gift box so Ken wouldn't see it. Tamar had volunteered to take photos of the event, so I showed her how to use my camera "...no, you push THIS button."

Just 5 minutes later Ken walked through the door and came over to the table. I stood up, extended my hand which he shook then kissed me on both cheeks. He was wearing an avocado green shirt, open collar, with a dark, dark green suit. Locks of his hair curled on either side of his forehead. No facial hair whatsoever. And he did not have a smell. Really! I detected no cologne, aftershave or cigarettes. The waiter immediately came over and asked if Ken wanted tea. Ken ordered coffee instead. When the waiter brought the coffee he also brought a tiered tray of pastries. Ken put 2 teaspoons of unrefined sugar in his coffee. He chose a miniature pecan tart from the pastry tray to begin with.

I thought I would stare at him; I had imagined finally seeing those dark blue eyes up close, but what I saw was the whole which is much more than just the parts together. I was awestruck by the quiet, gentleness that he presented. He was soft-spoken and didn't exhibit any of his nervous habits. The shock of sitting next to him affected my power of observation admittedly. But I managed to hold myself together and not embarrass myself which was an accomplishment. I poured only a slight amount of tea on the saucer/table when I was trying to pour and look at Ken at the same time. Recovery was quick.

He asked me where Cincinnati, Ohio was and talked about knowing New York and LA, but not the rest of the US, that he would like to travel across the US and learn more of it. He commented on the flatness of Santa Fe, how the horizon stretched so far. He told me about them filming a part of WWW in Santa Fe where his tarantula fired on a building but because all the old buildings were connected, they all burned. I told him I was so looking forward to seeing Theory of Flight later and he hoped I would like it. I asked if he would be staying to view the film and he said that he would since he hadn't seen the final cut. He usually sees one of his movies a couple times. He asked if I'd seen Celebrity and I told him I had seen it 3 times and thought he was great in it. Then I said I was disheartened by the bad press he had gotten over his work. He said he thinks that is his lot in life now and doesn't let it get in his way.

This seemed like the perfect segue, so I said that a lot of people really like his work and admire what he does. And I would now reveal the real reason we were having this meeting. I pulled out the gift box, handed it to him and wished him a happy birthday from the Ken-Friends email list, his online "fan club" (sorry, I was searching for words there), with the appropriate embellishments about how grateful we are to him for what he does. "Well, thank you very much" was his reply.

Ken gingerly removed the birthday card from its envelope and read it aloud but softly. When he came to the part that says "good feelings, good friends" he agreed with the statement then opened the card. He read the inside of the card without speaking and then turned to me with a huge grin on his face.

He tore off the wrapping paper and ribbon to reveal a silver box from The GAP. "Something from The GAP!" he exclaimed. "No, it's just the box I used." I told him. He had trouble getting the 2 pieces of tape split that held the box tight. "Do I peel or cut this?" he asked. Perhaps he's had a personal assistant too long. Tamar told him to take his knife and cut the tape, but he already was trying to peel the tape from the bottom of the box. (This man has not had enough experience opening presents!). With the box opened, Ken was faced with tissue paper illustrated with gold, olive and burgundy colored antique books (quite common stock at any Barnes and Noble). He studied the paper several seconds then held it up for Tamar to see and said "Isn't this great?", meanwhile I was kicking myself for not using the matching wrapping paper on the outside of the box. He finally folded back the tissue and came first to a bubble wrapped picture frame. Ken now had become quite adept at removing the tape. As he tore the bubble protective covering from the picture frame he said "I bet Fergus would have fun playing with this stuff." (Fergus is Tamar's baby boy.) He then read the certificate that announced our charitable donation carefully, turned it to face Tamar so she could take another photo, and said "This is fantastic!". Then he put it down on the table to his left. "Did you see how MUCH it's FOR?" Tamar insisted, not satisfied because he wasn't voicing being utterly gobsmacked. "Yes! You've done a marvelous thing. They can use it." I told him that we had chosen to send the money to the general fund instead of The Renaissance Award Trust at which he replied "That's fine. It's an endowment, so it grows on its own, though it has tapered off." Ken picked up the certificate from the table, read it again then returned it to its place, saying "Seeing 38 written down is sorta scarey." "I shall have to find a place for THIS". He then started to refold the tissue to close the box. "NO! There's more in there!" I exclaimed.

Tamar asked how we had raised all the money and I said through t-shirt sales, outright donations and auctions of Ken's tapes, books on tape, programs and photos.

Next Ken took out the t-shirt, unfolded it, held it up in front of him and read it. "I can see this is a group of mad, passionate people". "The other quotes on the t-shirt reflect how we feel as well" I told him. "I will wear this shirt." "Your Mum might like one too," Tamar added. I offered to get one for his MUM and he said he would think about it. I offered to print more shirts for the cast and crew of LLL if he wanted to give it as a gift. "They'd probably be upset that there wasn't a line from LLL on the shirt, though" he replied.

Under the t-shirt in the box was the clear folder that held all the information on the project and the list of contributors. "Look where all these peple are from!" Ken said with the high pitched intonation he uses when he is excited.

The last thing he came to was a natural colored tote bag with the same imprint as our t-shirt. (I had a few of these made for myself as an experiment when the shirts were printed. They were very plain bags and I had no intention of giving him one, but then a friend suggested I include one so he could put all the other gifts in it and keep them together til he gets home. Clever lady. He did put everything in the tote and take it with him.) Anyway, he really stopped and read all the quotes this time. Then he said "Everything is wonderful. Thank you." "I will write something to the whole group." (After Ken left the room, Tamar told me a couple times how touched he was and that he was near tears.)

Following the gift opening there was time for me to ask a few of the hundred questions I had gathered for Ken.

J: Will you be playing Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost?

K: I'm 99% sure I will be. I haven't played it before, I played the King of Navarre on stage.

J: Yes, I know.

K: There's a lot of poetry in the part. It takes someone experienced for Berowne to work with the language. LLL will have a 1929ish setting.

J: What is your schedule for the next three Shakespeare movies?

K: I'll make LLL, Macbeth and AYLI in 4-5 years. Whether Macbeth and AYLI get made will depend somewhat on how well LLL does. If if doesn't do well, it will be harder to raise the money for the other 2.

J: You seem to like to work in the winter.

K: I'm an Irish boy who doesn't do summer sun. Yes, I like winter. I like its melancholy and a roaring fire. A Winter's Tale would be good too. There's other great material out there I'm interested in. I'm reading material on who was Shakespeare at the moment. I think he was some bloke from Avon. (something about Christopher Marlowe I didn't hear clearly.) I'm interested in biopics but they are hard to do. You end up concentrating on small pieces of time and rushing through the rest. I've been reading about the Booth family. The whole family is fascinating. The favorite picture I have is of Edwin Booth as Hamlet. (I supplied a short narrative of Booth controversies I have read.)

K: These stories do break down into controversy. There was a Shakespeare hoax for some time. Fake letters appeared that were supposed to be written by William Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway. Do you know Josephine Tey's book "The Daughter of Time" where the detective is working from his hospital bed?

J: Yes, I do.

K: Also a good story.

J: Will you ever do another book on tape?

K: They are hard to do. It would be okay if one could do them 2 hours a day over a fortnight, but it takes a block of 8 hours in a sterile atmosphere that is hard to work in. I love them myself. I've listened to many by other actors. My favorite of mine is "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" by Laurie Lee. That was a wonderful time. When someone could walk across Europe and not worry about muggers and rapists. I love the part in Spain. Also time is an issue. I'm guarded of the extra time I have. There are so many things I want to do. I need to say no to a lot.

J to T: Have you told him about The Spanish Prisoner? (I had told Tamar about them using Ken's bd in it).

T: No I haven't.

J: Have you seen The Spanish Prisoner?

K: No, not yet.

J: The main character played by Campbell Scott, when asked for vital information, gives your birthdate, December 10, 1960. Was this meant as a tribute that you are aware of?

K: I know Campbell is in the same age range as me...

J: Yes, but his birthday is in October.

K: I know David Mamet a little, but I haven't heard anything about this.

J: May I ask some Dead Again questions?

K: Sure.

J: 2186, is this a significant date? 2186 is on Amanda's building but her driver's license lists her address as 1454 Hightower.

K: No significance. It's the real number on the building. We changed the address to protect the location. I was surprised how fast an audience I was with picked up the Shakespeare Bridge sign. It really goes by quickly, just a flash in the picture.

J: How about 43B on the baseball player's uniform?

K: No. Scott Frank and I made up 3 movie posters. There were whole stories behind them. That was one of them.

Tamar cut Ken off at 5:15, or we might have gone on talking for hours. I barely got started on my list of questions. She did take 2 photos of me with Ken. He signed my t-shirt, pocketed my marker and left with his bag of gifts.

I half walked, half ran back to the hotel, arriving at 5:46 to rush through changing clothes for the premiere and telling Jane and Paula everything I could at the same time. Jane's account of the evening needs no embellishment on my part. The only thing I'll add is: when it was time to leave The Plaza Ballroom and Ken saw me, he took my hand again, kissed me one more time on the cheek and said "I was so touched by what you did." Then he asked about my friends.

My encounter with Kenneth Branagh far exceeded expectation. What a dear MAN!