Much Ado About Kenneth
Rough Cut, December 1996
by Andy Jones
Kenneth Branagh likes to do press
for his films. That makes him very unusual in Hollywood. "If
you were back in Shakespeare's time," he says, "if
you pulled up on some cart into some village, you'd go bang on
doors and say, 'Hello, we're playing on the green tonight. Please
come and see us.' You know, you'd want people to see the work.
Why would you not want to talk about it?" In fact, Branagh
prefers a somewhat more intimate settings like this Ritz Carlton
suite in Atlanta than press junkets where five or more reporters
sit around a celebrity and write the same story for their respective
publications. He also believes getting out among the people helped
the box office take for Henry V. "Although the traveling
is grueling," Branagh says, "I'd rather do this than
the junkets. It's horrible for everybody. You know, you just
get knackered and everybody gets three minutes and it just seems
ridiculous." It is. Besides, up close and personal the Shakespearian
thespian looks great. Relaxed in a nifty four-button suit by
Kenzo puffing on Marlboro Light and chatting up reporters about
Hamlet -- his cinematic piece de resistance, Keanu and Romeo
and Juliet. In fact, he is so charming we forget that what we
really want to know is if he still loves Emma. Does he miss her?
I couldn't tell you. Too distracted by those sparkly blue eyes.
Branagh talked to Andy Jones
before heading to Los Angeles -- "The hills of Beverly,
" he says; Seattle and Vancouver.
You know, this seems like
a really, really basic question, but it's not one I've really
seen you answer, other than through your work. So, what is your
connection with Shakespeare?
Well, I don't know. I mean, it
keeps changing. I certainly don't come from a background that
would suggest that I have any connection -- until I was 15, I
hadn't seen any of his work. My parents didn't really go to the
theater, weren't really aware. When I joined the Royal Shakespeare
Company, my dad was like, "The Royal Shakespearean Company?"
He just didn't know it existed. So I don't know. Perhaps it's
the Irish blood in me responds well to words and music and poetry.
And there is sort of music in this work. There are mysterious
things that I can't explain. His power as a poet seems to get
under the skin, you know. So the first time I saw Hamlet, I was
affected by it in a sort of visceral way. I didn't really, remotely,
even now, fully comprehend the play or why. It makes you shiver
a bit when it works well. It just does, like a great piece of
music. You go back to it and you hear something different. As
you get older, you hear it differently or see it differently.
For me it's not a sort of an
airy, fairy thing, it's something that just makes me feel good,
you know... there's just something in that language that's irresistible.
I don't pretend to understand it, or, I understand it has an
impact on me. I do not consider myself a specialist about it
or an expert on it. I don't consider myself an intellectual about
it or academically sound on it. But I have an intuitive enthusiastic
response to the stories. I resist, always, giving lectures, this
kind of stuff. I just do it. So, it's a mystery to me, I must
say. I don't sit up at night reading the plays, you know, a great
big volume under the arm in a pair of black tights... you know,
looking in the mirror being marvelous.
I think most people get that
from Shakespeare eventually -- with lots of help from a good
teacher who can help show you the way through the language to
the meaning. Did somebody help you?
I certainly had a very good teacher
when I was 16, 17. And you have to see a good production, one
that captures your imagination, you know, perhaps one that's
not full of artificial voices and people, sort of congratulating
themselves. It makes people think that I'm much more intelligent
than I know myself to be because I do this type of stuff. But,
I'm not trying to be falsely modest about that, it's just a fact.
And one of the things that makes me keep doing [Shakespeare]
is because there are so many experiences of my own, both early
on and all the way through my professional life of seeing performances
that also seemed to me like watching paint dry. There is a difference
between it working well and it transporting you and when performed
badly you can't imagine a worst way to spend your time than seeing
a Shakespeare play badly performed... it's agony. Agony. Meaningless.
What if Keanu Reeves is Hamlet?
Would that qualify as agonizing?
I didn't see it. [smiles coyly]
But I commend Keanu enormously for his courage and his commitment
to it. He's, to me, a very genuine individual and I think a much
more talented actor than anybody gives him credit for.
You have worked with him...
And you got a lot of flack
for casting him in Much Ado About Nothing.
Yeah. I personally think it's
just because people find it much harder to drop the baggage that
actors may have. Maybe because movies are so huge here in America.
When people are in a successful movie, the image from that picture
goes with them. [Keanu was in] Bill and Ted, those two movies,
and that image of Keanu is one that people carry. And actors
that don't fall naturally into a way of presenting yourself in
all this circus of media, you know, so that people think, well,
that's who he is. I think, for instance, he did a beautiful job
in that Bill and Ted film, but actually doing that kind of stuff
is not remotely as easy as it looks. If it were, everybody would
be doing it much better. It has real charm, real lightness of
touch, real kind of comedic ability. I mean, he worked like a
dog on Much Ado, he's really easy to work with. And I think when
you're in his position and you know that you're gonna get flack
out of every corner for doing something like Hamlet, people would
say it's an act of hubris or vanity, I'd say an act of great
Well, it may reflect how much
he doesn't really care about what the media thinks, or he's just
unaware of all this nonsense and just wants to be an actor.
Yeah, something that might be
very expanding. It is, sort of, on a crass level. To do it is
to remember a great many words, that are quite complex and render
them understandable for an audience, there's the sword fight,
having the breath to do it... It's not brain surgery, but anybody
who has ever done any public speaking will know that you get
nervous. And although it's our job and to some extent we love
it, the anxiety thing is also part and parcel of it. And if you're
a big movie star and you're human and sensitive to people, and
take a carefree attitude regularly, then it's probably a big
thing to do.
Speaking of the anxiety, I
read somewhere that when you were younger you had a little problem
with corpsing on stage.
That's sort of a weird form of
hysteria. It's when you giggle and it usually happens in very
sort of tragic moments. Almost always has to do with the hysteria.
When you're acting in a big, powerful scene, and there's a number
of takes you get to where you can give it you're all and then
you're just sort of on the edge of either laughter or tears.
And then anything going wrong will set you off. So, suddenly,
you've been yelling at Julie Christie, you're grabbing her. And
during take five, when you grab her, you put your finger up her
nose and suddenly collapse with laughter in the middle of a scene
that ought to be terribly sensitive. You find something utterly
obscured, suddenly funny. And suddenly you're also thinking,
"What am I doing? What is this job?" I get dressed
up, I shout at a very beautiful woman in an old hut full of strange
lights and a big piece of metal pointing at me. This is a very
Eighteen million dollars I
think, is a bargain for Hamlet.
I think so. I mean, everybody
got paid the sort of minimum and we had enormous help from the
film stock people, the labs, the camera people and some cost
price dealers. It's rather sad that it's so costly but everybody
was aware of this being a very unique project.
Have you seen Romeo and Juliet?
I have. Yes. The new Romeo and
I was thinking that maybe
you would make a more accessible Hamlet, not that your Hamlet
wasn't accessible. But, we're paid to see a four hour movie.
And certainly Romeo and Juliet connected with a lot of young
people. Obviously, Hamlet doesn't have to connect with 18-year-olds
or 12-year-old who identify with Claire Danes. But did you ever
have any thoughts about doing Hamlet in a completely non-traditional
Well, I think in many ways we
do, in all honesty. I mean, as much as you get away from gothic,
gloomy stuff, get away from this whole idea that the court people
were manic-depressives. And I mean, the ideal is absolute total
realism for as many people as possible but in the end you know,
you have to follow your own artistic instincts about what you
think works. And I couldn't, in my mind, come up with a kind
directorial concept set in this century, that I thought worked
for enough parts of the play. One of the prices you pay for modernizing
is that you can make certain scenes work brilliantly in a modern
context and then lots of other things in the play fight it. What
I wanted to do was get a strong interpretive line, put it in
the 19th century, make it bright, make it sexy, and opulent and
powerful and corrupt and all the things that sort of royal family
in crisis might be surrounded by. But I tried to open up the
play as much as possible to let the audience react to it. Not
always telling them what to think, or always explaining what
I mean. I wanted to make that real clear. He's the king, he's
the prime minister, those two people are in love, those two are
his friends... make that as clear as possible and then let Shakespeare
do the rest. And let some of the, you know, magical poetry work
on them. And, interestingly, the movie is playing at three cinemas
in New York, and L.A. and Toronto and someone from New York's
Castle Rock office walked past the theater where it plays at
9:30 and it's been sold out every morning since we opened.
Nine thirty in the morning?
Yes. There's a queue round the
block every morning and they said that the makeup of the audience
is extraordinary. It's absolutely multicultural. The ages range
from octogenarian to 15-year-olds. And I think what Romeo and
Juliet has done, for us, actually, is open up a whole audience
for whom it is not an un-cool thing to consider going to a Shakespeare
play. I met a kid on a street corner in Chicago the other day
and he said, "Your movie's gonna be a hit. We've had it
booked for months. Our teacher is taking us. We saw Romeo and
Juliet." And we started talking about the two plays. I'm
talking to this 15-year old black kid in Chicago about two 400
year old plays as if they were current movies and he's interested
in the differences. There are plays that you need to bring up-to-date
and that and you need to be really radical about in the way you
treat them. But in Hamlet's case, I think there's something about
wanting to lay it out. And to hope and dare to think that the
audience will say, "I'm prepared to come along." A
different kind of accessibility is what I hope for.
Who else do you want to work
with now that you've worked with pretty much all of Hollywood
in one movie. Who else is left?
[laughs] Lots of people. I like
Hackman very much. I think he's permanently marvelous. Morgan
Freeman, I think, is probably one of the greatest actors currently
working today. Lots of people. I get excited about anybody who
does a half decent job.
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