Kenneth Branagh's Learned to be True
Calgary Sun, February 9 1997
by Louis B. Hobson
VANCOUVER -- Kenneth Branagh
hasn't actually made a pact with the devil. He's just shaken
hands with the hooved one.
It happened back in 1988 when
Branagh, then just 28, produced, directed and starred in a screen
version of Shakespeare's Henry V.
He was immediately hailed as
the new Orson Welles, a true film wonderkind.
"I knew as soon as the Oscar
nominations and the international awards started coming in that
my life would be put under a microscope. I'd no longer be a private
person. I'd belong to the world, body and soul," explains
The continued success and scrutiny
that has followed Branagh through such films as Dead Again, Much
Ado About Nothing and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has seen the
end of his marriage to actress Emma Thompson.
He is currently living with his
Frankenstein costar Helena Bonham Carter.
"I don't really resent being
watched all the time. I realize it goes with the territory. It's
difficult at times but the rewards far outweigh the personal
Had Branagh not enjoyed such
celebrity, he would never have been given $20-million US to direct
and star in his four-hour version of Shakespeare's classic Hamlet.
"I saw the play at 15. It
changed my life. The experience is what made me become an actor.
I want to try to share the joy I experienced 20 years ago with
as many people as possible."
It was always a given that Branagh
himself would play Shakespeare's brooding Danish prince but the
remainder of the casting tantalizes the imagination.
The reclusive Julie Christie
plays Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude. A major star of the '60s
and '70s and an Oscar winner for Darling, Christie all but retired
from films in the early '80s.
"So much happened to Julie
so early in her career. She is still so insecure because she
doesn't know why things work for her when she acts.
"She doesn't understand
that she's that rare thing called natural talent. It's only in
the last couple of years she has agreed to come back."
Branagh says Christie had a great
deal of advice for Kate Winslet, the 22-year-old actress who
plays Hamlet's spurned lover Ophelia.
"With the release of James
Cameron's Titanic this summer, Kate is on the verge of experiencing
the same kind of media frenzy that marked Julie's early career.
"Julie told her it's realistic
to fear the level of exposure she's going to get from a single
movie like Titanic.
To play the aging acting manager
called The Player King, Branagh turned to screen icon Charlton
"He is an acting tradition
and the remarkable thing about him is that he absolutely loves
the game of acting.
"Once he's in front of those
cameras, he is absolutely ageless. He's always been one of my
favorite actors. He's not just the man of epics but a true actor's
Branagh says he cast Jack Lemmon
as the castle guard who first sees the ghost of Hamlet's father
because "he can play an ordinary man so well. I wanted one
of the first characters the audience meets to be completely non-threatening
and that's what Jack always is.
"He's everybody's neighbor.
He's everybody's best friend. The unfortunate thing with Jack
is that he carries the baggage of being an American movie star.
"That was basically the
problem I had casting Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing.
People don't believe they can do Shakespeare when in fact they
are perfect for it."
Billy Crystal plays the grave
digger and Robin Williams is the flamboyant nobleman, Osric.
"Billy and Robin are two
of the world's funniest clowns but they also have an amazing
vulnerability. Cast them in a drama or in Shakespeare and they're
on such unfamiliar ground that they beg to be directed."
For Branagh, the most difficult
but important casting was to have British stage star Derek Jacobi
as the evil murderer and usurper Claudius.
"Derek played Hamlet in
that production I saw 20 years ago and he directed me in my first
stage Hamlet. He is my mentor and I wanted desperately for him
to play Claudius.
"He felt he wasn't bullish
and lecherous enough. Claudius is traditionally played as a kind
of debauching Henry VIII. I had to show Derek we could initially
make Claudius more sympathetic and intellectual, then he signed
Branagh also called on Gerard
Depardieu, John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough, Rosemary Harris
and Judi Dench to star in brief cameos.
"I am naughty really but
these are some of the greatest actors in the world and I wanted
to have even a brief moment with them."
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium