Kenneth Branagh: Beyond the Bard

Kenneth Branagh made such a splash with his Henry V that Hollywood imported him not only to direct the thriller Dead Again, but star in both leading roles.

Offhand, I can't think of too many 28-year-olds these days whose autobiographies might demand my attention. Magic Johnson maybe--but he had four championship rings by that age. A memoir from anyone under 30 who doesn't have four rings seems a little untoward, doesn't it? Which brings us to the curious case of Irish-born British sensation Kenneth Branagh, who did, in fact, pen his first-person yelp at 28. And mind you, this was before the actor-director-producer-writer-impresario-wunderkind had conquered the critical world on both sides of the Atlantic with his passionate, melancholy, anti-jingoistic film of Henry V (an accomplishment all the more startling for being a nervy repeat of Laurence Olivier's grand coup of 1945). And, needless to say, it was before he came to Hollywood, to direct and star in a major motion picture--Paramount's Dead Again.

It should be said out front, in defense of Branagh, that he had the only tenable excuse one could have for agreeing to pen one's autobiography at such a tender age--money. He was madly running his upstart Renaissance Theatre Company out of his own flat, and he took the book advance to finance bigger lodgings. The question that remains, then, is: what did the publisher think he was buying?

Very simply, Branagh was a Phenomenon of British theater. In a blazing display of need, drive, ambition and energy, backed up by an undeniable and charismatic talent, he had set London talking and sent fans (Shakespeare fans, remember) into the kind of frenzy usually engendered by soap opera stars. Rising out of working class obscurity, Branagh had set his sights on the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, eschewing all other offers of acceptance, fought his way in, and eventually carried off its highest honor, the Bancroft Gold Medal. He'd immediately won a role opposite Rupert Everett in Julian Mitchell's play "Another Country", for which he received the Society of West End Theatres' award for most promising newcomer. He'd joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, starred as Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon at 23 and sent up a critical roar of approval. And then he'd had the temerity to split from the RSC, take the money he'd earned from two movies (A Month in the Country and High Season) and join with a partner to create the Renaissance Theatre Company.

This is when the London masses began to go nuts over him. However elevated his purposes--he had great actors like Dame Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi directing the plays, he paid everyone in the company equally, he poured all his own money into the productions--he had turned into a popular sensation. At this point, he began to go at everything with a vengeance, managing, producing, acting, directing, writing. If candles had a third end, he'd have burned that one too.

Naturally, with all this activity and adulation came a certain backlash. Branagh's doubters saw him as over-reaching, arrogant and so on. And he was accused of being a media manipulator, expertly fueling his own publicity machine. His talent as an actor was called into question--the British tabloids had a field day after one woman stormed out of his revival of "Look Back in Anger" after noisily pro-claiming his rendering of Jimmy Porter "Dreadful! Dreadful! The most terrible performance I have seen." Branagh had weathered these slings and arrows and proceeded to adapt Henry V for a film he would star in and direct (his film directorial debut), to assemble England's finest actors for the supporting cast, and most miraculous of all, to gather financing that even David Puttnam advised him he'd never get--all while playing a particularly anxiety-ridden Hamlet.

So, all that's in Branagh's autobiography, modestly and hopefully titled Beginning. And now, having accomplished what Olivier accomplished before him--bringing Shakespeare successfully to the screen--Branagh went about doing what Olivier never did--directing a film in Hollywood.

Lindsay Doran, once a VP of production at Paramount and now head of Sydney Pollack's Mirage Enterprises, had had the script for Dead Again for a few years. A romantic thriller about a cynical detective who specializes in missing persons and heirs, it had been turned down by some of the directors Doran talked to about it; some of the directors who wanted it, she turned down. When she saw Henry V, she saw the director she wanted--"someone who could be visually dazzling and deliver strong emotions," she says. And soon after, when Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company was in L.A., she approached him. Branagh wanted Hollywood. And he liked the script. But he didn't want to deal with movie stars. So, he explained, in addition to directing, he wanted to star in the two leading roles (one with an American accent, the other German) with Emma Thompson, his leading lady in Henry V and his wife in real life, in the other two leading parts. Kevin Costner's success with Dances With Wolves notwithstanding, these demands would not necessarily be music to most Hollywood producers' ears. Branagh convinced everyone he could bring this off.

Now that's confidence. But it's not surprising. Branagh is not used to losing, not in life and not in love. I met his real-life love before meeting him. We met for tea.

"What's it like sleeping with your director?" I ask Thompson. I'm kidding her. I expect a whimsical answer. She gives me a dry, earnest reply. "Well... the advantages are, you have a kind of shorthand--if we're playing married people, the audience will feel we really do know each other. If we're playing strangers, it's harder, because you have to rediscover that sense of the un-known. You have to find the corners that have been rubbed off over the years. If he was not my husband, I might be more difficult. I don't want to hurt his feelings so I hold back."

Emma Thompson is 32. She's the only actress I've met who has used the word "propinquity" during the course of an interview. She met Branagh on the set of "Fortunes of War," a BBC miniseries that required nine months' work in Yugoslavia, Greece and Egypt, and they fell in love. She no doubt knew that Branagh had a certain reputation for romancing his leading ladies. "It's a tricky situation," she says, "because on a set, you become close to people very quickly. You're required to do that. And these people are usually attractive in some way. You have to be careful, be-cause it's easy to think you're in love when in fact you're not. It's an occupational hazard."

"So how careful were you with Kenneth-"

"It was a slow burn. We waited two years."

I wonder if living with one's co-star and director might pre-sent some ticklish situations. What happens, for instance, when there's a spat at home about who cooks dinner, and then there's an argument to be filmed the next day? Are there echoes from the real-life dustup? "So far," she explains, "we've never used the set as a place to work out personal differences." But as long as we're on the subject of cooking dinner, Thompson would like me to know that in their two years of marriage, Branagh has cooked only one meal, which consisted of two courses--cream of mushroom soup and chicken casserole. For the soup, Branagh simply sliced mushrooms into hot cream. "I don't know what he did with the chicken," she adds. "I didn't ask for the recipe."

Thompson has gone off and done films on her own. She was terrific in The Tall Guy with Jeff Goldblum, but nobody saw that. She was hilarious in the more recent Impromptu, for which she was widely praised. But she likes working with her husband.

"What makes him a good director?" I ask.

"He's got tremendous patience," she says. "Whereas I would spit in people's eyes and bite their ankles, Ken is very contained. I think he's temperamentally suited for the job of directing."

He may be temperamentally suited, but when I catch up with Branagh, he looks...well... concerned.

He's in post-production on Dead Again and, as he eloquently explains, he's feeling the pres-sure. "I think of the money, and I don't see a corporation. I see people who've hired me, and I have a dread of letting them down. Part of the creative process is having these dark nights of the soul. I'm seized by various forms of fear. I get it on the weekends and in the evenings, after a day of shooting. It's a feeling of physical sickness that comes from the pressure of having to maintain a vision and to be open to suggestions, which, if I took them, might cost more or take too much time. That fear that I can't keep all the balls spinning is very powerful."

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