Prince of Players

Advocate, Febuary 20, 1996
by Mark Huisman

Kenneth Branagh puts aside Oscar Predictions to address rumors about his private life

"I don't know what makes you attractive to another person, whether it's a man or a woman," says actor-director Kenneth Branagh with emphatic diction. "Anybody with a twinkle in their eye is sexy as far as I'm concerned. I've met an incredible number of men who are just as astonishingly gorgeous and sexy."

It is an amazingly candid statement from an actor whose sexual orientation has long been the subject of rumors--and never more so than now, after he heas separated from his wife of six years, actor-writer Emma Thompson. The rumor mill grinds up and spits out stories about Branagh being alternately, a philandering heterosexual, a closeted homosexual, or a repressed bisexual. He has unwaveringly refused to comment on the rumors about his sexuality--until now.

Reporters who gathered in mid-January in Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival--where the opening-night film was the Branagh-directed A Midwinter's Tale--were sternly warned that he would "absolutely not" answer questions about his private life at a press party. But in a private two-hour interview with The Advocate, the restrictions were not enforced--and with great honesty the 35-year-old writer-actor-director discussed the long and complicated road that has led him from his humble beginnings in Belfast, Ireland, to the heights of critical acclaim in both England and America.

Branagh's interest in the stage began early. His family moved to England when he was 10, and he began reading 25-cent paperback volumes of Shakespeare as an escape from the school-yard bullies who taunted him for his Irish accent. While attending London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), he was plucked from class for the lead role in the acclaimed British TV-movie Billy, and Branagh never looked back. He was dubbed the West End's Most Promising Newcomer in 1982, joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984, and met Thompson during work on the BBC miniseries Fortunes of War, which debuted in 1986. The actor hit pay dirt in the United States in 1989 with his third feature film, Henry V, for which he received Academy Award nominations as Best Actor and Best Director. The same year, he published Beginning, an autobiography--at the age of 28.

As with any career, there have been ups (Much Ado About Nothing and a third Oscar nomination for directing the short subject Swan Song) and downs (Swing Kids and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). But where Branagh has achieved unwavering success in film has been with his Shakespearean adaptations--turf to which he returned in 1995 with Othello. With his performance as the manipulative Iago, he may yet again find himself in Oscar's spotlight.

Says Laurence Fishburne, who stars as the tragic Moor: "I haven't met that many people who are as talented as Ken and still manage to be really humble. I was freaking out about one of the speeches I had to do and saying, 'Maybe you should cut it out. Do we really need it?' And Ken looked at me and said, 'Look, man, I'm a pug Irish kid from Belfast and I'm not supposed to be able to do this stuff either.' That kind of generosity, that kind of humility--that's who Ken Branagh is."

Shakespeare is also very much a part of A Midwinter's Tlae, the sixth film Branagh has directed. Shot in black and white, it is a farcical look at an ambitious but depressed actor who forms an amateur theatrical troupe to stage a production of Hamlet in a rural English village. Much of the cast is unfamiliar to American audiences, but among the recognizable faces are Absolutely Fabuolous's Jennifer Saunders as an Amercian producer casting a science fiction film; Ab Fab's Julia Sawalha, playing a wacky actress having a go at Ophelia; and Joan Collins as an impatient agent. Thrown in for good measure is a gay male actor who, in somewhat stereotypical fashion, insists on playing Queen Gertrude--and does.

Branagh's Advocate interview is held in a mountainside snow lodge. His hair is dyed a very noticeable shade of blond because he is playing Hamlet in an upcoming version featuring an all-star cast that includes Jack Lemmon and Kate Winslet.

Setting down a glass of beer and lighting a cigarette, Branagh readies himself for what he has spent years avoiding: With great ease and no visible wincing, he signals that questions may finally begin.

Even during your marriage to Emma Thompson, you in particular never seemed to be able to get away from the rumors that you were either having affairs with other women or affairs with men.

I know. The stories about my being gay have been going on for a very long time. There was one once that I was living with some man I had never actually met.

Certain public figures seem to attract rumors that they are homosexual, while others never do. Why do you think you are someone who has always had these rumors circulating about him?

[Sighs heavily and takes a long draw on his cigarette] Em and I just weren't willing to provide the press with enough information, so the scope of their imagination just exploded. We made a decision simply never to talk about these rumors to the press.

Why not? Wouldn't that help to clarify things? Otherwise, doesn't it just seem like you're hiding something? can you, really? I mean, it's the most enormous conversation to have--and it's hard enough between the two people who are involved. To try and fill in all the little men sitting outside our windows in the trees about each stage of our private journey...well, we couldn't.

So it's all a misperception?

Yes, I think it's true to say they do not know us. Their judgments are based on secondhand perceptions, which make us on one level mysterious and on other levels prone to judgments that are wildly askew but can become a part of a kind of accepted knowledge about us.

Did you know that because of things Emma said in her cover story last year with The Advocate, there was a wire report when the two of you spearated that actually said you had walked out on her because she had spoken to us about having "lesbian fantasies"?

[Laughs] Again, I think that because we decided to give away as little as possibe to the papers, it frustrated them enormously. But we were tyring to protect a very personal thing to us. We have friends who've been enormously annoyed by all the attempts to get them to talk about us. Given the nature of the public world in Britain, we've led a pretty private life.

Then how do you think these stories got started about your being gay?

I have absolutely no idea. Search me.

Has Kenneth Branagh ever had a homosexual experience?

No, in fact, I haven't.

Have you ever wondered about it?

I remember once I was driving with two gay friends--a couple who've been together for a long time--and they were saying ot me, "Oh, Ken, you're crazy. A guy like you needs to be gay. It would be much easier." This was pre-AIDS, and they weren't saying that I should have a lot of casual sex, just that if I got the physcial side sorted out, it would be much less trouble, because then you don't get the same kind of aggravation.

Oh, really?

Well, they had a steady relationship but had reached a kind of mutual understanding about sexual adventures.

In your autobiography, Beginning, you wrote that upon leaving Belfast to study in London, you mother said, "I hope this place isn't full of nancy boys." Did you know what she meant? Were you ever called a "nancy boy"?

No, I didn't have any homosexual friends at that time--or at least any that I knew of. I've since discovered that some of them were. I didn't really know what a homosexual would be like then, beyond the kind of Noel Coward version, dressed in red with a long cigarette holder or something.

When did that change?

At RADA one of my best chums was gay. We would share stories about relationships. Once he said, "I love you very much, but you're the only male friend of mine I don't fancy."


Yes, gay men don't pursue me really. I don't send off the right smells.

But in your bio you also wrote about a fellow male student who propositioned you after class.

Oh yes, that's right. He offered to take me to the meat racks at Piccadilly. I'd forgotten about that. I didn't even know what the fucking meat rack was. This is, indeed, my one and only experience. He was a Scotsman, a redhead, and, yes, it was a major fucking come-on! It was during the course of a whole day, and this guy was getting increasingly friendly.

Once you realized what he was suggesting, what happened?

I was utterly thrown. I didn't know what to do, except I thought, 'Perhaps it's all going to be like this.' I was 17. I'd never encountered homosexuality before. All I knew was, I didn't fancy going down to Piccadilly with him.

Did it ever happen again?

No. Surprisingly, actually, I guess.

You also wrote in your autobiography that in certain dance classes you took, all the men had to wear tights. You described them as "nervous men insisting on their heterosexuality." Why was there such discomfort?

There's something slightly ungainly about guys in tights. Your equipment is always on show. I think it's more of a school thing, not beingly particularly free in one's body. It's not quite a butch-male thing to do. However, I remember reading about a fitness test that showed that dancers are more fit than football players. I was rather impressed by that.

When Frankenstein was released, the word "hunk" started to appear next to your name. Would you say that you're a sex object?

I've been around long enough to know that enough people find me attractive in some way. I haven't met many people who have no sexual chemistry at all. But do I think of myself as a sex object? No. I mean, the letters I get reveal there are enough people who would like to know me in the biblical sense, but still, that's not houw I'm generally viewed. What's more, if that's ultimately what you're recognized as, it's somewhat blurring. You're not taken seriously. So I'm pleased to say it hasn't been something that's got in my way.

I watched you take your clothes off once in a London stage production of Hamlet.

Actually, we're going to do that in the movie version of Hamlet that I'm working on. After Hamlet's been stripped of all of his ideals, he's ready for all the things he wasn't ready for at the beginning of the play. I think being naked will be a wonderful image to get this feeling across.

You once posed nude for a photographer. Would you do it again?

You know, the reason I've resisted doing it since is that it creates such a stir for me at home. If I did it again, then there would be 50,000 other articles that would come out asking "What is he doing? What is he up to?" I'd get lots of letters.

Have you ever gotten fan letters--love letters--from men?

Yes, yes, I have.

And what do they say?

Oh, mostly they say things like "I'd like to spend some time with you. I feel there's something between us when I see you on-screen, something that appeals to me. We could get together and go away for the weekend." Things like that.

Go away for the weekend? What was it you said a moment ago--"A major fucking come-on"?

[Smiling] Mmm, yes.

But have you ever really been curious about homosexuality? Have you ever been to a gay bar, for example?

No, I've never been to a gay bar, but I have close gay friends, and I spend a lot of time with those close gay friends.

Have you personally ever considered having sex with another man?

Well, I think everybody's curious. And it's never bothered me whether people think I'm gay or not. It was just one more thing people could think or not think about me. I mean, I'd still be getting on with my life whether I was gay or heterosexual or whatever.

Have you ever wondered what a homosexual relationship would be like?

The fact is, up until this point I haven't been drawn to having a gay relationship, and it doesn't seem as though I'm gay. But who knows? I mean, life is a series of surprises.

There's always the future?

[Laughs] Yes.

Is this the first time you've ever spoken with the gay press?


Why are you talking to the gay press at this particular time?

It wasn't a formal or conscious decision. I don't mind doing it, but I've not felt the need to go and proclaim my right to pursue whatever sexual path I might take.

Recently someone told me that he wouldn't go see Othello because it had too many homosexual overtones going on between Othello and Iago.

Really? Well, you know, a rather distinguished critic said he was annoyed with my performance because I'd clearly played Iago gay. I had no consciousness of doing that at all, but I did play as though he loved Othello. But I don't mean in a sexual sense. I just meant that he absolutely loved him. And frankly, that's the way I am with my male friends: I say "I love you" when I feel it.

Sir John Gielgud once coached you before a performance for the queen, and you wrote, "I could have kissed him." Is there any other man you thought you might like to kiss?

Well, I have actually kissed Gielgud since then. He's in my film of Hamlet. He's 91 years old and just the most extraordinary creature. But let's see: What other male would I like to kiss? I don't know. I think Ralph Fiennes is a good-looking lad. I don't know that I want to kiss him. Rufus Sewell, maybe? Pierce Brosnan? I watched Goldeneye, and the film works partly because the camera and all of us are very happy to look at him. There's something very, very appealing about him.

In your film Peter's Friends, your good friend Stephen Fry, who is gay, plays an HIV-positive man who's terribly afraid of telling his friends. Has a friend ever told you he had HIV?

Yeah--fuck, yeah! Boy, it was a shock too. I have actually had that happen almost as a result of that film. Someone had suspicions that I knew they had HIV.

What? Someone thought you knew he had HIV, so he told you?

Yes, but I had no suspicions at all, and the whole thing ended with tears and hugs.

You got married at a time when information about AIDS was still somewhat sketchy, but this is a different world today. Now that you are, ostensibly, dating agin and seeing new people, would you take an HIV antibody test if someone asked?

Sure, of course. I had to be HIV-tested when Em and I got the house, for the insurance.

Was it a strange experience?

Yes, I remember it was stranage. But mostly it was just another thing that made me loathe insurance companies. I think they've finally given that up now, testing for policies, because the outcry was so huge.

Let's talk a little bit about the film you've just written and directed, A Midwinter's Tale. What about the names of the characters? There's a designer named Fadge and a character called Vernon Spatch and the one I liked best, Terry Du Bois. Everyone in the film kind of bastardizes the French pronuciation, and it sounds like "Terry Does Boys".

Yes, many of the characters I wrote with certain actors in mind, particularly John Sessions [who plays Terry Du Bois]. He had done a raging queen in one of his one-man shows, and I always wanted to bring parts of that character to a film, to exploit the schtick but also take it away so that the character is naked.

Some gay viewers will see these jokes as part of what we call "the predatory tradition", that is, derivative of the stereotype that gay people are after everybody else sexually, that you're not safe with gays around.

I'll be sorry if that's the case, but at the same time the fact that they are stereotypical doesn't mean they don't exist. What I worry about more is the lack of originality. I would hope that the execution of it in my film would be sufficient to carry it off well.

There's a point in the film where someone says, "Shakespeare himself was probably bisexual." Do you really think this is so?

Well, it's not a particularly original thought. Any detailed analysis of the sonnets would lead one to believe that Shakespeare had a clear sense of male affection. So he might well have been bisexual. His investigation of male friendship and male love is very deep. It's very unabashed. It's very full-blooded, very full-on, like Romeo and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. I always wanted to do a 19th-century production of Romeo and Juliet and cast Mercutio as an Oscar Wilde figure. Even if their relationship wasn't physically consummated, every other aspect of that relationship was as it might have been between a man and woman.

There have been other British directors, such as the late Derek Jarman, who do Shakespeare adaptations--

I liked his Tempest very much. I remember watching it, and this guy who was sitting next to me grumbling all the way through it got up and left. I'm sure he was a closet homosexual.

Would you ever contemplate doing an all-male film version of some Shakespeare play?

I don't think I can, actually. On the basic level that girls don't get enough parts anyway. I could do it if I do an all-female version.

There has always been talk of your being knighted or your winning an Oscar. Do you want to be knighted? Do you want an Oscar?

It's always nice to get a bit of recognition. But if it's a choice between picking up an award and having a larger audience, I'll always want the latter.

Is it true that the Royal Shakespeare Company once called you "Dame Branagh" because you were turning down all the roles they were offering?

I think there were a lot more colorful phrases bantered about than "Dame".

The British press has said that there was a rivalry between you and Emma. As Iago, you have that great line, "Beware, my lord, of jealousy. Look to your wife." Did jealousy contribute to your breakup?

No, that's so ridiculous. One thing our relationship never had was a sense of competition. I saw Sense and Sensibility the other day and felt so incredibly proud. I think she's so very talented, and there's never, ever been an ounce of envy between us--going either way. It gives me an incredible buzz that she's finally being recognized for her writing as well.

So it's not true that, according to a wire report, you said, "I have to make an appointment to see her. She even goes to bed with her Oscar."

[Horrified] No, that's amazing!

We've heard that you've talked about doing the film version of Larry Kramer's AIDS drama The Normal Heart, with Barbra Streisand directing.

Yes, I've been talking to Streisand. But she's still wrapped up in her current film project. I'm very intrigued, so, yes, absolutely, if it ever came up, I'd love to do that film.

We also heard you were developing a film about Oscar Wilde.

Yes, but I didn't do it because David Hare and Mike Nichols were doing something about him. I mean, it's not surprising. The time is right. If I directed it, I would want to do it with Stephen Fry. It'd be perfect casting. Stephen is so big, so fleshy in the same way that Wilde was fleshy.

What about the idea of your playing Oscar Wilde?

I was actually offered the role of Wilde in another film, but it didn't happen. Wilde fascinates me. One of the first serious, sort of naughty books I ever read was called Feasting with Panthers, which was about Wilde's circle of friends and also about the whole world of Victorian London. I would have loved to have spent an evening with Wilde. And I certainly look forward to seeing a movie about him someday.

In your autobiography, you refer to yourself as being "queeny". Did you mean that literally?

I suppose I mean as a sort of extravagant foot-stomper, a kind of swagger. [Lifts his nose in the air and moves his head from side to side, surveying an imaginary cout] It's like, "What about ME? Is anybody listening to ME?"

Do you have a contract for a second installment of your autobiography?

There's been an ongoing understanding that I will write more. But I don't have plans to do it anytime soon.

Not even with all this attention being paid to your separation from Emma?

In a large part because of all the attention being paid to the separation.

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