Ken Goes Hollywood

Sunday Telegraph, June 7, 1998
by Michele Manelis
**thanks to Sarah

The making of Kenneth Branagh's latest movie would make a great movie. Power, politics, scandal - all before the opening credits. Michele Manelis talks to Britain's Shakespearean specialist about his life, loves and blockbuster material.

Kenneth Branagh's latest movie, The Gingerbread Man, a noirish thriller written by courtroom king John Grisham, is an unusual choice for one of Britain's most prolific thespians. Better known for leaping about in tights spouting Shakespearean odes and for writing highbrow comedies and artsy period dramas, Branagh seems just as complex playing this womanising Georgian lawyer with a taste for Jack Daniels.

It wasn't until director Robert Altman - known for his edgy, improvisational style seen in The Player, short Cuts and Pret-A-Porter - came on board that Branagh's enthusiasm was sparked.

Signing for a reported $5.5 million in this $32 million film, Branagh is moving into potential blockbuster terrain, somewhere neither he nor Altman have ventured.

Branagh agrees a southern American generic courtroom drama, the backdrop for almost all of Grisham's stories, seems a curious choice.

"After doing a four-and-a-half hour epic like Hamlet (in which he starred and directed), it wasn't a stupid idea to do the kind of movie people didn't need to be sedated to see," he says, laughing self-deprecatingly.

"And I wanted to do something that was more in line with the kinds of movies I go to see. I really like thrillers, I like ingenious plotting and I enjoy red herrings."

Leaning forward and pouring a glass of mineral water, Branagh adds: "But I must tell you, there were a lot of fingerprints on this script before it got to me."

Through his movie and theatrical adaptations - which include Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Henry V, Twelfth Night, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing - Branagh revolutionised the works of Shakespeare and took them to the masses.

Some of his other productions include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, (although considered a critical disaster it grossed $130 million worldwide), Dead Again and Peter's Friends.

"Doing a movie like The Gingerbread Man, something a little more overtly commercial than anything I've ever done, is probably not a bad thing for someone like me," he says. "And at the moment I prefer working in the movies, although I'm sure I'll return to theatre at some point. But to be honest, I'm a bit scared. You have to deal with all that expectation and you have to expect to be savaged."

It seems the high-flying drama was plagued behind the scenes with more twists, feuds and betrayals than the screenplay itself, the fist Grisham has written directly for the screen. Although the main reason Branagh took the role was Altman, the unconventional director made Polygram Filmed Entertainment nervous.

The studio wasn't happy with Altman's changes to the script, they gave the film a gritty quality in contrast to the predictable lush Grisham style geared for the mass appeal.

After poor test screenings, Polygram replaced Altman and, understandably, he did not go quietly. After a much-publicised feud, the storm died down and Altman agreed to come back and finish the film.

"It's always a tempestuous relationship between studio and director, but in this case it was tempestuous in public," Branagh says. "It was very unfortunate for Bob, but I made a bet with him at the time that it would all work out...That's right, he hasn't paid me the $100, the bastard."

Another element which raised the studio's blood pressure was Altman's casting of Robert Downey Jr as Branagh's morally ambiguous detective crony who, ironically, appears drunk throughout most of the film.

Downey came with his own risks attached. Fresh out of rehab for his cocaine addiction, mandatory urine tests were administered weekly.

Although he passed his tests while filming, he was jailed soon after the movie wrapped because of a relapse.

Although Branagh's dinner companions have included Robert de Niro, Barbra Streisand and Andre Agassi ("who were all unexpectedly at my place one the same night - think of that catering nightmare!"), Branagh is something of an enigma as far as the Hollywood community is concerned.

"I think I get a lot of respect coming here as a European and having gone my own way", he says.

"I think I'm regarded as a kind of curiosity because of Hamlet and the Shakespeare side of things, but the fact I still have a foot in other sorts of movies sort of amuses people."

"I enjoy coming to LA, but I know I've been here too long when I begin reading the (Hollywood) trade papers every day and I become this kind of encyclopedia about who's winning at the box office, who's doing what to whom - it's like information overload which becomes like a drug."

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and raised in Reading, England, Branagh studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

"It wasn't until I was 15 or 16 that I realised I wanted to become a professional actor. I clearly knew I didn't want to do any of the things that seemed to be on offer, like working for a insurance company, joining the army or British Rail."

"Then a teacher suggested to me that I could do this acting lark as a profession. I didn't need to hear it twice, I was so happy I had a vocation - it didn't matter whether I became successful or not."

Taking his "acting lark" seriously, Branagh went on to form the Renaissance Theatre Company in 1985 so he could showcase his writing, directing and acting talents. It was there he met actor Emma Thompson. The couple married a year later.

What appeared to be a perfect union - two highly intelligent actors writing, working and living together - came to an end in 1995 when they announced plans to divorce.

Although the couple insisted the split was amicable, citing their hectic careers as the cause, there was much speculation about alleged infidelities.

Immediately after the break-up (some think well before), Branagh became romantically involved with British actor Helena Bonham Carter.

And Thompson went public with her affair with Greg Wise, with whom she starred in Sense and Sensibility.

Branagh and Bonham Carter allegedly became an item when he cast her in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the couple will team up again on several future projects.

Like his relationship with Thompson, who became his partner in many films and theatre productions, Bonham Carter has taken over as muse, lover, co-worker and co-subject matter for the relentless media.

"I read somewhere Helena and I were moving into a castle in Italy, for Christ's sake!" Branagh says, sounding astonished. "The celebrity thing just never ceases to amaze me."

He is characteristically tight-lipped about his personal life.

"I don't think it's a conscious decision to work together," he say of his upcoming movie, Theory of Flight, in which he stars with Bonham Carter. "I think you just respond to each role differently and sometimes it's a part that both of you want to do," he adds matter-of-factly.

"I know how it looks but, honestly, the whole 'celebrity couple thing' is not my cup of tea at all."

Although he appears "the reluctant movie star", Branagh was the cause for much ridicule and jealousy from his peers when he wrote an autobiography at the age of 29. A prickly subject, Branagh brushes it off.

"Well I don't think I'll be writing part two about my extraordinary life," he says sarcastically. "At least not yet anyway."

In a reflective mood, Branagh once said: "I felt I must be a great disappointment when people met me in real life. In life I'm duller of spirit and sort of empty."

Elaborating on his harsh self-description, he explains: "It's just that people expect this great, vast intellect and a certain kind of sensibility or way of being or talking."

"Even some actors, who shall remain nameless, expect me to have this secret about how to do Shakespeare."

"I used to be very conscious of how I was thought of by both audience and my peers, but I think now I don't care quite as much."

"I have a pretty significant camaraderie from my peers nowadays. I think once you've been around for a while people are nicer."

"It also helps when you've employed a lot of them."

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