A Not-So-Proper Kenneth Branagh Has Some Fun

New York Times, November 15, 1998
by Sean Mitchell

LOS ANGELES -- Kenneth Branagh has driven to the Hotel Bel-Air in a red Mustang convertible similar to one he rented when he first came to Hollywood eight years ago to direct and star in the detective movie "Dead Again."

"On the first day of shooting, I got in the car, put the top down and headed down Sunset," he recalled. "I had my sunglasses on and I was thinking, 'Yeah, I feel pretty cool.' I drove through the gate at Paramount, found my parking space, and then realized the car had one of those tricky locks, and I couldn't get the key out of the ignition. After 20 minutes, figuring I must look like a fool, I had to go in search of help." He took it as a sign that he was meant to remain humble in the kingdom of star maps and convertibles. And maybe that he was not meant for an indefinite stay.

Though "Dead Again" was well-received and Mr. Branagh went on to direct and appear in more than a dozen films, he has not physically worked in Hollywood again until now, preferring to make movies on his home turf in Britain, returning occasionally to the English stage whence he came. He has been in Los Angeles since June, making the big-budget "Wild Wild West," with Will Smith and Kevin Kline, for the director Barry Sonnenfeld. He plays an angry, legless villain being tracked by government agents while he plots the assassination of the President of the United States.

For his role in this Warner Brothers popcorn extravaganza due next summer, he has grown some feline facial hair that suggests his chin might have been groomed for a production of "Cats." But first, audiences will have a chance to sift him in the new Woody Allen film, "Celebrity," opening Friday.

He plays the main character, Lee Simon, in a performance that brings to mind the stuttering, neurotic persona of Mr. Allen himself, a conspicuous turn for any actor, especially one so strongly associated with the grandeur of Shakespeare. Starting Dec. 25, Mr. Branagh will also be seen in the small British film "The Theory of Flight," acting opposite his companion of several years, Helena Bonham Carter, who is also in Los Angeles working on a film.

"I remember this place -- we got drunk in here after the 'Frankenstein' premiere," he says as he settles into a seat in a lounge off the hotel bar, dark and deserted on a Sunday morning.

Most stars arrive fashionably late for interviews. Mr. Branagh was 15 minutes early, waiting alone in the lounge and rising to offer a warm welcome as if this were his home. Compact and evenly built, with thin lips and jowls marking his cheery face, wearing jeans, a dark leather jacket and shaggy hair, he looks and sounds less like a prince of Denmark or an English monarch than a lad from a rugby team who would be more comfortable with a pint of Guinness in his hand than the coffee cup he now holds. If he is not of the people exactly, he is as close to them as anyone from the Royal Shakespeare Company currently renting a house in Bel Air is likely to come.

"I don't think you should view him as a British actor," says Mr. Sonnenfeld, who admits he wanted a British actor for the larger-than-life part of the "brilliant and diabolical" Dr. Arliss Loveless in "Wild Wild West," based on the 1965-70 television series. "He's really smart, really funny, really relaxed. You don't think, 'Here comes that British guy.' He's not proper, he curses, he's self-effacing, he's one of the guys."

Mr. Branagh, who is adept at a wide range of accents, speaks naturally in a mid-Atlantic tongue, with educated enunciation sharing time with earthy humor and high-pitched exclamation. He says "cahn't" for "can't"; then he adds, "Nothing annoys me more than Brits whining about Hollywood; I want to deck 'em."

He says it with a flourish, but the soft eyes under his sturdy brow suggest he is not eager to deck anyone. "I'm Irish, and I was born in Belfast -- parents were working class," Mr. Branagh states firmly. "I think I got some basic values they happened to live by. There wasn't much money around. It was kind of, 'Know your place.' They don't like airs and graces."

None noted, though he is perceived rather differently back in Britain, where, in 1989, at the age of 27, with no experience behind the camera, he directed and starred in an independent film adaptation of "Henry V" that became an against-all-odds art-house triumph. Reprising a role he had played onstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company in a production that emphasized Henry's youth, Mr. Branagh turned in a memorable performance as a conscience-stricken conqueror, was nominated for Academy Awards in acting and directing and was hailed in Britain as "the new Olivier," the sort of title sure to curl into a noose for almost anyone. It didn't help that he published an autobiography, "Beginning," the same year.

"I think the autobiography was probably a step too far for a lot of people back home -- as well it might be." Now 37, he has reached the age at which Olivier made his "Henry V," and when he says over breakfast, "In some ways I've always had a head on my shoulders older than my years," it strikes you that he is not bragging but putting his finger on a truth about himself, someone possessing the precocious self-assurance that makes such a career possible.

"Did I think about my looks when I was starting out? No. Did I think about the fact that I hadn't made a film before? No. Did I disregard it? No. But we were off and running. It was exciting. This work was great. One na´vely saw all the positives.

"When I arrived on the scene with 'Henry V,' " he says, "partly through timing, it was overpraised to a degree that could only come back and haunt me. And so it did." His comeuppance came with the 1994 release of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which he directed and in which he starred with Ms. Bonham Carter and Robert De Niro. A foray into big-budget, big-studio moviemaking, the film was more laughable than scary and found him playing the mad doctor as a shirtless pin-up boy, preening in passionate love scenes with Ms. Bonham Carter. He was pelted with bad reviews and accusations of self-indulgence, assumed to result from his early fame.

"Bottom line," he says now, without a hint of bitterness, "we made a film that a lot of people didn't like. And sometimes when critics don't like things, it gives them access to a fantastic eloquence because of the intensity of their feeling. At least they had some passion about it."

Before "Frankenstein," he had made two other notable films, "Peter's Friends," a serious comedy about a fractious 10th reunion of some Cambridge University graduates (he played a self-loathing alcoholic), and "Much Ado About Nothing" -- both with his now ex-wife, Emma Thompson, who was also in "Henry V" and "Dead Again."

Playing Benedick to Ms. Thompson's Beatrice in "Much Ado," Mr. Branagh galloped through the love poetry of Shakespeare and made it seem, if not modern, manly. In 1996, he directed and starred in a freshly minted unabridged version of "Hamlet," with an Anglo-American cast that ranged from John Gielgud to Billy Crystal.

He was a fiery, fearsome prince. The film made back only a fraction of its modest $18 million budget, but Mr. Branagh got another Oscar nomination for the screenplay.

"After that," he says, "I was tired, and tired of the responsibility to direct. So I suppose it was a conscious move to go and act in other people's films and try to dispel once and for all the notion that I only acted in films that I directed. And I've had a couple of years doing that."

Robert Altman cast him in "The Gingerbread Man," a John Grisham thriller released this year that was ignored at the box office, though many critics marveled at Mr. Branagh's convincing impersonation of a Savannah lawyer. Also this year he appeared in the independent films "The Proposition," as a Catholic priest, and the unreleased "Alien Love Triangle," from the director of "Trainspotting," Danny Boyle, as one of the aliens.

In "Celebrity," he plays a frustrated New York journalist whose artistic and amorous aspirations are familiar from the oeuvre and life of Woody Allen, the film's writer and director. Shattering his wife (played by Judy Davis) with the news that he wants a divorce, his Lee Simon character, described by Mr. Branagh as "an emotional car wreck," then proceeds to muck up one relationship after another.

Putting on another American face and slipping uncannily into the comic rhythms and fevered locutions of the Woody Allen protagonist -- a performance not all critics were enamored of -- Mr. Branagh seems to have modeled his performance after the man directing him. Not exactly, he says. "The situations the character finds himself in are unquestionably, to my eye anyway, the kinds of things you'd expect Woody to be doing. And the way it was written, I found it impossible to play it without the kind of energy he has. It wasn't funny unless you were desperately, physically kind of jumpy. But at no time did we ever talk about my trying to be him. It never came up."

Mr. Allen, who is busy making his next movie, declined to comment on any of this.

If there exists a link between Mr. Branagh's role in "Celebrity" and that in "The Theory of Flight," it is that he plays a beleaguered young artist also searching for significance. But in this case, the yearning is satisfied inadvertently by a sudden romance with a young woman (Ms. Bonham Carter) suffering from a fatal neuromuscular disease. The characterization is completely different and finds Mr. Branagh acting the part of a quixotic English bohemian trying to construct his own backyard airplane while gazing misty-eyed at the fate of a spunky young woman in a wheelchair who can speak only with the aid of a voice machine.

The low-budget film, directed by Paul Greengrass, has the aspect of a bittersweet fable in which the airplane becomes a symbol of escape from earthly afflictions. As Mr. Branagh says: "It could be argued that all this is rather blurred in the treatment we choose to give it, with an airplane that seems as likely to fly as this hotel does. But I think it's an interesting investigation of paralysis -- spiritual paralysis in my case and physical in hers."

He says that he and Ms. Bonham Carter were not specifically looking for something to do together. "No, not consciously. Helena had been sent the script and I read the script, which I was very taken by. I think we were both struck by its eccentricity and quirkiness."

And what of Emma? While Ms. Bonham Carter is a beautiful and esteemed actress, Mr. Branagh's 1995 breakup with the multitalented Ms. Thompson, who has won Oscars for both acting and writing, seemed to their fans the dissolution of a show business marriage made in heaven.

"We're friends, we talk," Mr. Branagh says.

Is it hard for him to watch the films they made together? "In a sense you've got visible memories of rather happy occasions," he says after a moment, not eager to pursue this but not taking umbrage.

"It takes you a while to get to the point where you view them that way. It just is what it is, you know? It's always sad, marriages breaking up. But I refuse to be affected over issues like this by how the world at large appears to feel."

Mr. Branagh will return to directing in February, when he begins shooting a musical version of "Love's Labour's Lost," the first of three Shakespeare films he has contracted to do under the new banner of the Shakespeare Film Company, established in partnership with Intermedia and Miramax. The adaptation will have a 20th-century American setting, with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

He is keenly aware of the highbrow status conferred by a British accent and classical stage training, and says he wants no part of it. "My aversion to the alleged prestige of certain kinds of backgrounds is total. It's a reflection of a class system that I loathe with every fiber of my body."

And so it is that he makes no apologies for the time he is spending back in Hollywood making a big summer action-adventure picture like "Wild Wild West" with the director of "Men in Black."

" 'Wild Wild West' has been enormous fun, and I think it's very hard to do something brilliantly silly brilliantly -- in a way, much harder than the already faintly intimidated respect you might get for doing a Shakespeare play, which you might do terribly. I don't want to be a movie star, but I love the choice of work that I have so far been able to maintain. I don't want to make Shakespeare films for a small intellectual coterie or a group of my friends. I want them to be utterly available. I want to get Barry Sonnenfeld's audience for 'Wild Wild West' into 'Love's Labour's Lost.' And I'm not suggesting that one's better than another."

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