Branagh's At Home in L.A.
Ottawa Citizen, August 23 1991
by Jamie Portman
Kenneth Branagh, the hottest
actor in English-speaking classical theatre, is confounding critics
by directing and starring as private detective Mike Church in
an American thriller
He's the quintessential Los Angeles
private eye - cocky, fast-talking, wise-cracking, more than a
little cynical and with an unmistakable California twang in his
You look at him on the big movie
screen in a sizzling new mystery thriller called Dead Again and
it seems inconceivable that he could be the product of anywhere
but the L.A. lotusland.
But the credits tell it differently.
Wonder of wonders, that's Kenneth Branagh up there, the same
Irish-born actor who confounded the skeptics two years ago when
he directed his own film version of Shakespeare's Henry V with
himself in the title role.
But there are more surprises
in store for audiences. There are also flashback sequences featuring
Branagh as a totally different kind of character _ a ferociously
jealous composer who ends up on Death Row in the late 1940s for
the murder of his wife.
This is an actor who never does
things by halves, an attitude that has made him a figure of controversy
in some circles. Two years ago, some theatrical traditionalists
considered it near heresy that this precocious 27-year-old should
venture into film territory considered sacred to the memory of
Laurence Olivier, who had made a legendary movie version of Henry
V back in 1944. Branagh also was attacked by some critics for
his presumptuousness in writing an autobiography, called Beginnings,
at such a tender age.
However, the movie-going public
didn't care about such niceties. Branagh's dark, exciting version
of Henry V was both a critical and commercial success, and further
entrenched his position in British stage circles as the heir
to Olivier's mantle.
So how on earth did Branagh,
currently the hottest actor in English-speaking classical theatre,
end up directing and starring in an American thriller for Paramount
"I keep asking myself that
question," grins Branagh in an interview in a central Manhattan
Hotel. "I'm absolutely fascinated it came my way. This was
a time when I was being offered a whole range of different things
but because of my identification with Shakespeare, they were
primarily of a literary nature. I was offered a life of Tolstoi,
a life of Chekhov, even a life of Shakespeare."
Some producers, impressed by
his handling of the battle scenes in Henry V, thought he could
do a contemporary war film.
"I got sent all the Vietnam
films that hadn't yet been made," he says, shaking his head.
But the project that whetted
his appetite was Scott Frank's screenplay for Dead Again, in
which cynical private detective Mike Church is hired to learn
the identity of a beautiful woman who has no memory of her own
life but is tortured by nightmares from someone else's life 40
Branagh and his actress-wife
Emma Thompson were in Los Angeles at the time, where his Renaissance
Theatre Company was presenting Shakespeare's King Lear and A
Midsummer Night's Dream as part of a nine-month world tour.
The script for Dead Again came
"out of the blue" from producer Lindsay Doran, who
had been trying for four years to get it made.
"Clearly, she had seen something
in Henry V which made her want to try and use me. When I read
it I was gripped immediately. In fact, I was completely carried
Originally, Branagh was asked
only to direct the film, but he had a different idea. He told
the producers his "vision was entirely dependent" on
the casting of himself and Thompson, both in dual roles, plus
such British colleagues as award-winning Derek Jacobi as a mysterious
antique dealer, composer Patrick Boyle, production designer Tim
Harvey and costume designer Phyllis Dalton.
All had worked with him on Henry
V. "With them, I knew I could get both the right look and
the right sound for a vehicle like this."
One thing is certain, Dead Again,
which opens today, couldn't be further removed from the world
"When I read the script,
I felt the whole thing had a flamboyance to it. There were the
two time-settings, the classic ingredients of private eye and
creepy house, a woman with no memory, a scary housekeeper, the
hard-drinking journalist, the mysterious hypnotist.
"It was all from a world
of movies that I loved and felt I was growing up with. Furthermore,
to play a private eye in a quintessentially American genre piece
was an opportunity I relished."
Then there was the fact that
both he and Thompson had the chance to play two roles _ he as
the private eye of the 1990s and as the jinxed musician of the
'40s, she as the nightmare-haunted young woman of the present
day plus the doomed murder victim of four decades before.
Andy Garcia, a rising Hollywood
star, has a small flashback role as a journalist who precipitates
the nightmare still haunting people 40 years later. The film
also features an unbilled cameo from Robin Williams in a role
that is a complete departure.
Says Branagh enthusiastically:
"This is a very dark, sinister, seedy and bizarre character
"When we sent the script
to him, he loved the part, but he was determined to be unbilled
so the audience would not perceive this as a Robin Williams film."
The film has been previewing
strongly, with audiences responding positively to the twists
and turns of the chilling plot. But Branagh is also tickled by
the fact that he seems to have been fooling audiences into believing
totally in his performance.
"They don't know who this
unknown American is who's playing Mike Church," he says
"But let me tell you, it
took many moons to get that character right. I started out being
very East Coast _ wildly gesticulating and being totally wrong."
He spent hours listening to "accent"
tapes, and sought the advice of screenwriter Scott Frank.
"He's the same age as me
and has a lot of Mike Church in him. I knew I had to deliver
more than just a collection of representative sounds. Vocal cadences
and rhythms had to be believable."
But he also had to get the body
"In preparation, I spent
a lot of time on my own in L.A., watching people, walking down
the street behind them, just seeing the ways in which they moved
differently. You know something _ people on the West Coast generally
move more loosely. I had to get that right.
"Then with some trepidation
I started going into shopping malls as an American, buying things
like books or newspapers, watching to see how people reacted."
Branagh called Dead Again "full-blooded
movie making" in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson
Welles. "I'd best describe it as a romantic thriller with
touches of Gothic and film noir and comedy _ plus of course the
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium