Being Kenneth Branagh

British Film Star Discusses His Latest Movie and Those Persistent Gay Rumors
Seattle Gay News Online, 18 August 2000

It’s not that Kenneth Branagh does’t like talking to journalists. He just doesn’t like being asked questions about his private life.

"I perfectly understand the interest, but it’s the last thing in the world I ever talk about," says Branagh.

Because he is a typically nice British gent, however, he will reluctantly open up when pressed. In a recent interview to promote his latest film, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Branagh responded to rumors of a romance on the set between himself and his 22-year-old co-star Alicia Silverstone.

"I’m old enough to be her dad, for Christ’s sake," he exclaims. "She’s a child. She’s a lovely girl, but there’s no truth to the rumor that we’re anything other than very good mates, which we are. She’s an absolutely smashing kid."

Throughout his career, and especially around the time he and wife Emma Thompson split up in 1995, Branagh has also had to deal with rumors that he is Gay. One recent bit of Hollywood gossip has him involved with Kevin Spacey.

"Really?" Branagh asks incredulously when told of the rumor. "I’ve met Kevin once, at the walk-in to the Academy Awards. I don’t know what to say. A friend of mine rang me a little while ago to congratulate me on moving in with this actress that I was supposed to be living with - an actress I have never met. As it happens, I’m not Gay. But I’ll certainly let everybody know if and when I discover that I am."

Maybe it’s the long line of Gay (or Bisexual) Shakespearean actors - including Sir Michael Redgrave, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ian McKellan - that has caused people to speculate about Branagh’s sexuality. Branagh first took the film world by storm in 1988 when he adapted, directed and starred in Henry V, which earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Actor. He went on to direct and star in critically acclaimed movie versions of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet.

His latest effort in bringing Shakespeare to the big screen is a musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Branagh, who adapted, directed, co-produced and stars in the film, made the startling artistic decision to adapt the play into a World War II-era musical. The cast, which features Nathan Lane as the clownish character Costard, goes from performing monologues of Shakespeare’s original words to breaking into standards like Cole Porter’s "I Get A Kick Out Of You," Irving Berlin’s "There’s No Business Like Show Business," and George and Ira Gershwin’s "They Can’t Take That Away From Me."

"I love musicals," explains Branagh, 39. "Way back, pre-internet and pre-all this world-changing technology we now live with, there were three threshold channels on British television, and one was absolutely packed with double features of musicals - Mickey and Judy musicals and Fred and Ginger and Gene Kelly ... My mother was a ballroom dancer, so she was interested in that kind of stuff too."

Branagh says he tried writing original music for the film, but ultimately decided to go with the familiar classics.

"I think the songs do the same thing in their own vernacular that Shakespeare does," he says. "They’re very simple, yet they manage to be profound and universal, like an observation like ‘the way you sip your tea, the way you wear your hat’ being something we can all identify with as a moment in life when a bit of banality becomes the thing you remember about falling in love with someone. So the process was trying to find a structure with the cut version of the play where it seemed organic and natural to be able to burst into song." There’s also a lot of dancing in the film, as well as swimming - in the form of a hilarious tribute to Esther Williams.

"We had part of the British synchronized swimming team working with us, and it was very difficult," says Branagh. "You look back at the [Esther Williams] films again after our brief experience of doing it, and you really appreciate her athleticism. She actually came to the premier of the film in England, and it was a thrill to meet her."

Asked how he thinks the movie will do at the box office, Branagh is optimistic.

"I don’t think we’re going to be getting the Mission Impossible II audience, but it puts a smile on your face, the film," he says. "It’s an uncynical film, and I think it’s thrown some people who feel as though we’re doing something rather cleverer than we are. I mean, we’re being quite silly. I didn’t want to do a parody or make fun of that genre. We tried to embrace the innocence of that genre and the innocence of that play."

Back to the personal questions, Branagh says that he an Emma Thompson are "on good terms" now and may eventually work together again. Before their divorce, the two appeared together in such films as Dead Again and Peter’s Friends.

Asked to comment on the recent death of Sir John Gielgud - whose homosexuality became public knowledge when he was arrested in London in 1953 for "persistently importuning for an immoral purpose" in a public lavatory - Branagh gives a lengthy tribute to the acting legend.

"I had a letter from him about a month before he died," he says. "The abiding image I have of him is when I directed him in a short film called Swan Song in 1992. At the end of the third day of shooting, I just saw him in a doorway, silhouetted, and there was this 88-year-old guy with a spring in his stride, he had a flat cap at a rakish angle, he had a tweed jacket on, he had a Times crossword under his coat - completed, irritatingly enough - and a Turkish cigarette.

"He turned around and said, "Was that all right today, dear boy?" I said, "It was very good, Sir John." "Oh, good, toodaloo," he said, and off he went, so happy, a man so in love with what he did."

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