"I'm just a foul-mouthed Brit."

She, August 1998
by Martyn Palmer
**thanks to Catherine Kerrigan

Far from being a super-luvvie, Kenneth Branagh is surprisingly laddish. He talks to Martyn Palmer about looting, celebrity girlfriends, and the perks of being a star.

Americans are somewhat in awe of Ken Branagh. When he turns up for a script reading in the US, often pale-faced, stubbly-chinned and oh-so-British, there's a certain amount of baggage that comes with him.

Take, for instance, his latest movie, The Gingerbread Man - a thriller set in America's deep south, in which Branagh plays a lawyer who becomes obsessed with a woman following their passionate one-night stand. There he was in Savannah, alongside Hollywood stars Robert Downey Jnr, Daryl Hannah and Robert Duvall, determined that he would nail down that notoriously difficult drawl. So each night after filming, when out with the cast and crew, Branagh would try to maintain that accent.

"We'd walk into a bar and I'd say, 'I'd just love a glass of wine here,' speaking in the accent … And the barman would say, 'What are you speaking like that for? You're that Shakespeare guy…'." And, of course, in many ways he is - even fellow actors have some trouble seeing him as anything different.

"There is a degree of intimidation," he admits. "But it disappears pretty quickly - usually they hear me swear and that's the first devastating blow to their expectations. Then they are surprised that I have a sense of humour.

"Americans are intoxicated by the accent - they associate it with intelligence, sophistication and class. But two days in, they realise that I'm just a foul-mouthed Brit…"

Kenneth Branagh is used to people having preconceived ideas about him. After all – in a glittering career – and he's still only 37 – he has been, by turns, fêted as a genius, lambasted as a luvvie, scrutinised and judged, when all he's ever wanted to do is his job.

When you actually meet him, the idea that he exists on an intellectual plane way above the rest of us is quickly discarded. He fires up a Marlboro Light and asks if I saw last night's England game, then he moves on to the vexed topic of Gascoigne's omission from the team.

Branagh is football mad, a Spurs supporter who recently succumbed to a Sky Sport subscription so he can catch all the games at his Berkshire home. But during the World Cup, Branagh was in the States filming a special-effects blockbuster, Wild, Wild West, with Will Smith and Kevin Kline. Hollywood stars can demand certain perks and, for once, Branagh flexed his superstar muscles: "I had it written in my contract that I had whatever channel was showing the World Cup in the trailer," he grins. "They were like, 'Hell, what's going on?' I said: 'It's the bloody World Cup and I want to watch it…"

He loves the US but has remained true to his British roots. While he's away, he runs up huge phone bills calling partner Helena Bonham Carter and his family and friends, buying two-day-old copies of the Guardian and trying to find a decent cup of tea.

Branagh is the second of three children. His father, a joiner, moved the family from Belfast to Reading when Ken was 9 after the Troubles started. Branagh, a Protestant, recalls how when a Shankill Road mob came after some of his Catholic neighbours he found himself in the middle of a riot. As fighting and looting raged all round him, he helped himself to a packet of Daz from a shattered shop front. "My mother clipped me around the ear and made me take it back", he recalls.

Once the family was settled in Reading, Branagh realised that an Irish accent was not going to make for an easy life. Within a year, any trace of a brogue had completely disappeared. "I felt very ashamed of losing my accent, so I would be English at school and Irish at home because I was afraid of upsetting my mother." But his childhood passions – football and watching Morecambe and Wise – also helped him blend in. He wrote letters to Morecambe and Wise, who sent him a nice reply, encouraging him to fire off more. At 15, he made his stage debut in Toad of Toad Hall and after school he went straight to RADA. In 1983, six weeks after leaving, he made his West End debut in Another Country. The rest, of course, is history.

Along the way to becoming a fêted actor-director and forming the Renaissance Theatre Company, he met and married Emma Thompson – a female version, at least in the public's eyes, of himself – talented and bright. Together, Ken and Em made the perfect British screen couple. They fell in love while making the BBC series Fortunes of War, and married two years later. The marriage broke down some around 1994, while Branagh was making Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He won't talk about the break-up except to say "any marriage ending is sad and ours is no different". Indeed, to their credit, neither has ever discussed the break-up in the press.

Naturally, the tabloids had a field day. He admits now that it was not an easy time. Was he never tempted to move to America, where he is regarded as just about the best actor we have?

"At times I probably was. But my mates and family are here, and in the end those things in the press are irritating at the time, but they blow over. I don't believe in flouncing off…"

He has been seeing fellow thespian 32-year-old Helena Bonham Carter for the past two years, but she lives alone in a flat in Belsize Park. Again, Branagh is reluctant to discuss their relationship, but he refers to her. When I ask him what he thought of this year's Oscar nominations (Helena was nominated for Wings of a Dove, but she lost out to Helen Hunt), he grins: "I'm not going to tell you who I voted for, but you can probably guess…"

Earlier this year they worked together again, in a BBC film, The Theory of Flight. Did he have any reservations about working with his partner? "Yes and no – this was an unturndownable script. And if you know someone really well you hope it won't get in the way. In the end it turned out to be a very good film. And Helena is terrific, she really is."

For Helena, her role has an added poignancy. She plays Jane, a young woman with motor neurone disease and Branagh plays Richard, her volunteer helper whose aid she enlists to lose her virginity. Bonham Carter's own father is a paraplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair for 18 years since he suffered a brain tumour.

For the moment, Branagh is content to let others do the directing while he gets on with acting. "I enjoy working in films, but I'm always surprised that someone who doesn't look a like a leading man can continue to do it."

There was a time, he says, when he went through a crisis about exactly who he is. The media had praised him, calling him a thoroughly "decent chap" and then, when his marriage started breaking up, they turned on him. "I used to wake up and think, 'Fucking hell, what's going on?' But now I don't analyse it. I've got this background, which helps – like an instant switch that I can throw and it tells me who I am, where I came from.

"I think some people might find that rather bland, they'd rather I confessed to some terrible dark side and that I wander around with drugs hanging out of my arm, falling into the gutter.

"And that 'decent bloke' thing has become a bit of a cross to bear. I think during the past three or four years I really was losing a sense of who I was – the media construction of my personality changed according to whim. Now I feel as though I can just say to myself: 'Well, you are who you are. You have done these things and there's no point worrying about it or trying to analyse it…"

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