Kenneth Branagh: He's Cute, He's Smart, He's Sexy, and He's Frankenstein

A & E Monthly (cover story), November 1994
by Anne Rieschick

The celebrity won't arrive for another 15 minutes, but the line of autograph hunters already stretches clear around the block. Some have been waiting for over an hour. They are a patient lot, many reading books, a little embarrassed to be found in the queue at all. I ask what brings them there.

A woman of 45: "I've never wanted an autograph before from anybody, ever. (Whispering in my ear) And I'm old enough to be his mother." (Not quite. At the time, the celebrity's 32.)

Two teenage girls: "He's so cute," giggle, giggle.

A serious-looking man in his 20s: "He's one of the great actors of my generation."

Another serious-looking man in his 20s: "When I was in London I saw him in Hamlet, and his performance moved me so much it made me cry." Hamlet?! These people are waiting for a man who acts in Hamlet?

Yes. They are waiting for Kenneth Branagh.
I can hear some grumbling out there. "Who's Kenneth Branagh? Never heard of him." It's true that Branagh hasn't yet achieved the Kevin Costner level of stardom, but he might soon. This fall Branagh's name will be everywhere. His new movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, premieres in November with an impressive pedigree. It's co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola and features, in addition to Branagh who both directs and plays the scientist Victor Frankenstein, Robert De Niro as the Creature, John Cleese (from Monty Python and A Fish Called Wanda), Tom Hulce (Mozart in Amadeus), and Helena Bonham Carter (Howards End).

I'm interviewing Kenneth Branagh by phone (he's in London, I'm in New York) and want to know more about the upcoming movie. I ask him what it is about Mary Shelley's story, published way back in 1818, that so inspires movie makers. "It appeals to something very childlike in us," Branagh theorizes, "a fear of monsters and a fear of the dark. It touches on something profound and yet simply understood: should we interfere with the processes of nature? It touches on the most important questions of life and death.

"In rehearsals I'd ask the actors, 'Do you believe we should interfere with nature to the extent Victor Frankenstein did?' And they'd unanimously say no. But then I'd ask, 'What if someone you loved died and because of technology, you could bring her back to life? Would you do it then?' And they all said yes, it's different when it's personal. That introduces the whole gray area that the Frankenstein story presents."

Branagh is known for sticking closely to original sources in his movies, but in this one he changes the role of Elizabeth, Victor Frankenstein's fiance. Why?

"I felt a responsibility to the spirit of Mary Shelley and to her remarkable life and character. It seemed ridiculously not to have a very strong woman's role in this film even though in the book the character of Elizabeth was prey to the literary conventions of the time: she was an idealized object of love who had very little to do other than be a source of saintliness and adoration.

"We wanted her to be active and to question, in the way the audience might, Victor's motivations. She should be someone who can see through the rationale of many such brilliant men, which is that what they are doing is for the good of mankind, when in fact it is their own vainglorious appetites that are being served. What was in our minds when we talked about this was the sort of remarks made by Einstein and Oppenheimer about the splitting of the atom, where the excitement, the zeal, and the thrill of actually solving the equation blinded them to the implications of it and to its connection with this world's destruction."

That his answers to my questions are thoughtful and articulate is no surprise. In interview after interview, intelligence comes across loud and clear. Intelligence and charm. It's hard not to like him, for in public at least, Branagh is unfailingly down-to-earth, funny, self-deprecating. It may be this Everyman quality that has allowed him to succeed at his passion: bringing to stage and screen--so that regular, TV-loving audiences can appreciate them--great works of classical English literature.
Kenneth Charles Branagh was born December 10, 1960, into a working class family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He recounts that both his grandfathers, Speedy Harper, a dockworker and the father of 11, and Pop Branagh, father of five and a man who "dabbled" for his income, were "universally known as 'characters', hard drinking and hard up." His own parents provided a stable and loving, if reserved, homelife in spite of constant financial headaches. While the household was rich in relatives and "'the crack,'--the Irish word for the pleasure of company, conversation, arguments, and songs...the arts did not play a big role in their life."

In 1970, to escape the increasing violence in Belfast, father Branagh moved his wife and two sons (a daughter would be born soon after) to Reading, a suburb of London. It was at about this time that Ken would exhibit for the first time the trait that continues to serve him well: nerve. At age 13, having discovered that the joys of reading were as great as the joys of soccer, Ken convinced the Reading Evening Post to enlist his services as a reviewer of children's books (payment was keeping the books he reviewed).

At age 16, Ken took part in a school production of Oh! What a Lovely War and became a confirmed theater junkie, going from one acting "job" to another, attending every performance he could, and devouring books and articles on drama.

Branagh was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, England's most prestigious acting school, and later chosen as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). When he played the title role in the play Henry V, the youngest RSC actor ever to do so, he researched the part by seeking, and receiving, an interview with no less an authority on the pressures of royalty than Prince Charles. (Chalk up another in the chutzpah column.)
Branagh soon became disenchanted with the bureaucracy of RSC and started hatching a plan for a new troupe, the Renaissance Theatre Company. The philosophy behind Renaissance, and Branagh's mission in life, is to take the intimidation factor out of Shakespeare. He wants to present the plays the way Shakespeare did, as popular entertainment. He is convinced he can win over to the Bard people who have never been exposed to Shakespeare or whose only exposure resulted in bored incomprehension. (In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, Branagh recalled that as a student reading The Merchant of Venice, he may as well have been reading walllpaper.) One way to accomplish this, he posits, is to use British and non-British, classically and nonclassically trained actors, and to have them speak naturalistically, as people do in normal conversation, rather than in the stylized Shakespeare-speak that has become the norm. Prince Charles was an enthusiastic supporter of Branagh's idea and became a sponsor. The Renaissance Theatre Company's first production, Twelfth Night, was a raging hit.

At 28, with little film experience but as we know, lots of nerve, Branagh raised money for, directed, and starred in the movie Henry V. It was a venture that was bound to invite comparison with Laurence Olivier's Henry V, made during World War II and considered a masterpiece. Branagh's bravado paid off. His performance was riveting, and the movie a triumph. Branagh received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director.

Adding another 10 points to the chutzpah quotient is Branagh's 1989 autobiography (yes, autobiography), Beginning. The colorful and funny book was a bestseller in England. Sheepish himself at the audacity of writing such a work so young, Branagh explains that he undertook the project because of the "handsome advance" that enabled him to move the offices of the Renaissance Theatre Company out of his flat.

Also in 1989, Branagh married actress Emma Thompson, who won the Best Actress Oscar for Howards End and Oscar nominations for Remains of the Day and In the Name of the Father. Thompson has starred in all of Branagh's movies up until Frankenstein. The couple lives in a modest house in suburban London and is sometimes compared to Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh, although some cranks will complain that he's no Olivier in the acting department and she's no Leigh where looks are concerned.
In the five years between Henry V and Frankenstein, Branagh directed and starred in three movies: Dead Again (playing both a 1940's German composer and a modern day LA detective, complete with Yankee accent), Peter's Friends (a reunion story, a la The Big Chill, set in England), and Much Ado About Nothing (a jubilant, sensual and acclaimed version of the Shakespeare play).

When I query Branagh whether, after making five films, he considers himself more an actor or director, he moans theatrically, "Oh I don't know anymore. I don't know. I see myself as a complete lunatic, a completely mad person...There are many uneasy parallels between a man creating a monster in a story and a man creating a monster in a large film, so I think a holiday is what I'm after. Then I'll work out whether I consider myself anything."

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