Kenneth Branagh: Hamlet's Head Man

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, January 23, 1997
by Steve Murray

Actor-director prefers his Bard straight up

Kenneth Branagh strikes the pose, going nose to nose hole with the skull while a camera clicks.

The solemnity is undercut when the photographer suggests that Branagh ---adapter, star and director of the four-hour screen version of "Hamlet," which opens Friday ---is holding the skull in a slightly, um, effeminate manner.

"Effeminate?" Branagh mock-rages. "What a crushing, crushing comment. I was trying to be so butch there."

But he adjusts his fingers and re-creates that most famous image from Shakespeare's canon, staring at this bony memento mori like so many actors before him: John Barrymore, Derek Jacobi, Mel Gibson (!) and, of course, Sir Laurence Olivier, the actor-director to whom Branagh is sometimes compared.

Branagh's film of "Hamlet" is complete, clear and free of wiggy interpretation, including any Freudian kink between Hamlet and his mom ("There's nothing in the text that says he wants to go to bed with her," Branagh says). The most he's done is to update the play to a nonspecific 19th-century period and transport Elsinore to England's snowy Blenheim Palace.

The "snow" ---detergent foam ---was a problem at first for Blenheim's owner. "The Duke of Marlborough was very concerned about his box hedges and the effect of artificial snow," Branagh says. "We had to do a chemical test to make sure they wouldn't be affected by it."

OK, so here's one viewer's quibble: If there's snow everywhere, where did those flowers come from for Ophelia's drowning? "Yeah, yeah, yeah," Branagh replies, grinning. "People have asked that. This was discussed in rehearsal. We decided they're dry flowers."

The interiors were shot on sets at Shepperton Studios, with smooth floors to let the camera track actors from room to room in unbroken shots. "Also, shooting with 70 mm requires much more light: We blew a substation one day in Shepperton," he says with the pride of a prankish kid.

"101 Dalmatians" was also shooting at the studio, so he saw plenty of puppies and Glenn Close (in full Cruella couture) twice. She visited the set and swapped tips with Julie Christie (Close played Gertrude in the Mel Gibson version). Because of the big, eclectic cast, Branagh says, she quipped that he'd need a film poster like "The Towering Inferno." "Remember that?" he says. "A big burning building with lots of little box photos of the stars."

Branagh took critical heat for his use of American actors in "Much Ado About Nothing" (out-of-control Michael Keaton, ever-blank Keanu Reeves), but he took the same approach for "Hamlet," with Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams.

"Shakespeare is not just the province of the English classical tradition," the Irish-born actor declares. "I particularly like actors who have a strong comedic instinct. Even in Shakespeare's tragedies, there's always a great deal of humor."

Though Branagh says his intent is to keep his Shakespearean films gimmick-free, he liked the new "Romeo + Juliet." "It was a dazzling, successful version of a very radical treatment of Shakespeare, and equally valid," he says. "It was inventive and full of ferocious energy.

"And in all honesty, I think its success helps our box office."

In contrast to his weighty performances, Branagh in person is quick to laugh, greeting a visitor to his Atlanta hotel suite with a hand extended and a Marlboro Light dangling from his goateed mouth. ("I don't think anybody else smokes in America," he sighs.) He's leaner than in his "Henry V" debut. And there's good reason for it.

"We were learning that bloody fight at the end (of `Hamlet') for months!" he says. "We shot it in March, but (he and Michael Maloney as Laertes) had been rehearsing it since October. We did it all ourselves, with the exception of two tiny shots with stunt guys."

Branagh dubs his film's finale "the `Die-Hard' section." Soldiers smash through windows; actors swing on ropes. Everybody dies. "It must be very hard making that sort of film," he says. "Michael Keaton says these (expletive) action movies drive you bananas, always having to wait for the special effects."

There's no action flick in Branagh's own future. Next week he starts filming "The Gingerbread Man" in Savannah, directed by Robert Altman from an original John Grisham screenplay. Branagh (who hopes to keep his goatee) plays a lawyer on the wrong end of a murder charge.

And, he stresses, he will be in Savannah alone. "The downside of fame is that it's irritating to have your personal life so talked about or misconstrued," he says. His divorce from actress Emma Thompson got its share of tabloid attention.

Right now, he says, he is seeing someone romantically. But not really: "Am I actually seeing anybody at this precise moment? No," he laughs. "I'm on the road. I'm married to work.''

But not all the time. For fun, he likes to hang out with his pals, eat and drink. And play three chords on his guitar.

"The editors and I from `Hamlet' formed a 59th-rate band called the Fishmongers," he says. "Really, one of the worst combinations of musical nontalent ever put together. But very enjoyable for us.

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