Branagh: The Long and Short of It

BAFTA magazine, April 1998
by Briget Bailey-Grant

Mozart may have been a musical giant - but he definitely wasn't tall. The Salzburg maestro was in fact shorter than an unfinished symphony, which came as something of a blow to Kenneth Branagh. It was 1982 or thereabouts and Milos Forman was toying with the notion of an all-British cast for his film Amadeus. "A million of us went up for it," recalls Ken. "Lots of the big boys screen tested for Salieri, it was really a cattle call." Then just prior to the audition, Ken who is a respectable 5ft 10, discovered the 18th century composer was vertically challenged. "It's the first time I've ever been too tall for anything!" But he persevered. "I went along in a pair of flat shoes and walked into the room with my knees bent. I looked like Groucho Marx." Things didn't improve from there. "They'd told me that Mozart was outrageously happy all the time, so I had this beam on my face the entire time, like I was on drugs. Now I was Groucho Marx on speed."

Wolfie was probably turning in his grave, but Forman liked it and Ken got his screen-test. "I was involved for months but nothing came of it," he says, which makes you wonder what Tom Hulce did for his audition. "Tom was great in the part, and did it on Broadway," says Ken, adding wryly: "He is also a little smaller than me." Being a 'normal sized bloke' - as Ken puts it - does have its advantages however. "If you're tall and physically distinctive like Liam Neeson it's much easier to be spotted." And Ken prefers not to be, as it allows him to get on with things. "Unless you are on telly or in something like Titanic, you don't really get recognised. Most people in this country haven't seen the stuff I've done, they just know me as 'the guy who does Shakespeare' so they won't have put a face to it." Of course there will always be that late night encounter with a bunch of mouthy youths who insist on heckling him about Frankenstein, but only from a safe distance - and he doesn't lose any sleep over that. "You get people who say something was well done and others who'll say it was crap," he philosophies. "So I don't really have any expectations."

But who needs great expectations when you've got Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V? Certainly not our Ken, who in bringing Hamlet faithfully and flamboyantly to the big screen last year realised a lifelong ambition. Yes, Ken was only 15 when he was bitten by Shakespeare's great dane in Oxford and knew he had to act. Indeed, one could almost describe Derek Jacobi as Ken's careers officer for it was his sensitive portrayal of Hamlet that turned the schoolboy's head. Twenty years later - by way of a thank you - Ken cast Derek as Claudius to his own glittering top-of-the-range Hamlet. Then on the last day of filming Derek gave Ken THE book.

"Its a small red bound copy of Hamlet that has passed from actor to actor from the turn of the century," explains Ken, but modestly forgets to mention that it's only given to the finest Hamlets of the day.

"They've all signed it. Johnson, Forbes Robertson, Michael Redgrave, Peter O'Toole, erm...." Anyway you get the picture and it's up to Ken to decide who gets it next. "Well Derek certainly hung onto it for a while, didn't he?" says Ken. In other words if you're currently playing Hamlet don't hold your breath. But when it comes to handing out presents to the cast, he's a regular Santa Claus. "Over the years I've done wine with special labels; a torch set in a loverly gift box; a print of De Niro as the Monster for Frankenstein and a nice tracksuit top for Hamlet." He stops short of the cuddly toy, but reveals it was only mugs and t-shirts for the cast of In the Bleak Midwinter. "It was a very low budget film," he says apologetically.

Budget is not always an easy word for a director to say, but Ken has the measure of it. "I'm more aware of the budget than I probably need to be or should be," he says. "I hate assuming that money is some faceless entity because you've usually looked people in the eye and shaken hands. I prefer to have a relationship that isn't combative." Someone wise once described the process of filmaking to Ken as "one where all through planning and preproduction, the studio is holding a loaded gun to your temple. Then on the first day of principal photography they hand the gun over and you hold it to their temple." No doubt the producers of Waterworld remember that feeling well. "It's easy to develop a knee jerk reaction to financiers and believe that they're part of some great mythical conspiracy to pervert your vision of the film," adds Ken. "I don't think that's necessarily true, but there are commercial considerations. That means that people you'd like to be straight with often have a separate agenda."

Having grasped the money thing, it's then time to focus on the cast and crew. For this Branagh follows a set of rules:

1. Always pick a First Assistant Director you like. "I've always got on well with the First," says Ken. "One is happier and more confident about handing over to the right person."

2. Admit at the outset that the First has a very important job. "If I'm acting as well as directing, I need to save energy for what is required."

3. Do not pick a First who shouts and screams. "I can't be doing with unnecessary disharmony or confrontation on set. Filming is a bizarrely tense activity that should be made as pleasant as possible. When you think of all the money that's involved, and the fact that in the process you're not curing cancer, it seems ridiculous that it should be undermined by a bad atmosphere."

But don't let these rules fool you into thinking that Ken never gets cross. "Passionate personalities lead to a certain amount of temper which is fine," he says. "A set doesn't have to be cozy wozy, just polite and considerate. You shouldn't pamper people, but if an actor reads a particular paper in the morning, it's nice to have it in their dressing room. If someone doesn't like coffee, find out what they do like; just tiny goodwill gestures that allow actors to feel happy and trusting. They may have agreed to be in your film, but it requires a great deal of courage and they often get nervous."

And if you want to know exactly how they feel, Ken suggests you think about those crucial seconds before giving a speech at a wedding. With four hours and three minutes of Hamlet on screen - and 6 months of editing - Ken's directorial advice is not to be sniffed at, and he maintains communication is the key. "I like to share information and pass on any doubts or anxieties verbally, I don't put anything in writing because it'll be in someone's bloody biography in five years time."

Ken has already written and published the first volume of his autobiography - and with Hamlet achieved his lifelong ambition. What's more he's still only 37 - which makes you just want to spit. Spit poison in the case of some journalists, who are understandably curious about his personal life, but rather too eager to chip away at the pedestal they put him on in the first place. Not that Ken needs a pedestal. He's happy to sit anyway - as long as he can reach the ashtray - and he can socialise beyond his coterie of actors.

"It's easier in some ways to be with people who aren't thrown by fame," he says. "But if they are taken aback it usually doesn't take long for them to realise that you're just a collection of flesh, bones and neuroses like everyone else." Where Ken hides the neuroses is anyone's guess, he seems so straightforward. But having agreed to star in the Woody Allen film Celebrity there must have been ample opportunity to lie on the couch. "I just saw it as a chance to watch someone else direct," says Ken who also got to study Robert Altman at work on the Gingerbread Man.

"Someone once said that directing is like sex. You never see anybody else do it, and mostly you're doing it on your own.

"The truth is, all directors are interested in the way other directors work," insists the actor. "I've been doing Alien Love Triangle with Danny Boyle, and as we rehearsed he asked 'What would you do with this?' He didn't want advice, and he certainly wasn't paranoid because he's a very impressive individual. He was just interested." As he stands up to bid farewell Kenneth Branagh suddenly looks very tall. Milos Forman didn't know what he was missing.

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