One Actor and His Dog

Paws, Autumn 2001       (see the photos: one and two)
**Thanks Jude

Synonymous with Shakespeare and quintessentially British, Kenneth Branagh is the epitome of the thinking woman's screen god. But soliloques and sex appeal aside, Irish-born Mr. Branagh also happens to be a down-to-earth guy who loves to take his Battersea dog, Susie, for a daily stroll.

Susie, an energetic, short-haired black and white Jack Russell Terrier and Kenneth, an eloquent, tall and dark blonde BAFTA winner, first met back in February, but to look at them together you'd think they'd been together for seven years not seven months. Susie is blatantly ecstatic to be reunited with her leading male during a break in filming at Shepperton Studios (of the soon to be seen Channel 4 dramatisation of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton's doomed expedition that left 28 men stranded in the Antarctic for nearly two years). Tail wagging, eyes sparkling and a smile like a Cheshire cat, Susie bounds over to Kenneth with overflowing joy. And joy is something she has obviously brought to his life too. "I was surprised because she's a very charming girl" says Kenneth. "She'd been in the Home for three months and I think that's inevitably a bit traumatic, but she's settled down now. After a month of being on her best behaviour she has discovered her ability to chew."

As they huddle together for the camera, Kenneth in full Antarctic weather-beaten Shackleton regalia, and Susie looking radiant for her close-up, it is indubitable that they are very happy together. Kenneth explains that it is her carefree character and undeniable spirit that drew him to her when he visited Battersea Dogs Home. "When I first visited the Home it was a fantastic experience, but a bit traumatic as well. It was very affecting seeing damaged dogs and dogs with personality problems, you really want to take them all home." But it was eight-year-old Susie that stole his heart. "I was trying to get my own instinct about whether the barking dogs would in fact turn into sweeties and the ones that gave you the big doe eyes were in fact mad dogs! Susie was somewhere in the middle. At first she was quite quiet, but when I went back the third time she started barking in a playful way and that was that." Susie has endearing idiosyncrasies such as an obsession with stick throwing and a healthy appetite. "She lives for sticks to be thrown and you can't leave anything around that remotely sends out the smell of food." Susie is a very excitable dog. "I don't get too worked up about it, she is a Jack Russell and if I really wanted to be draconian about it I could get her to be super neat but I just want her to be the dog she wants to be. As long as she's kind to people, I don't need to show her off or anything, she's my mate."

For a distinguished actor, so constantly in the public eye on both stage and screen, Kenneth Branagh has certainly managed to keep his feet on the ground, taking solace in the normality of everyday life with Susie. "All the cliches about dogs are true, they are right there in the moment. For example, last night when I got home it was absolutely tipping it down with rain but there was no point in trying to explain to Susie that it wasn't the right time to go for a walk - so it was on with the wet weather gear!" The fact that he's an award-winning actor/director who has walked the halls of fame everywhere from the Home Counties to Hollywood, means nothing to Susie. She only wants him for his love and attention. And that sense of reality is precious to Kenneth. "It does encourage you to be more regularly selfless because you've got somebody else to worry about - when you might have been worried about silly superficial things, in our business, which can be so unreal sometimes, you value anything that is natural. Not trying to impress people, but an actual real connection. Dogs definitely teach you about that."

Not only has Susie had a positive influence on Kenneth's outlook on life, but also his recent six-week trip to the Arctic, to film Shackleton, provided him with some divine inspiration. "We were staying on a Russian ice breaker vessel which could be claustrophobic, but we were waking up to the most amazing scenes, the sunrises and sunsets and the completely unpredictable landscapes and it had quite a profound effect. The overall experience was like staring into fire. Being surrounded by great elemental forces makes us think; it puts life at home back in perspective." Kenneth explains how humble a man like Shackleton made him feel because of sheer refusal to accept defeat, even in the face of death. "He was a flawed man but with a great strength and fundamental concern for other people. His crew's adoration for the guy was absolutely unequivocal. He was a man who never gave up and playing a character like that doesn't come up very often. Like the best Shakespeare, in some way you can put yourself there much more easily than a big action film where unfortunately you'll never be the guy who leaps the tall building in a single bound." And you can't help but admire not just Shackleton for his courage but also Branagh for his dedication to the human story.

Kenneth's natural attraction to the stage and screen most definitely agrees with Susie. She has comfortably settled into the actor's way of life, visiting various locations for the filming of Shackleton and getting on with the cast and crew famously. "Oh, she's an absolute tart for the old tummy rub. Anyone round her goes to give her a quick stroke on the head and before you know it it's turned into a full-on tummy rub! She loves all the attention and can be a bit mercurial. She has all the marvellous qualities of women, because, of course, women are nothing but marvellous!" And with that the most English Irishman to ever conquer Hollywood is back to work with his number one fan in tow.

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