Branagh Finds Hollywood "Intimidating and Intoxicating"

BPI Newswire, August 1991
by James Ryan

Kenneth Branagh recalls feeling simultaneously ``a bit thrilled and a bit scared'' as he rolled down Sunset Blvd. on the way to Paramount Studios to begin filming his first Hollywood picture, the romantic mystery ``Dead Again.''

``It's different being in the home of moviemaking. Rather intimidating in some ways,'' says the Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his 1989 film directorial debut ``Henry V,'' which was shot in England.

``Intimidating and intoxicating. I think the crew was a little bit wary of this sort of young English lovey who had done this Shakespeare movie. I think they thought I would come in with this enormous experience and be a little bit difficult.''

Branagh says he was able to quickly win them over with his enthusiasm for the script which tracks the dangerous journey of discovery of a man and a woman -- played by Branagh and his wife Emma Thompson -- who share a dark secret from a past life.

The movie, shot on location in and around Los Angeles, travels back and forth between the present day lives of private eye Mike Church and a mysterious woman with amnesia, whom he names Grace, and those of a 1940s era couple, German composer Roman Strauss and his concert pianist wife, Margaret. Branagh and Thompson both play dual roles.

The actor-director, who first read the screenplay backstage between Shakespeare performances at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum last year, says he particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to portray the American detective,a hardboiled, cynical P.I. straight out of the Hollywood movies he enjoyed as a youth growing up in Belfast, Ireland.

``With Mike Church there was a delicious chance to be more expressive, employ what I regard as an American quality -- the emotions are a little more close to the surface, a little more free,'' he explains. ``Plus there's this little journey in the film: him just trying to find somebody with whom he could just be himself and not this hardboiled, wise-cracking, macho square-jawed hero that private eyes in detective thrillers are supposed to be.''

For the part of Roman Strauss, he took on a German accent and donned a salt and pepper goatee. Moving between the two characters while simultaneously directing the film required a great deal of concentration, he says.

``I had to develop this facility for going from one thing to the other,'' he explains. ``It all has to do with a great deal of preparation. I couldn't possibly stay in character (while directing). That's one element of being from the theater that helps. You can find a way of switching on and switching off, which all has to do with preparation. That way you don't think about it, you just do it.''

Although Branagh may have been comfortable with the transitions, his crew wasn't always so sure what to think.

``Apparently when I was playing Roman Strauss (the crew thought) I was a little bit more difficult to get along with,'' he recalls with a chuckle. ``The problem was I had this false beard on and I couldn't smile much without losing it! They thought I was grumpy.''

Still, like his beloved Henry V, the charismatic Branagh has a talent for inspiring his wary casts and crews to action.

``People have gone along with me on some strange ways,'' he admits. ``Partly, I've only done the things that I believed in, so when I enthuse about something it isn't a line. Which doesn't make me anything other than someone who has had the luxury of having enough choice to find things I really care about doing. If you start tricking people, they see through it.''

Does Branagh himself wonder if he might have lived a past life?

``Sometimes I like to think I was born out of time. Or, if I was alive before, it was in some wonderful age of the actor,'' he responds wistfully. ``I would have loved to be alive in 1750 when London was full of theaters and it was all sort of wildly violent, cutthroaty and exciting. People threw things at the theater. Theater was as alive and provocative as cinema is today....Or in Shakespeare's day. I would love to see how it all worked.''

As a boy growing up in Belfast, Branagh recalls watching the credits roll at the end of Saturday matinees with rapt attention. Among the classic suspense thrillers and romantic mysteries he recalls viewing at the time -- which later were to inspire his direction on ``Dead Again'' -- were Hitchcock's ``Dial M for Murder'' and ``Rebeccah.'' It was doing plays in high school, however, where he first recognized his calling in life.

The actor-director attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and went on to perform in a number of plays with the Royal Shakespeare Company before forming his own group with colleague David Parfitt, the Renaissance Theatre Company, which recently undertook a global tour of Shakespeare's ``King Lear'' and ``Midsummer Night's Dream.''

One might think that working with a spouse 12-14 hours a day and then going home together would tax any couple. But Branagh says he and Thompson have developed an excellent working relationshp. The pair, who married two years ago, have appeared together in several plays and Thompson portrayed Princess Catherine in Branagh's ``Henry V.''

``We had a professional relationship built up before we became involved with each other and that's the key to it, really,'' he says. ``We don't take it home with us. I switch it off. It's such an all-consuming sort of thing that I like to have a glass of wine at the end of the day.

``We probably won't do another film together for ages, but it was important to work together on this one.''

For his next project Branagh would like to act in a movie directed by somebody else and, after that, tackle bringing one of Shakespeare's comedies to the big screen. ``It's a wait and see situation. The ease with which I might or might not be able to make another Shakespeare film will be partly determined by how this film is received,'' he points out.

Branagh says it remains part of his mission in life to help keep the Bard's work vibrant.

``He's somebody who helps you get through the day a bit. A good evening with Shakespeare can make you feel a lot better about your own anxieties and crises,'' he explains. ``He has great truths about the human condition that he manages to serve up like they're not some great philosophy. Someone who can do that ought to be kept alive not just because they're exclusively the best thing but because they're very useful beacons for other people who are doing the same things.''

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