Renaissance Man: Kenneth Branagh

Brentwood Magazine, Spring 1998
by Greg Srisavasdi

This 37-year-old actor/director/producer/writer has been christened the next Orson Welles or the next Laurence Olivier since his late twenties, the time he brought his vibrant version of Henry V to the screen. It's a familiar comparison Kenneth Branagh hears, even to this day. He was 29 then, a man versed in Shakespeare and passionate enough to direct and play the lead in the film. Fame, as well as critical acclaim, came to Mr. Branagh at such an early age.

The succeeding years placed Branagh at the top of his game, yet with every blessing, there have been setbacks. His biggest successes in the past 10 years have been the film noir thriller Dead Again (1991), the Big Chill-esque whimsy of Peter's Friends (1992), and another brilliant Shakespearean adaptation, 1993's Much Ado About Nothing.

Die hard Branagh fans will argue that almost everything he touches turns into creative gold, and such an opinion is well validated. But Hollywood has its voice as well - the critical and commercial reception of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1995) was lukewarm, and hardly anyone saw his hilarious comedic work, A Midwinter's Tale (1996), which featured an amusing performance by the grand dame herself, Joan Collins.

Yet the hardest hit that Branagh has taken over the years, in media terms, is the tabloid scrutiny of his public life. The press hounds attached themselves to him after he and Emma Thompson announced their plan to divorce in October 1995. Subsequently, his romance with Helena Bonham Carter (his co-star in Frankenstein) has also been tabloid fodder.

Such nuisances beg the question, how does fame affect one's personal time? "Initially, you go through a period where it's hard to conceive that people would be so interested in your private life," muses Branagh during a recent interview at the elegant Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.

"During that crossover period, it's very easy to get paranoid. You're not used to it. So sometimes it curtails things, and you find you get bothered in places you wouldn't expect too. A little normalcy is shaved off your life. And then, as heat fades, that attention fades, and it all kind of levels out."

Another seeming disappointment is the public reaction to his finest achievement to date - Hamlet. A stunning four-hour epic filled with wonderful performances (especially a stunning Kate Winslet as "Ophelia"), the film was virtually ignored by the public, yet it fortunately received wonderful reviews from critics.

Branagh, like all great artists, is constantly working. After Hamlet, he spent his days bouncing from one project to the next, this time only as an actor. After his unexpected, refreshing turn as a Southern lawyer in the gritty Robert Altman film, The Gingerbread Man, he'll star in three other films this year: The Proposition, a dark sexual drama co-starring Madeline Stowe, the black comedy The Theory of Flight with Helena Bonham Carter, and Woody Allen's next picture, Celebrity, co-starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Kim Basinger. He was also recently cast in Wild, Wild West opposite Will Smith.

"I rather enjoy the idea of surprising people with different roles in different kinds of movies and maybe do some things that are away from the regular association," Branagh says, when asked why he's such a workaholic. "I feel a certain kind of freedom that way." The former boy wonder is now an adult who, in less than 10 years, has spearheaded the cinematic revival of Shakespeare, while also carving himself a niche as a very competent and dedicated actor.

Branagh's next dream is to film a musical version of Shakespeare's Love Labour's Lost. Isn't the musical dead? Such questions are useless to Branagh; he follows his passions no matter what the consequence. Welles and Olivier must be smiling somewhere, high up in Hollywood heaven.

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