Interview transcript: Ken Branagh, Nathan Lane, Alicia Silverstone

The Charlie Rose Show
originally broadcast June 9 2000
*transcribed by Ann

[Clip of musical sequence: "Cheek to Cheek"]

ROSE: For the past ten years, Kenneth Branagh has established an impressive reputation for his film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, and his epic four-hour Hamlet. His latest attempt at making the Bard accessible to audiences is Love's Labour's Lost. He has taken the 16th century romantic comedy and turned it into a glamorous 1930s-style musical. Here is a clip.

[Clip of musical sequence: "I Won't Dance"]

ROSE: Joining me tonight is director, producer, and star Kenneth Branagh and two of costars: Alicia Silverstone, who portrays the Princess of France, and Nathan Lane, who plays Costard the Clown. I am pleased to have the three of them here to talk about this very fine film. [laughter all around as they greet each other]

LANE: Hello Charlie!

ROSE: Hello Nathan! How are you Ken?

BRANAGH: Hello Charlie.

ROSE: How are you Alicia? How was it to work with these two boys?

SILVERSTONE: So much fun, so much fun.

ROSE: [laughs] So much fun - I bet. Did you like Shakespeare going into this? Did Mr Branagh talk you into this?


ROSE: You sought this role out?

SILVERSTONE: Well, I was given an opportunity to audition. My manager said, you know, read this script and if you like you can audition. I said, Kenneth Branagh, of course!

ROSE: Oh, you knew him?

SILVERSTONE: Well, I knew his work. I had seen Henry the Fifth. I was only … but I saw Henry the Fifth and I loved it.

ROSE: One of his best, I think.

SILVERSTONE: [pauses] Well I… [AS and KB seem to exchange a glance; maybe he makes a funny face off camera. She laughs]

BRANAGH: I'm saying nothing.

SILVERSTONE: I loved it. So then I auditioned and I didn't hear for about a month. And then he called.

ROSE: Playing with your emotions, was he?

BRANAGH: I was on vacation. [laughter]

SILVERSTONE: But I was just so excited.

ROSE: Did he call up personally or did someone else call?

SILVERSTONE: I had a warning call.

ROSE: Oh, I see.

SILVERSTONE: And then he called.

ROSE: Like an associate producer or something?

SILVERSTONE: I think my manager called and said, "Ken is going to call."

ROSE: Oh, I see. "Are you going to be there for Mr. Branagh?" This is Hollywood! Is this the way it is…

[talking over one another]

LANE: No you gotta go through 24 people before you actually…

BRANAGH: …gotta be organised…different countries to do the time differences.

ROSE: The Brits are different.

LANE: He made you audition, eh? Oh, baby…

BRANAGH: Hey, what is this? Why pick on me…

ROSE: He made you audition?

SILVERSTONE: I don't blame him!

ROSE: Why don't you blame him?

BRANAGH: I'd make YOU audition, Charlie…

ROSE: Of course you would… but I have no talent. But her…she is a hugely talented actress!

BRANAGH: I agree.

ROSE: Not to speak of Mr. Lane.

LANE: …who is an even more hugely talented actress! [laughter]

BRANAGH: Well, we don't talk about that.

SILVERSTONE: I think it's understandable when a really quality filmmaker needs to make a decision about something. If I could think that I would direct someday - if I ever did - which is not something that I think about - I would absolutely need to see people's faces, doing - I mean, how can you know? It would be such a big leap of faith. I totally understand that.

ROSE: And how was he as a director?

SILVERSTONE: He was wonderful..

ROSE: Was he helpful, encouraging, with all this experience he has doing Shakespeare, sort of making Shakespeare accessible to…

SILVERSTONE: Well, what I really appreciate about what he does…I think that Shakespeare can come off -- as certainly sometimes is has to me -- where I felt like someone's speaking down to you and making you feel like, "We're going to bore you to death for three hours because you're not going to understand a word we say." What he does is invite you to participate. So this film is super-lively, you just feel so much energy. And it's so contagious. He has the knack for that.

ROSE: Yeah.

SILVERSTONE: Is that okay?

LANE: Like a virus, really! [laughter]

SILVERSTONE: Well, everybody walks out of the theater dancing and singing. I've seen it in six different places and people are walking out…[makes gestures imitating dancing]

ROSE: Really?

[everybody starts to speak]

ROSE: [with mock dismissiveness, to KB] We'll get to you in a second sir. [Ken mockingly gasps in frustration]

ROSE: Mr. Lane…did you know this play well?

LANE: I didn't know this play well. I had read it a long, long time ago. So when I was sent the screenplay, and Ken had all of the songs he had chosen with edits - you know, what movie has a score by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin?…it's an amazing group of songs. And all, very specifically coming out of whatever the scene was about. And I was just amazed at what he had done, and thought what a brilliant and brave idea it is. And this play - it's often been said that it's like an operetta or a musical. And it certainly lends itself…It has all the plot of an old movie musical. And it certainly is incredibly romantic and it's all about the effect of love on people, on many different people.

So I was thrilled to meet with him, and that he wanted me to be a part of it. And so, yeah, I actually-I assumed… actually, we had talked about another part. And then, time went by and then the part I actually always thought I should play was the part I wound up playing in the movie.

ROSE: So you thought, he was interested in having you play another part?

LANE: Yeah. So I was just, I was thrilled. Of course, I was just making too much money, and I decided I needed to SUFFER a little. I needed to go to England…

ROSE: You're actors…you need to suffer for your art, because otherwise, it takes something away from the value of…

LANE: I didn't go for the catering. Can I put it that way? You know in England, they're eating mutton chop parmesan for lunch. [Camera cuts to KB laughing] It's not about the food!

ROSE: Let me get back to Love's Labour's Lost. Why brilliant and why courageous to do this thing? Let's assume the brilliance because he makes a transition to the thirties, and he injects the music into it.

LANE: Right. Well, I think brave because a lot of purists…

ROSE: It might not work.

LANE: It might not work…a lot of purists could say, "oh, you're raping the text; you're taking out too much and putting in songs. It wasn't how it was meant to be." I just thought, the play was…as you [to KB] have often said, it wasn't done for two hundred years. Because it is so terribly light and downright silly, and then at the end it has this…turn, and just gets very serious. And profound. And people were sort of thrown by that and they just thought it was a problematic play. And then suddenly there was a great production of it, and then people started to do it again. But I just think it's…first of all, musicals -- everyone says the musical, the movie musical, at least, is dead, that genre just doesn't work anymore. And I think he has proven that it does. He has really pulled off this enormous feat. And I think people will see this…you have to say to yourself, "I have never seen quite anything like this." Even though it is reminiscent of those great old MGM musicals.

ROSE: Take a look at this. We'll come back to this star, and producer of this, and talk about why this particular play at this time, and his own fascination with Shakespeare, obsession with Shakespeare, his dedication to Shakespeare that we've talked about a number of times on this program. But first this scene:

[musical clip: "There's No Business Like Show Business"]

ROSE: Tell me, why this?

BRANAGH: Well, partly what the others have been saying. I have had a lingering affection for the play, having been in it. I've never seen the play performed. It is rarely done. I've not seen it in the theatre, have you? [to NL]


BRANAGH: And yet, when I was in it, it was a terrific, infectious joy to be had from the experience of doing it, the audience were surprised by it, there's a terrific romantic intensity, it's silly, there's lots of slapstick invited by Shakespeare in it, some of which was performed by these two distinguished colleagues of mine.

And it does turn on a sixpence at the end, where all along this silly story about a king, who says at the beginning, "Let's give up women for three years," well, I'll give you three guesses what happens. In about two minutes, four women show up…and Shakespeare actually rather neatly has each boy fall in love with one girl. He doesn't confuse it, does he, by having two guys fall in love with the same girl. That's for another play. And then, the execution of it becomes why it's funny. You recognize some people in situations where they're clearly pretending, trying to hide, deflect what their true feelings are. And you experience this sort of honeymoon romance, and then the tone changes, and surprises you! As it struck me when we first did it, at how the audience, at having seen this seemingly trivial comedy, suddenly thrown. And then shocked and I think very moved by the possibility that this boy-meets-girl story, boy-loses-girl, MIGHT end up with boy not finding girl again. And suddenly they realize they're much more invested than they'd realized.

And I've always found that true with my relationship with film musicals. Where despite the fact that Fred and Ginger, or Gene and whoever, are part of a kind of often-corny story line, I find myself affected by it, in a way that's to do with its escapism, its fantastical world with its bright colors and its amazing things, with people flying and all sorts of trickery going on. It's a world that's strangely, because it's at a distance, when we let ourselves experience it, it's sort of terribly moving.

ROSE: When you go to pitch this…

BRANAGH: Easy! [laughter] Come on! The play hasn't been done for two hundred years, the only one of Shakespeare's canon that hasn't been done, let's do it in a genre that hasn't worked for forty years, easy! Sign the check - "Sure, what do you need?" [laughter]

BRANAGH: It's like [KB assumes another voice, puts head down, covers face with both hands] "What are you talking about? Love's Labour's Lost, I can't even say it for chrissake." For most people it's a speech exercise… [mocks it as a tongue twister] It was challenging; what can I tell you. [to CR] Do you want to invest in it? I think they're still available… [laughter]

ROSE: So, you had to get them accustomed to the idea.


ROSE: Sell, sell, sell. Spend, spend, spend.

BRANAGH: Exactly. You have to just say, "Look, I know it hasn't been done for a while…"

ROSE: "In fact, I, Kenneth Branagh, knowing all the Shakespeare that I know, have never SEEN this play performed…"

BRANAGH: It's just an issue, a DETAIL…[laughter]

ROSE: "And there's no good reason why it hasn't been performed, people have been dying to do it, they just haven't had time."

BRANAGH: Even though people have continually written that they think it's a poor play…what do they know? [laughter]

LANE: It's Harold Bloom's favorite comedy!

ROSE: Is it?

LANE: Yeah, but he hasn't laughed since the Carter administration. [KB and AS laugh]

ROSE: Harold Bloom is a…

LANE: Yeah. Is what?

ROSE: He knows his Shakespeare!

LANE: Well, certainly. But he's not a lot of fun at parties! [KB and AS laugh] Ok? All right!

ROSE: Well, I don't know, I've never partied with him. But he's very good here at this table.

LANE: I'm sure he is! I'm sure he is.

ROSE: Is it his..

LANE: His favorite comedy!

ROSE: How do you know that?

LANE: Because I've read his most recent book on Shakespeare. What is it, Human… The Invention of the Human.

ROSE: You've read that too [to KB]. Do you read everything there is to read about Shakespeare?

BRANAGH: No, I don't. But I'm quite interested, for various reasons, [laughter] including trying to pick up… I *have* learned from Harold Bloom that Harley Granville-Barker, wonderful Edwardian critic, one of the finest critics, wrote a great preface to this play, and really started the appreciation of the last century that began.

People felt the language was too ornate, too dense. But there is something wonderfully simple about the play, and that's partly what [annoys?] me, because as you were saying earlier on, that the apparent superficiality of it, the subject matter being partly the problem OF people's superficiality _in love_.

In a way, there's a modern parallel, in all of us trapped in this ghastly word "cool," you know…unable to say what we really feel because "we have to [starts to descend into a weird voice, sort of Tony Slattery playing Marlon Brando] you know, be aware of the impression we're making, in whatever way. You know what I mean?" [laughter] That always makes me want to DO that!

LANE: Who is that?

BRANAGH: Just, somebody quite intense [doing it again], you know.

ROSE: Who IS that?

LANE: I don't know! Well, he's from LA, whoever he is. [laughs]

BRANAGH: English intense, you know. You walk in in a very nice suit, and then [strikes pose. At this point he might knock a glass over or something because Charlie says, "I'll get it." Lots of laughter.]

That's what this film is all about, because every time we'd get serious, something would fall over! Which seems to be what he invites, because he's so full of low comedy. And this was what I was trying to tell people when we were raising the money, was, "Look, there is something so infectiously silly (as you were saying) about the comedy of it, and part of it is deflating at all times the wrong kind of self-important serious. Self-regarding seriousness. So that its seriousness of purpose which is absolutely there, and touched in through layers of melancholy through the play, and through a very profound look at the whole idea of romantic love in the last act of the piece, all of that is lightly done.

And that lightness of touch is characteristic of great musicals. And that ability of a piece of entertainment to be superficially one thing and to touch you almost by stealth, if you'll pardon the expression, the subterfuge of the writing is so fantastic.

ROSE: Having said that let's take a look at this clip…

[clip: the four ladies discussing the four men, beginning with Princess: "Who are the votaries, my loving lords..."]

ROSE: What are Shakespeare's flaws? What doesn't he write well?

BRANAGH: Ah, that is a large and complex question. I think the answers will always be subjective ones. One of the great things about Shakespeare is the elusive nature of his character, the elusive nature of his actual biography. So there's always been very difficult to pin down his politics, to pin down any sense of a conventional religion, to pin down his views on relationships and marriage, given that in any play that explores any of those situations, the brilliantly contrary points of view given to various characters never allows us to quite put our finger on what he thinks. Which I think is a great gift, and makes him endlessly fascinating.

So therefore the flaws, such as they may be, are often to do with dramatic construction. It seems silly to talk about the flaws, but it also makes him real. To consider it. You almost have to, when you are approaching these things and it makes you have the license to look at something like Love's Labour's Lost and decide, for instance, in that play, if there is a flaw, it's perhaps an overexuberance.

It's a young man, it feels like a youthful play with a man writing with abandon, with a sense that he doesn't want to necessarily obey the dramatic unities in any conventional way or the conventional dramatic structure, which is why at some times there's high romance, there's low comedy, there's grotesquerie in some of the comedy, then this extraordinary change of tone at the end. Again these are all things that some have described as flaws in the play but which seems to be to be utterly real in terms of life, where all those kinds of elements coexist. It's never as neat as we would like it to be. And I - for me, that's not a flaw in his work; that's a very positive thing.

ROSE: Having said that, do you approach with huge trepidation making the kind of translation you are doing, and do you have to make changes in character?

BRANAGH: Yeah. We have Holofernes in the original, who becomes Holofernia...

ROSE: And so do you worry about, "Jesus Christ, people are going to think I'm playing with God's words here"?

BRANAGH: Occasionally I hear a noise in the night and fear it might be Shakespeare revolving in his grave. But I have to say…[laughter] that we've never been as radical as…

ROSE: [as Shakespeare] "Watch it! Watch it, young Branagh! You've been good to me! You did the four hour version of my Hamlet…"

BRANAGH: That's right, so I have some brownie points…[smiling]

ROSE: You can say to him…I can argue your case.

BRANAGH: But you know in the eighteenth century, they were not only rewriting the plays, but they were changing the endings. So there's a version of Romeo and Juliet where they actually get together at the end. There's a famous Nahum Tate version of King Lear where Lear and Cordelia were reunited at the end. The eighteenth century found it very difficult to deal with all that. So I think that I approach it with trepidation, mostly with respect. And a reverence that I put to one side.

Because in the end, for example, if people come out appalled from Love's Labour's Lost who love the play, or who can't imagine how it could be done this experience, and it's reflected in the best seller columns of the newspaper, is that people go back to the original. And if they've enjoyed the film, they go back and read the play. And you see that in any film based on a book or other kind of medium.

ROSE: Did that happen with Much Ado About Nothing?

BRANAGH: Very much so; yeah, we did very well with the screenplay. That's why publishing companies want to put a still of the movie on their full edition of the play! With Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, suddenly sales of that play went through the roof! It's just…it does exactly the opposite of what the so-called 'purists' - I always wonder what this group are - suspect may happen.

ROSE: So when you're casting, and you think, this is a musical comedy…you must first think of Nathan, that's clearly… If I had to think of people to star in a musical comedy, I don't know where I'd go AFTER Nathan Lane.

BRANAGH: Well, yes, he's cheap, he's available [big laugh] …and I don't mean that in a horrible way…

ROSE: I didn't know that; I thought you were in demand and highly priced.

LANE: Well, I am…but, you know, to work with him, I would have worked for nothing.

ROSE: You're lying out of your hat.

LANE: Well, I practically did. "I pretty much did, dear!" [fast and furious interplay]

ROSE: [laughs] I didn't know that.

BRANAGH: So bitter...

LANE: [to KB] Now try to explain your directing style. I have tried to do this on every talk show, which has never worked - and it's very disarming, he pretends to be this very *camp* director, and he talks to you in this certain way, he calls all the men by women's names. [goes into camp theatrical voice] "Oh, Mrs. Lane is a little cranky this morning, we'll have to squeeze the performance out of her!" [laughter] And this is the reaction that I'm usually met with, where you're staring at me - "What does he mean by that?" But when you're on the set it's very funny.

BRANAGH: We absolutely explain this sort of theatrical camp in this film A Midwinter's Tale, this little black and white film, where we explain giving all the boys girls' names. It happened to me when I was originally in this play - [looks at NL] and sometimes we do have to butch it up a bit, for some people…[cut to NL laughing] and sometimes we can be very, very silly.

The important thing is to create an atmosphere of fun, an atmosphere where, repeatedly, knowing that with these kinds of talents, there is seriousness afoot, everyone wants to be good, everybody's going to do their homework, but you have to keep just making everybody laugh. Especially with this play, because we wanted to give people the sense which I think does transmit itself through the celluloid, of the company itself having had fun.

[Musical clip: "Let's Face the Music and Dance"]

BRANAGH: And in this case, the piece is an ensemble, and the sort of mutual support and stuff, that all the various gifts, his brilliance, actually genius in the world of musical comedy, and her incredible comedy gift, and also this thing which you [to Silverstone] have of when the camera comes on, the eyes light up and she is fully present. Across all the cast are all these sort of properties, but nobody vying against each other [at this point NL laughs loudly] except in a horribly competitive way. [laughter all around] But that was the only way it happened, in a horribly ambitious way.

LANE: [laughs] "In a horribly competitive way..."

BRANAGH: But it was fun, and we want to transmit that. It's my style, make 'em laugh and keep 'em laughing. It's the same with the audiences: if Shakespeare makes you laugh you start to relax.

ROSE: Would you tell me about your character, the Princess of France?

SILVERSTONE: Well, I saw her as very determined to prove her responsibility. She really, really took pride in her…job, and she was eventually going to be Queen, and she knew that; and that would be a sad day, because it would mean that her father would have died. But, she loves her father very much, and she - that's her whole thing. She's coming there determined, I'm going to do a really good job, I'm going to impress my father, I'm going to make him really proud, and she gets there and she's trying to do this, but all of a sudden 'zoinks!' she just looks at - she finds herself feeling all these youthful, normal feelings of just…like as if a guy's whispering in her ear, she just can't stand it, it's too much. That energy is what she's…she's in conflict through the whole thing. She wants to do a good job but she's got a really, really huge crush. But she really wants to prove that she's good at what she does, she takes a lot of pride in that.

ROSE: Had you done much dancing before?

SILVERSTONE: No. Well, I did the normal little girl thing, going to ballet class…I did ballet a lot when I was little. But I stopped when I was twelve.

ROSE: Was the dancing harder than the acting?

SILVERSTONE: The singing was the hardest.

ROSE: Singing?


LANE: But she did great. She did great.

BRANAGH: She did great.

LANE: The kid did great! She worked hard, and she was terrific.


ROSE: Good for you, looking out for your fellow castmates.

LANE: [assumes mock tough-guy demeanor] That's right. That's right, Charlie.

[sudden degeneration into fast-talking silliness as they talk over one another]

ROSE: That's the kind of guy you are.

LANE: That's right.

BRANAGH: He doesn't mean it, he doesn't mean it.

LANE: What?

BRANAGH: He's just pretending to be nice.

LANE: This is just phony show business patter?

BRANAGH: This is all a twisted facade. It's a sham of a tragedy of a facade of a front bit but doesn't mean anything! [cut to NL cracking up]. It's about time somebody spoke up and said, "This is the carapace of loveliness sitting on top of a scathing, mulching [NL and AS crack up again] pot of yuckiness!"

ROSE: Isn't it a carapace on lizards?

BRANAGH: I thought it was something you had with beef..and cheese..."I'd like a tuna carapace please..."

ROSE: What's a carapace?

LANE: I don't know.

[Order restored, and CR introduces final clip]

ROSE: Ok, let's see Mr. Branagh in action before we get out of here.

[clip: Berowne's letter is discovered and he must confess that they are all "pick-purses in love."]

ROSE: [to KB] Congratulations.

BRANAGH: Thank you.

ROSE: Love's Labour's Lost opens in New York and Los Angeles, two big cities, this Friday, and nationwide when…

BRANAGH: Following week in about ten-twelve other cities.

ROSE: Good for you. Thank you for joining us, see you next time.

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium