Cowboys and Injuries

The Express (UK), August 14 1999
by Jane Wells

As the villain of Wild Wild West, Kenneth Branagh stole the film, but suffered for his art

Ken Branagh's not being going through the best of times physically. He's completely legless - literally - as the evil Dr Arliss Loveless in his latest film release, Wild Wild West, and earlier this month he was put out of action in real life, too, by a slipped disc.

But striding around the room, before that incident, dressed casually in a crisp white shirt and jeans, the clean-shaven star seems almost unrecognisable from the bearded, angry, wheelchair-bound villain.

Coincidentally, before his lead in Woody Allen's Celebrity, Branagh had been filming with girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter in The Theory Of Flight - in which she plays a woman confined to a wheelchair by motor neurone disease.

Did he compare notes with Helena? "Yeah, Helly had done a lot of research so that was a help, as it's very strange when you can't have your feet on the ground," the 38-year-old actor/writer/director admits. "It changes your voice."

So just how much did he suffer for his art?

"My legs were twisted under me and they had to screw down a metal plate to keep my thighs out of sight," he explains.

"I was quite squashed. I only did 20 minutes or a half hour before the circulation really started to bother me and after two weeks I started getting all sorts of aches and pains."

With Branagh as its charismatic villain, Wild Wild West pits Will Smith as secret agent Jim West against such terrors as an 80ft steam-driven tarantula which Loveless plans to use in his plot to assassinate the US president.

A mixture of fast-paced action, comedy and fantasy, the film combines traditional Western trappings like horses, saloons and sexy saloon girls with bizarre contraptions, including Loveless's gadget-packed wheelchair, and state-of-the-art digital effects.

Branagh, who says he got "quite deft" at driving his steam-powered chair, enjoyed playing the villain of the piece, and a number of critics have said he more or less steals the film.

"Well, it is quite a bit of Bond villain in there," he laughs. He also enjoyed the attentions of the four Wild Wild West "Bond" girls. "It was amazing just to walk into the make-up room every morning," he gloats.

"I was surrounded by all this sexy cleavage. Loveless loves these beautiful women but he's also torturing himself. He can't have sex with them."

Branagh's own private life seems to have settled down at last. He has built a house, though he only got to spend about six weeks in it last year.

A few years ago, during the much-talked-about demise of luvvie duo "Ken-and-Em", things were more turbulent.

He admits that the split, which brought divorce in 1996, was particularly bitter for Emma Thompson, especially when it was revealed that all the rumours were true - that he had been having an affair with Bonham Carter, his co-star in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Time, it seems, has healed many of the wounds. Ask him if he and Emma even talk now, and he says: "Not only do we talk, but we have stayed friends, and I hope we always will be." Thompson has also been enjoying her own success, following her 1995 Oscar for Sense And Sensibility, and is expecting her first child with new partner Greg Wise.

With Branagh's 1994 Frankenstein a disaster, and then the box-office disappointment of The Theory Of Flight in the States, some cynical Hollywood insiders are suggesting that the acting collaboration of Ken and Helena is now under pressure. Branagh is quick to dismiss this. "We love working together and had a great time on Flight," he stresses. "And if there's another great script that people want us for, we'll do it."

The couple have no plans to live together or tie the knot as yet, it seems. "Would I ever remarry? I've no idea," says Branagh. "I've no fixed views on that, children, you name it. As for living together, Helly finally moved out of her parents' house and into her own, so she's still got her own place."

Would he ever like children? After all, he's approaching his 40s... "I love kids," he insists. "There are lots of friends who can't have them, so I never assume. But I haven't been actively trying, so it may or may not be on my dance card, but again, it's not something that at this stage I feel I can particularly plan for. I try to think no further than dinner or tea. That keeps me happy."

Branagh, who's filled out a bit in the past couple of years, certainly seems happier and softer these days. And he's excited about the first production from his Shakespeare Film Co, a musical version of Love's Labour's Lost (the second, due to start filming this autumn, is Macbeth - with Branagh taking the lead).

"I went from a wheelchair to singing and dancing, so my muscles were a bit confused by the end of it," he laughs. "It's set in the Thirties, and it's all singing and dancing, tapping, synchronised swimming. You name it."

Synchronised swimming? "Yeah, we have a big Esther Williams number, but I'm not in that, thank God," he laughs. "I do some singing and I think that'll be quite enough."

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