Great Dane

December 1996
by Cary M. Mazer
**thanks to Toni Slaven

Seven years ago, Kenneth Branagh was cinema's (and Shakespeare's) newest wunderkind. Now he's a big-time movie star taking on the biggest challenge of all -- directing himself in the title role of Hamlet.

I admit that I was a bit frightened about interviewing actor-director Kenneth Branagh.

I had interviewed him for City Paper back in 1989, when he came through Philadelphia promoting his first film, Henry V. He was then virtually unknown to Americans, except through a few supporting roles in British films (notably A Month in the Country) and television (the serialized Fortunes of War, where he met his wife Emma Thompson; and does anyone, other than me, remember him as Glenda Jackson's son in Act 9 of an endless British TV adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude?).

But I already knew his work in England on stage, from his debut season with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 (playing Henry V, Laertes and the King of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost), and from some of his work with the Renaissance Theatre, the stage company that he had brashly co-founded in the late '80s, for which he played Hamlet (directed by Derek Jacobi) and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (directed by Judi Dench). He was a star on the rise -- certainly stellar enough for me, a stagestruck, starstruck Shakespearean, to hold in awe.

But he was also (I was assured by my friend Russell Jackson, a professor at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford who works with Branagh as his literary advisor) a down-to-earth worker in the theatrical trenches.

And so he was.

The American reception of Henry V, along with its Academy Award nominations, changed all that. The Renaissance company toured the United States, first playing in -- you guessed it -- Los Angeles. Other film directing projects followed (Dead Again, Peter's Friends, Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for Francis Ford Coppola and A Midwinter's Tale), as did other film roles (including Iago in Oliver Parker's Othello), and a Hollywood-style separation and divorce.

So this time, when Branagh was in town for an invitational screening of his new four-hour Hamlet film, I was interviewing, not a laborer, not a self-made star-in-the-making, but a certifiable star.

Meeting him in his suite at the Four Seasons, I was soon set at ease. He was relaxed, smoking. His face was somewhat more creased (he turned 36 in December), with a trim goatee which he had grown for a day of shooting in Boston the day before, playing a priest opposite Madeleine Stowe. (Needless to say he no longer had that Annie Lennox early-Eurythmics hairdo nor the little brown soul patch under the lip that he had worn for Hamlet.) And, as before, he was eager to talk about filmmaking, acting, actors, and above all Shakespeare.

Cary M. Mazer: I last had the chance to interview you when you had just directed your first film, Henry V , and people were comparing you to Laurence Olivier (who had made his film-directing debut directing himself in that same role) and to the young Orson Welles. Seven years later, you've directed seven films, three of them adaptations of Shakespeare. Now when you want to make a movie you get major studio backing; you make a four-hour film in 70 mm; and instead of scouting out a villa in Tuscany as you did for Much Ado About Nothing , you get to build a million-dollar set of a baroque throne room on two sound stages. Has all this changed you as an artist?

Kenneth Branagh: It sounds rather extraordinary when you put it in a potted version like that. Thank God it happened over a period in which, project to project, one was unaware of the extraordinary way in which one's path hasbeen paved. Every venture, every Shakespeare film has been difficult to finance, and every one of the other films has had its dramas and anxieties. I've taken nothing for granted -- at least I tell myself that I'm taking nothing for granted. So I just kind of get on with it, head down. And I have the real luxury of being able to pursue those things that really passionately interest me.

We had no concept of the success and the kind of acclaim that Henry V would receive, and the sort of faintly invidious position it puts you in internally: you realize that with one film you are not suddenly a man who knows how to make films, or any form of expert about Shakespeare, but simply someone who has produced this piece of work that had an extraordinary reaction. A lot of that time in between has been spent practicing as hard as I can to begin to understand a little more of this thing that I hadn't exactly fallen into, but that I certainly fell into an accelerated version of... and that can and probably has been rather throwing.

Coming back to Hamlet, which in a way is a kind of full circular thing: I felt that when we started this, I had a much greater right to be making the film; that if I didn't know exactly what I was doing, I at least had much more information, much more knowledge, and a deal more experience, about playing the role, about Shakespeare, and about doing what I was still interested in doing.

CMM: Do you still feel daunted when you start a project, or when you arrive on the set for the first day of shooting?

KB: Getting sleep is a tough thing to do. It's a constant anxiety, and I'll go through various things: I'll take some sleeping pills, I'll take some herbal pills, I'll try to have a massage, or anything that will trick me into getting the sleep that is necessary. That's a crucial thing; it's a very Shakespearean thing. Shakespeare always denies sleep to his tragic heroes in moments of crisis, a spectacular example being Macbeth. In Macbeth he calls it "nature's balm... the cure for hurt minds." You don't get sleep because you are anxious.

CMM: As an actor or as a director?

KB: In both cases. As an actor because you are aware of a greater amount of expectation, particularly from yourself, in playing a role that is so open to interpretation, which relies so heavily on the personality of the actor. Whether it's Shakespeare or anything else, your try to find, in the current state of knowledge, what you think to be the sort of appropriate state of preparation to act well.

This is a constant mystery to me, because it changes all the time. It changes as you get older, you work with different people, it's a different project, you're having a bad day, you're having a good day, it worked yesterday when you had drank a cup of coffee before the take, but then a cup of coffee makes you forget your lines... You get anxious as an actor; and as a director, you're anxious for other people.

CMM: You've done this role several times on stage, for different directors, and you've done a radio version. Was there a sense here, because this is a big-budget film, or because of your age, that this was going to be your last crack at it, that this is the version that's going to fix it?

KB: Absolutely. "Time's winged chariot" was hurrying very near. What I tried to do was to convince myself, with many years of preparation, direct and indirect, experience in playing the part, with my own relationship with the part, with all the homework in the world done, that, in a way that couldn't really happen when I did Henry V, my obligation as Hamlet was, once that camera turned, to be as real and as natural and as truthful as possible in the moment, within the style of what we were doing, and to forget about all that information, forget about what you prepared. Julie Christie used to say to me, "You do it different every time, don't you?" I said, "If you say it different to me, I'll say it different to you." It's just however it comes out.

We've got to trust the work we've done. I don't believe in trying, on film, to repeat some loved moment from the theater, recreating something, repeating things --"I was terribly effective when I did the line like that." I like to try to give it away, and just, in that moment, to have worked up to the point where you might be able to leap off into some inspirational percentage, that you and the other actors might just catch something so that your scene and the performance sings a bit in that kind of mysterious way.

CMM: Can you give me an example from the film?

KB: The closet scene was different with Julie Christie than any time I had played it before. There's one specific scene -- it's a scene I like very much -- the "recorder" scene, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, after the play. We were in this tight space in this little theater we created, and the camera crew and everybody was saying, "You should break this up -- this shot here, this shot there -- let's block it so that we can cover it from six or seven different angles." And I said, "No, I feel that we should do this in one." I've always wanted that scene in the theater to go like some whippet; Hamlet is in a way at his least attractive, but he's also at his wittiest, with his extraordinary aggression against these two lads. We had everybody kind of cooking at the right time, and I thought the scene was funny and vicious.

We did a number of things in the film where we shot things in one, which puts some real flame under the actors. They get kind of nervous; it creates a kind of theatrical effect. It actually helped to create conditions, as I thought, that were conducive to bringing out that sort of extra under-the-skin kind of tingle that the audience can feel, I'm sure, when it's happening right in front of you, and you don't know what's going to happen next.

CMM: Are stage actors or film actors more receptive to that kind of approach?

KB: I find my best experiences are with people who do a combination of the two. What you do have from stage actors is an ability to learn three or four pages of dialogue, and to be able to come up with it zippily, and not need to do it line by line. If you've got actors who can remember it and are really on the tips of their toes about it, and they're also good film actors, then I think you get the best of both worlds. I sometimes feel frustrated when I want to do things with the camera and with the scene, which, I believe, essentially, gives the scene to the actors, and an actor can't sustain it for over a minute or so. But, what these [film] actors do have often is, in the moments they produce, an absolute, laser-beam radio-signal connection with the truth.

CMM: Do you consider yourself at this point to be an actor or a director?

KB: You know, I have absolutely no idea. I'd like to say just an actor, but I've gotten more and more interested in directing because it's a way of looking at the acting process which I find very interesting. I like talking to actors, I like to actually see how different people arrive at trying to be truthful.

CMM: In the last two Shakespeare films, you've made a point of casting internationally -- casting both British and American actors, using their own accents, in principal roles. Has the response to this been different in Britain and in America?

KB: Yes it has. I think sometimes in America that people assume that we believe we have a kind of divine right to this material, and forget that we are, as a nation of cinemagoers, incredibly starstruck by American film acting. There's far less surprise back home than there is over here with the notion that some of these actors would be in it.

For us, Jack Lemmon doesn't carry the same baggage as he may do here. His ultimate kind of quality is being an Honest Joe, an Everyman kind of creature -- exactly what I wanted for Marcellus, who I think is a nervous ordinary soldier who cannot explain why they're arming in the middle of the night, why this thing is coming to visit them, and he needs a scholar like Horatio to interpret it. And yet I think, for some people over here, that's been a difficult thing to accept, just to hear that man say those things.

CMM: Are you still starstruck?

KB: Oh, yeah. But once you start having something do with people, it all goes. You're doing something and I'm not sitting and thinking "Oh, that's John Gielgud."

It was a joy to work with these people. I like the mix of them. I was excited to have such people in scenes with each other, the differences of approach. It keeps it fresh for me.

As I mentioned, this felt like it was a circular thing, that I was arriving back at something. I don't know what it was T.S. Eliot said about it: "The end of all our exploring is to return to the place from which we started and know it for the first time." I feel I know it a bit better. Essentially it's still a work in progress. I don't have a fixed way of doing Shakespeare, a fixed way of making a film, or a fixed way an actor works. Each time you try different things.

CMM: When you founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, when you did your first radio version of Shakespeare play, when you filmed Henry V, there was talk about your doing all the Shakespeare plays. Is that still a goal?

KB: What I learned from the experience of doing is that you cannot have a goal of just doing them all for their own sake. You have to have a passionate desire to tell a specific story. My name is not on every one of those plays. I think you have to do the plays, be involved in the plays, you feel strongly about --powerfully strongly about.

For us, Jack Lemmon doesn't carry the same baggage as he may do here. His ultimate kind of quality is being an Honest Joe -- exactly what I wanted for Marcellus. Yet I think, for some people over here, that's been a difficult thing to accept, just to hear that man say those things."

CMM: What's still out there that you want to do?

KB: In the not so distant future, if I have the chance to do them, Love's Labour's Lost and Macbeth. I want to do Love's Labour's Lost as a musical. I've always liked the play. It's very funny, very melancholy, very unusual, and has this peculiar Shakespearean magic in there, it really breaks your heart at the end, and it's also silly -- very, very silly.

I find that I get an idea about the world in which it's set, the period if you like (though I try to make all our periods pretty loose), and then you just keep putting every scene and every character up against that idea to see whether it's going to limit it or work for that character. For Macbeth, it's witchcraft -- you really have to find a world in which you believe that witchcraft is in the air, that it's real. I want get a world going for the characters where the witchcraft really sends shivers down your spine, so that you know, when Macbeth knows, when he makes this pact with the devil's representatives, how very serious it is; so religion has to be very important. Then the marriage between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth -- that marriage has to be very carefully set. She says, "I have given suck," and yet they don't have children; is she older, is she younger? And it's Scotland. You get an idea, you get pictures. And these I find are "anchor pictures."

With each of those plays now, in terms of the development of a film, I've got several scenes in each (many more in Love's Labour's than in Macbeth) where I can see the film and hear it. I can see the dance routine in Love's Labour's Lost: I can see a fantastic library, a fantastic circular library, and a dance routine on skateboards (but it's not a set now; a version of skateboards), and with them going all the way around the ceiling. I can see the women on punts on a river.

So I'm currently bashing away at those two plays. I carry copies of the plays with me (I've got them in my bag), and I'll sit and study a scene for a bit, and make notes, and work up some storyboarded images.

CMM: What were the pictures that got you into Hamlet?

KB: For Hamlet, the key pictures were Hamlet out on the plain with Fortinbras, with the army behind them; the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, taking the king and queen all the way down that corridor into a room full of fencers; "To be or not to be" in a mirror -- an early image of a two-way mirror; and then Claudius being overheard by Hamlet when he's at his most intimate and revealing -- we chose to make it a confessional scene; the fight; and the attack on the palace at the end. These anchor things. And then you start filling in the dots.

CMM: Twenty years from now, 30 years from now, when people look back on your career, what would you want them to say: that he was the great popularizer, the great filmmaker, the great actor, the great classical actor?

KB: I'd want them to look back and say, "He's funny."

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