Branagh the Ginger-Brit Goes Down South

The Independent, August 9 1998
by Alison Jones

For any director casting around for the perfect actor to play a sleazy lawyer from America's deep South, true Brit Kenneth Branagh is not the obvious choice. The Irish-born, Reading-raised Branagh is after all more famous for quoting William Shakespeare than Tennessee Williams.

Yet our Ken adopts an accent as rich as molasses to star in The Gingerbread Man, the latest thriller from the pen of ex-lawyer John Grisham, who wrote The Firm, The Pelican Brief and A Time To Kill.

"I think I was about four-millionth choice for the part," admitted Ken. "When they asked me about it I said I'd be interested if a director came along who wouldtake it by the scruff of the neck and use the pluses, which were a pretty interesting plot, bu t perhaps give it something different to what we have been expecting from the filmed Grisham adaptations."

His mind was made up when Hollywood maverick Robert Altman, the man behind such mould breaking films as M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts and Pret-a-Porter, agreed to direct.

"From talking to him it was clear he didn't want to make a straight up and down thriller and indeed it would have been faintly pointless with me in it. So it wasn't going to have the beautiful young man with the perfect family life in apple pie America. He wanted something more sinister and weird."

In the film, which also stars Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jnr and Daryl Hannah, who went brunette for the part, Ken plays Rick Magruder, a Savannah lawyer who is high on charm and low on morals.

After a one-night stand with a waitress he agrees to help when she claims she is being stalked by her religious fundamentalist father, he then finds himself caught up in a web of deceit that threatens his own children's safety.

Following in the film footsteps of a string of young Americans who have starred in Grisham movies, including Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey and Matt Damon, Ken worked hard to get his accent right.

"I didn't know much about the South. I suppose I had a bit of a cliched idea that it was all 'ye-haa' Texan kind of thing but there are a lot of subtlties, a lot of Scottish and Irish influences. People say it's a little easier for Brits to do. I had a c ouple of weeks to go around and try and be a Savannan. Altman likes to improvise a lot and that's when you start using expressions that find you out.

"I did a stupid thing once while improvising when my kids were locked in the back of a car. I thought I was being a bit marvellous and got carried away with mysel banging on the back of the car and going: `They're in the boot, they're in the boot.' Of co urse he goes `Cut. Cut. Trunk. They're in the trunk. What on earth is a boot?' Robert Downey Jnr, who was in that scene, just laughed in my face."

He even dared to try his accent out on the locals where they were filming in Savannah.

"You feel a bit of a nana when you try to order a glass of wine in a southern accent and they say: `Why're you talkin' like that, you're that Shakespeare guy right?'

His natural accent is pleasant but undistinguished, bearing little trace of his Irish origins .

"lt was a little bit of self preservation. We moved from Belfast when I was nine, at a time when the Troubles were pretty intense, to Reading and people literally couldn't understand us. It got me down after a while but I felt very ashamed at losingmy a ccent. So for a while I would be English at school and then come home and be Irish because I was so afraid of upsetting my mother.

"My brother went to school the first day and came back speaking in an English accent and never changed and it caused terrific ructions in the family."

Since he turned to acting he has fought hard to play down the pre- conception film makers have of him as a plummy voiced Olivier wannabe walking round with a book of Shakespearean sonnets tucked under his arm. Instead, as a football fan and closet Coronat ion Street watcher, the image he projects is more likeable lad than luvvie.

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