Not So Melancholy, Baby

Madison (cover story), December '98/January 1999
by Carol Day

With a new co-star, both on screen and off, Shakespeare's favorite son learns life isn't all tragedy. Kenneth Branagh shares his theories on life with Carol Day.

A standard-issue one-story photographer's studio in Culver City, tucked away just off La Cienega, south of Hollywood and on the way to LAX. A blindingly blue sky. A few big black Mercedes in the parking lot. In walks a sandy-haired guy in jeans and a rumpled blue plaid shirt. He tosses his loose-leaf address book and StarTac cell phone on the table, grabs a coffee and kibitzes with the photographer, assistants and all those within earshot.

Suddenly everybody's smiling. No, make that laughing.

After all, this is Kenneth Branagh, the man Woody Allen chose to play his alter ego in his latest film, Celebrity, in which Hollywood talents like Leonardo DiCaprio and Melanie Griffith pop up in humorous cameos. It's no surprise he can do a comic turn or two.

But when he dons a single unlined Prada coat with turned-up collar -- the black Italian wool making his pale Irish skin look paler and his blue eyes bluer -- abruptly no one's laughing. He stares into the camera. A somber mood overtakes the room, despite the stream of sunlight from the skylight overhead.

Hamlet had made his entrance.

It's impossible not to be charmed, inspired and even moved at times by this, in turn, downright silly, deeply intelligent, immensely articulate and emotionally open man born 38 years ago in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Born to act" is the assessment of Hugh Cruttwell, Branagh's longtime acting coach. Which indeed he has done, as well as direct, in a body of work that includes Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and, of course, Hamlet, for which he earned three Oscar nominations.

Does Branagh agree? When we sit down in the back room to talk after the shoot, he apologetically lights up a Winston, claiming he's quitting when this pack is done. ("Soon these will be gone.")

"I think he's right," admits the man who has been saddled from the age of twentysomething with the title of heir apparent to the most admired actor of our time, Sir Laurence Olivier.

"Although, maybe it stretches wider than just acting," Branagh says, "born to create in some fashion, to try to create in any way: making a film, directing a film, whatever. It's linked to wanting to try to tell a story with as much reality and vividness as possible."

Recently Branagh has been taking a break from directing, establishing more of a Hollywood presence for himself by starring in films like Celebrity and John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man, directed by Robert Altman. As we speak, he's just about to finish shooting Wild Wild West, co-starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Salma Hayek, scheduled to open next summer. He plays a 19th century villain -- the sculpted beard and mustache he sports designed to make his friendly face look a bit more menacing.

Branagh may be a far more interesting character than any he's played, except of course for Hamlet (but then, he's a lot more fun to be around than the melancholy prince). It's not only his voice, which rises and falls like notes on a musical scale, but without a hint of affectation; nor is it the delightful way in which he punctuates the adjectives he uses in conversation -- im-men-sely, ex-traor-dinary, a-maz-ing, won-der-ful. Nor is it his insights into human character and the arts, both high and low.

Quite simply, it's his passion for life, and for portraying it that's so, to borrow a phrase, im-men-sely engaging.

He hasn't always been this at ease with life, especially when taken to task by the British critics for a particular performance, his early success or writing an autobiography at the tender age of 29 ("who does he think he is, anyway?"). He's also had years when he was tortured with his work and its obsessions: "You've really got to believe in what you're doing; otherwise it's terrifically intense and subject to all sorts of whips and scorn."

He says he's currently comfortable with the level of fame -- or, as he jokes, infamy -- that he now enjoys. His favorite line from one of the British "Carry On" comedies starring Terry Thomas is "infamy, infamy, they've all got it in-fa-me!"

When I show him the October issue of Tatler, with Helena Bonham Carter on the cover, he looks at it briefly and nods. Yes, he's seen it. His face gives nothing away about their relationship.

He stars with the Oscar nominated actress in The Theory of Flight, directed by Paul Greengrass, and she and Branagh have been a couple, reportedly since he directed her in Frankenstein. But Branagh, perhaps burnt by the British tabloids when he was married to actress Emma Thompson, doesn't speak about Bonham Carter. Neither wants to be part of a public celebrity romance. They don't live together (her mother accompanied her to the Oscars last year, but she attended the New York premiere of Celebrity), and although they are clearly an "item", they resist being labeled as one.

The magazine inadvertently falls open to the horoscope pages. I ask if he's a Sagittarius or a Capricorn (his birthday is in December). "Sagittarius, of course," he proclaims proudly. "And I rule my life by the horoscopes," he says, poker-faced, until I do a double-take and we both grin and chime at once, "Not really."

The subject comes up later, when he tells me, "There's a large part of me, which is clownish and wacky, which my pals get to see more than the public, and Sagittarians are supposed to be philosopher-clowns." Whether it's from inhabiting the characters he's played, delving into some of life's truths illuminated in Shakespeare or simply showing up on the stage of life, Branagh embodies a kind of simple wisdom, and if he can impart it with a pratfall, he's thrilled.

In current Hollywood slang, a hyphenate (writer hypen producer, for example) is one of the most bankable talents. As actor-director-producer, Branagh is a hyphenate in spades. There's Branagh the student of life and interpreter of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. The playwright's truths and illuminations about the human condition are, he says, "practical and real and remain very pertinent." For Hamlet, for example, he did a lot of research about suicide, grief and death. "I have been lucky to have the occasional moment in Shakespeare onstage where one felt bigger, wiser, funnier because of all the intelligence passing through you, intelligence beyond my comprehension," he says. "Those illuminations don't come very often, but they almost function in the same way as the traumatic shocks in life -- like grief or birth or whatever -- that for a moment allow you to be exactly who you are with utter clarity."

And then there's Branagh the regular guy next door (if you live in Oxfordshire) -- who loves dogs and playing guitar in a makeshift band called the Fishmongers and following his favorite football teams. He's as moved by excellence on the playing field as he is by great writing and acting. "I like the drama of it," he says, "superhuman efforts in athletics--they make me weep."

Clearly, Branagh isn't afraid to express his emotions as well as his intellect. As an actor and filmmaker, he loves to move the audience to laugh and cry. And a number of times he mentions how he wept at a movie or book or some triumph of the human spirit. Don't get the wrong impression -- he's not miserable or depressed by these events or emotions; he's moved and exhilarated in a way that he strives to make audiences feel: "Unless something touches me emotionally, moves me in some way, makes me think in some impactful way, it's impossible for me to do it, especially when it comes to directing a film." Interestingly, the characters he plays in Celebrity and The Theory of Flight are both, at least in the early scenes, desperately unhappy.

When Woody Allen asked Branagh to play Lee Simon in Celebrity, the role Allen himself typically would have played in the past, he said he was looking for someone who could come across as a regular guy with a real life and real problems. Branagh plays a frustrated journalist with a failed marriage and a half-finished novel, hovering on the edge of New York's celeb scene, where success is measured by how many times your name appears on Page Six of the New York Post.

Allen sent the entire script to Branagh and Judy Davis, who plays his wife (his practice is to give the actors only the scenes in which they appear), and in a cover letter to Branagh, he simply told him that Lee is basically a loser yet is still somehow attractive to women. "It was a terrifically bleak piece," Branagh says, "but as I think he had planned, it played very funny, with that melancholy that underlines his work." After all, he notes, at the end of the film, his character is staring at a screen that says HELP in skywriting.

In The Theory of Flight, which opens in December, Branagh plays yet another frustrated, defeated artist, this time a painter, opposite Bonham Carter as a young woman suffering from a neuromuscular disease who want to lose her virginity before she dies. When I ask what he draws on to play these "loser" roles, considering that in real life he's had such success at an early age (he was cast in a West End play as soon as he left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and won the prestigious Best Newcomer Award in 1982), he admits that he's as vulnerable to self-doubt as the rest of us.

"Deep down everybody has at least transient moments of frustration. I think it's a particularly male thing to be imagining that somewhere out there, some patch of grass is greener," he says. "In both characters there's a lot of dramatic tension, because they're highly intelligent men who can be self-aware of this contradiction that their intelligence informs them is probably a bit of a wild-goose chase. They both show extreme restlessness, which is something I think a lot of people can identify with." He goes on to say, "It's as in As You Like It, when someone asks Jacques how he got to know what he does about life and he says, 'Ah, I have bought my experience.' Both these characters pay a price, so maybe they're older and wiser in the end."

Branagh sees the possibility of hope for both characters but "It's a realistic hope that acknowledges that further along the way there will be other disappointments, other moments in which life bashes you around, but perhaps the experience you've bought will illuminate them in a way that allows you to deal with them."

As a child, he got bashed around a bit himself when his family moved from Belfast to Reading, England, in an effort to escape the "troubles" between the Catholics and Protestants. The first day at his new school the other boys taunted him for his Irish brogue, a trauma for the new kid who quickly learned to speak like an Englishman born and bred, which might account for his facility with accents. Later, when he was 12, he was the object of a brief period of bullying; to escape, he says, "I retired to my room" and developed a rich imaginative life. And although there were never any books at home -- "not that my parents were stupid, but they were from a culture that didn't read books, working-class Belfast Protestants" -- he started to go to the library and also to buy books.

Today reading has become his favorite pastime. "my idea of a great day -- I had one just the other week --is get up, go for a run, come back home and spend the rest of the day reading a book...outside when it's sunny, and inside when it isn't." So much for the glamorous life of a movie star.


Earlier this year he wrote a screenplay, a thriller that he had always planned to be a novel. "I didn't write it as a novel," he says, "because I read so much that I am so intimidated by the prose of people like Ian McEwan that quite frankly, I think, Make films, Ken. Just make films."

So what about acting on the stage again?

He's aghast. "On stage?!"

Surely he couldn't have given it up? "I just got very interested in trying to get better at making movies and acting in films," he says. Branagh loves to go to the movies. No snob who deems only art films worthy of his time, he even saw this summer's pop hit There's Something About Mary, derided by some as being tacky and juvenile. "I heard laughter in the cinema I haven't heard since Tootsie," he says. "Hysterical."

But strangely enough for someone who's had so much training and acclaim, he confesses to a certain amount of trepidation to treading "the boards" again. Acknowledging that acting onstage, while grueling and tough to "get it right," has its triumphant moments, Branagh tells a famous story about Olivier: "The place was electrified and the entire company and the audience felt his devastation, his grief, his guilt. Everybody had felt it. As he left the stage, all the actors in the wings cheered him off. And he ran off in a real huff. Eventually somebody went to the dressing room and knocked on the door and said, 'You know, Sir Laurence, you seem unhappy. I just want to say that this was the most extraordinary performance any of us have ever seen in our lives.' And he said, 'Yes, I know, and I don't know what I did.' You see, even in the hands of a great artist, he could get everything ready as it were to make the liftoff, but actually whether it happens or not is something very elusive...and inspiring."

But not enough to compel him to try it again anytime soon. "When I go to the theater now, which is more often than I used to, I find myself impressed about how they remember all those lines and do it night after night. It seems strange, but I have a faint terror of stage fright and forgetting the lines. All irrational. Lots of pals of mine say, 'Nah, it's like riding a bike.' But I'll do it again. There's no question."

Having just recently set up his own production company, Branagh will be directing and acting in three new Shakespearean adaptations. On the slate are two comedies: Love's Labour's Lost (set in the 1930s with music by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) and As You Like It. The last of the three to be filmed will be the tragedy Macbeth.

He credits the young producers in Britain who have gotten savvier about the business: "We have a bigger market in Britain now, so that for a certain price you can make a film just for Britain and see how it does in the rest of the world, not being always enslaved to the ideas of, no offense, American influence." An example he cites is Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, directed by Guy Ritchey, who, Branagh says, "did an immensely impressive job -- kind of Tarantinoesque, but it definitely has its own originality."

British directors he'd like to work with include Mike Leigh, director of Secrets and Lies: "I love the acting that he produces, and he's not afraid to be bold." He also praises Danny Boyle, an "actor-friendly director who has such an incredible grasp of the business of making a film."

Spending more time filming in England could also mean the addition of a few dogs around the hearth of the house he recently built for himself outside London. "I just want to make sure I"m home long enough to bond with them. I've been to the local rescue place, so that's what I'll do, get a couple of mutts. I love dogs," he says with the same kind of passion he has for books and music.

Directing Shakespeare and living at home may also mean more time with Bonham Carter, who has also built a new home for herself, a sort of artist's artelier near her parents home in London's Golders Green. Certainly that was one of the motivations in doing the role in Theory of Flight: it was a great part for her and she and Branagh could spend time together.

Her performance as Jane is mesmerizing; she's limited to a wheelchair and speaks haltingly and with great effort because of her disease, but she's funny and pluckish and brave. In an interview about her role, Bonham Carter said how she admired the traits of her character so much she was going to try and incorporate them into her own life. I asked Branagh if he had ever had this experience and if any of his roles had changed him. He thought about it awhile.

"Sometimes I don't know what my personality is anyway, you know, because I'm an actor. It's the little bits in between your parts," he says. "But I think they all change you in some way. It's the Shakespeare that stays with me the longest. Not that I find myself quoting him every day, but I do find images from the plays stay with me, and there are lines that I love and moments when you discover some scene or character has a meaning for you that hadn't occurred to you prior to that. I'd say Hamlet has stayed with me the most. It's hard to play that part and not be very, very aware of life and death and the passing of people and preciousness of life. And it makes you more concerned about your parents, who you see getting older, and the fragility of life."

In parting, Branagh leaves with a deceptively simple line Hamlet delivers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are bemoaning the hardship of their dreary lives. Branagh uses it as a kind of mantra whenever anxiety strikes or becomes too complicated.

The line? "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

He explains, "The decision about how you view your life is one that you can make. You can consciously decide to embrace life as it comes, with all its pleasures and all its pain."

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