Branagh Plots Career on His Own Terms

Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 26 1992
by David Gritten

If you were Kenneth Branagh, what would you do? Your first major film to be released in the United States, an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V," wins you Oscar nominations for best actor and best director and encourages comparisons between you and Laurence Olivier.

Then, your next film, the romantic thriller "Dead Again," becomes a surprise hit, establishing you as an actor/director held in high regard not only by critics, but by the public as well.

So what do you do? You leave your native Britain, move to Los Angeles and hang out waiting for the next starring role in a big-budget movie, right?

That's what you do. But you're not Kenneth Branagh.

Instead, Branagh is playing the career game strictly on his own terms. After "Dead Again" made him a name to reckon with in the United States, he returned to Britain and started preparing to direct "Peter's Friends," a modest film in which he also acts in an ensemble cast of nine, sharing equal billing.

This is not what you'd call a calculating career move in Hollywood terms, but Branagh is more than happy with the resulting movie.

"It's quite a personal little film," he said. "It's about something I feel is important: the value of friendship, and the power of it."

"Peter's Friends," which has been described as a British "Big Chill," is a low-key, serio-comic film about a group of college friends who reunite over New Year's weekend after a decade apart. They come to realize how much more difficult life is in adulthood than during the carefree days of college, and how comforting one another's company can be.

"Friendship gives you illuminating moments of great companionship in a difficult time," Branagh said. "I notice that it's very nice to have friends - simple as that. Yes, they can be trouble, but what else have we got?"

In fact, art mirrors life in "Peter's Friends," because the cast list is littered with close relationships. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were at Cambridge University with Branagh's wife, Emma Thompson (who has been in all of his movies), as was Tony Slattery, another member of the cast. Comedian Rita Rudner cowrote the script with her husband, Martin Bergman, who is a close friend of Branagh. Thompson is joined by her mother, Phyllida Law. All in all, it's quite a clique.

But why would Branagh, who receives many lucrative offers from Hollywood, embark on a low-budget project such as "Peter's Friends"? He says it's a statement about the kind of movies he wants to make.

"It's not at all a cynical film," he said. "I was determined, without being sanctimonious, to send out a positive message. ... Films can shed some light. I mean, I just got offered a script about a serial killer. And while I don't want to put my head in the sand and pretend awful things don't happen in the world, I do not wish to make a movie about a serial killer."

He has completed his next film, an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."

But Branagh plans to keep Hollywood at arm's length. He will accept acting roles in studio pictures to finance his own movies, but his heart is in his own company, Renaissance, which makes films and stages theatrical productions.

"They've got me down as an actors' director, and they know I'm my own man," he said of the big studios. "Beyond that, they don't know me, which is fine: Keep them guessing."

At 31, Branagh is one of the leading British stage actors of his generation; he recently played Hamlet in a Royal Shakespeare Company production. He toured the world with his own theater group. He can call the shots in the movie business. And he has even published the first volume of his autobiography - an act that caused some British critics to attack his lack of modesty.

But Branagh said he aims to stay in London. "I would like to make British films, by which I mean films made here for a world audience," he said

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