Branagh's Trial Run at Grisham

New York Daily news, January 20, 1998
by Howard Kissel

Kenneth Branagh has a very important piece of advice to anyone he approaches about financing his next Shakespeare film:


Branagh wants to go back to the Bard, but, as always, must first go back to the bank. He opens Jan. 23 in John Grisham's "The Gingerbread Man," a Robert Altman film about a Savannah lawyer confronted by the "establishment" he has built a successful career thwarting.

The 37-year-old actor, who achieved international stardom a decade ago directing and starring in Shakespeare's "Henry V," has adapted, directed and starred in two other films of Shakespeare plays since then, his acclaimed 1996 "Hamlet" and 1993 "Much Ado About Nothing," which was the most profitable Shakespeare adaptation in two decades.

The boyish, tousel-haired actor concedes that luck has played a great role in his career. When he went searching for financing for "Henry V," having had a successful stage career and minimal movie experience, he met a "maverick stockbroker" who was as much an amateur in the film business as he was himself.

Ten years ago, the British film industry was in the doldrums, and even the relatively modest $8 million the film required was a lot of money to raise. Ten days before shooting, Branagh wasn't sure the money would be in place.

Moreover, his friend, Sir David Puttnam, who produced the 1980 Oscar-winner "Chariots of Fire" and subsequently ran briefly and controversially Columbia Pictures, told him, "This film will collapse either two weeks before or two weeks after principal photography begins."

A good sport, Puttnam congratulated Branagh when his prediction failed to come true.

Since "Henry V," Branagh's career has alternated various horror-themed projects ("Dead Again" and "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which he directed and starred in opposite Robert De Niro) and intimate pictures, such as the low-budget "Peter's Friends" or the Academy Award-nominated short subject "Swan Song," based on a Chekhov one-act and starring John Gielgud.

Branagh took the role in "The Gingerbread Man" for several reasons, chief of which was the opportunity to work with director Robert Altman.

"I liked the character," Branagh says. "He's not a straight up-and-down action hero. Of course in Altman's hands, even if that's the way the character had been written, it wouldn't be the way he'd turn out."

To play the role, Branagh had to develop a credible Savannah accent, for which he hired a dialect coach "a Henrietta Higgins" he had used in an earlier work.

"She acted as my 'dialect police,' " he jokes. "It's a tough accent. First you have to get rid of the cliches. You don't want to do a generalized Southern 'Hee-Haw' redneck. What amused me is when you'd find Savannahians 'embarrassed' by the accents of other Savannahians. We'd go about Savannah trying to buy things so I could practice my accent. It was a bit silly since all Savannah knew we were in town."

Although it is definitely an action picture, Branagh liked the script because it's "about a man losing control. It's also about the emotional issue of children about a man who loves his children but really doesn't do enough with them. He only realizes the depth of his concern when they're in danger. It's a character that makes you think, 'There but for the grace of God . . .' "

Does being in an action picture enhance his commercial viability more than acting Shakespeare?

"If you're playing a flawed action hero or a transexual gorilla, if it makes money, it adds an extra little bit of heat."

None of this is what he imagined when he became an actor. "For a working class Protestant in Belfast, the notion of becoming an actor was thrilling for being an escape. We moved to Reading, where I had to take an exam to determine what I might be suited for. I was told my choices were the army, British Rail or Prudential Insurance. The notion of a film career didn't really exist."

As for the script he doesn't want any potential investors to read, it's "Love's Labours Lost," one of Shakespeare's trickiest, which he wants to do as a musical.

"It's full of dense Elizabethan wordplay, which no one ever gets. Instead we'll use classic songs that employ 20th century wit and word play that conveys the same sense of energy. It's deeply, deeply silly but ultimately melancholy. I want you to weep at the end."

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