The Original Gingerbread Man

PA News, July 23 1998
by John Hiscock

If Kenneth Branagh had any regrets about abandoning his director's chair and letting someone else give the orders, they disappeared during the three months he spent in the Deep South on his most recent film.

There he was, joking and laughing between takes on The Gingerbread Man with beautiful actresses Darryl Hannah and Embeth Davidtz - and filming a lengthy nude romp with Davidtz - while the veteran director Robert Altman wrestled with problems of weather, script and demanding studio bosses.

Branagh was very happy to let him get on with it. After the long, arduous months he spent directing such demanding films as Henry V, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Hamlet, he is revelling in the luxury of just showing up for work and watching someone else handle all the worries and responsibilities.

Although he would never describe himself as such, being a movie star suits him so well that he has no plans to return to the firing line as a director.

"I'm very happy to do what I'm doing now," he says. And as for going back to his roots on the English stage - the idea is met with a firm 'no thank you'.

"I haven't acted in the theatre for about five years which is a long, long time, because for the previous ten or eleven years of my career I was pretty much exclusively in the theatre," he says.

"The experience of live theatre is remarkable but currently I have no plans to do it again and I think I'd have to gather up my courage because I would be scared."

When he decided to try his hand at film-making, he did it in a big way.

He received Oscar nominations for acting and directing for Henry V in 1989 and from then on he was drawn by the lure of the cameras.

"Since then I've been concentrating on the film medium and trying to practice and get better. I'm drinking in as much as I can of what the film process is all about," he says. He has also temporarily closed the book on his English dramatic training, having achieved his ambition to make a full-length Hamlet with an all-star cast. The three-and-half hour film, he says, is slowly beginning to earn money while bringing Shakespeare to the masses.

A bit like Branagh himself, although for now he has abandoned the Bard for more accessible Hollywood fare.

"The physical effort of Hamlet was pretty exhausting. It was such a huge canvas and I'm not ready to get back on that particular horse at the moment," he says. That is part of the reason that he found himself not so long ago on a film set in Louisiana involved in a lengthy, naked embrace with the delectable South African actress Embeth Davidtz. "Embeth said that several people had commented to her that it was rather unfair that she gets her kit off and I don't, but of course I do. Once you get the video and use the pause control you'll see just how very naked I am!" he laughs. "It was something we felt appropriate for the story."

The Gingerbread Man, based on a story by John Grisham, stars 37-year-old Branagh as a hard-drinking lawyer who finds himself in the middle of a life-threatening scenario after becoming involved with a beautiful young waitress, played by Davidtz.

While Altman had the worries and problems, Branagh was able to enjoy himself with his co-stars.

"Darryl and Embeth are great gigglers: very funny and very rude and they teased me a lot," he says. "They were great; both completely gorgeous and talented women, so it wasn't difficult to play opposite them." Davidtz is full of praise for her co-star. "The great thing with Ken is that he comes across as really serious but he's actually not," she says. "Ken is a girl's guy. You can have a good old knees-up and a beer and a good chat with him.

"He's got a great sense of humour and we had all that stuff with our clothes off which is never easy to do. We never poked fun at each other's anatomy or anything like that but we just had to try and keep it light and happy between takes."

It is easy to see what Embeth means about Branagh because he is remarkably easy to talk to. He calls people 'mate', and is as comfortable as the crew-neck woolly sweater he wears, chatting easily and wittily about his work and his status in the Hollywood firmament.

"I no more think of myself as a movie star than I ever thought of myself as some sort of wunderkind of the theatre," he says. "When I meet directors for a job as an actor it surprises me when in the middle of the conversation they might ask me about pictures that I've done because I seem to be able to just put the baggage at the door; it's as if I've forgotten what I've done.

"It's not some sort of false modesty - I just feel as though I'm living right now and it's like starting off all over again.

"I feel exactly the same as I did when I was 16 or 17 so the list of achievements doesn't sink in. For that I'm grateful and in that sense I've never been able to take myself seriously."

His frankness does not extend, however, to his personal life and although he and his ex-wife Emma Thompson inevitably cross paths on the Hollywood promotional circuits, he is not yet ready to talk about the break-up of their marriage or his off-screen relationship with Helena Bonham Carter, who was his co-star in The Theory of Light. In The Gingerbread Man his character has trouble with his ex-wife because of his womanising. Any links to reality there?

"I have a fine relationship with my ex-wife and that's as much as I'm going to say, thank you very much," he says firmly.

"I don't feel in a position to have any comments to the world at large about marriage or relationships. I'm in the middle of life, getting on with it and don't feel currently able to have any great pronouncements about it."

And Helena Bonham Carter? "She's a fine actress and a very nice person." He sits back with his lips firmly closed.

Back to the topic of his work and he is once again friendly and eager to talk.

He has just finished another film, The Proposition, a melodrama set in 1930s Boston in which he co-stars with William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe, playing a Catholic priest who becomes involved in a murder mystery. "It was a bracing experience but I had a major problem explaining it to my mother," he laughs.

His parents were working-class Irish Protestants and The Troubles were always present on the streets of the Belfast neighbourhood where he lived. When he was nine his parents moved to Reading, Berkshire, where he found himself picked on and bullied by other boys because of his Irish accent.

"I very much wanted to fit in so I learned to speak differently," he said. "I felt bad about my Irish accent and I was very troubled about my identity." But, he is quick to insist, "I by no means reinvented myself . I still feel Irish and I'm very close with my family and they of course are tickled pink with all the wonderful things I've been able to be involved with as an actor.

"My love of words is connected to my Irishness and my resistance to the class system, which is such a divisive thing in our country, is also part of my Irishness."

Next, he will be working for his old friend, Trainspotting director Danny Boyle in the science-fiction tale Alien Love Triangle in which he will co-star with another two beautiful actresses, Heather Graham from Boogie Nights and Courteney Cox from the television series Friends.

Any free time he has is devoted to learning to play the piano.

"I'm enjoying it enormously," he says with enthusiasm, "and I'm very bad at it but it amuses me for hours. I play by ear. I've always only ever wanted to play for myself in a sort of piano bar kind of way so I'm playing Cole Porter-y kind of stuff."

He pauses and rethinks. "Well, I can't dignify it as that at moment. It's would-be Cole Porter-y kind of stuff." Although he professes to be happy with his Hollywood career as a hired hand, his own projects are never far away from his thoughts. Neither is the ubiquitous William Shakespeare.

One particular project has been percolating at the back of his mind for some time. "I'd like to do Love's Labour's Lost as a musical...a big musical and I've got a very clear idea of how I would do it," he muses.

"But it's an expensive film and it's a difficult play and it's all of the things that will make the pitch meeting to the studios pretty interesting. When and how it will be done I'm not sure, but I've started the screenplay."

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