Kenneth's On the Ball

Scottish Daily Record & Sunday Mail, July 24 1998
by John Millar

The man acclaimed as the greatest living English actor has a football fantasy. Kenneth Branagh imagines running out on to Windsor Park clad in the colours of Northern Ireland.

He knows that dream will never be realised. However, he could soon be running out on to the pitch at Palmerston Park, Dumfries.

Branagh, 37, has been invited by his friend Robert Duvall to play in his new football film about the struggles of a little Scottish football team.

Duvall spent a weekend in May taking in the Scottish Cup Final and scouting for locations, including Queen of the South's Palmerston Park.

But it was out in the Deep South that Duvall rekindled images of Branagh, the midfield maestro.

The pair teamed up in Savannah, Georgia, to film the legal thriller The Gingerbread Man. The American star told the Belfast boy, who has been hailed as the new Laurence Olivier, that he was planning to make a football film.

And Branagh is all set to leap off the subsitute's bench and into Duvall's team.

Branagh said: "He told me that he has a great story about a Scottish football club and I said that I just had to be in there somewhere

"I think that I could be like the amazing guy who, at 38, is still in the game. Maybe like a Stuart Pearce character. A local hero, very sexy, very strong, an amazing dribbler of the ball.

"It could be my fantasy ... but, one day. I'll show you!"

Branagh, who has a fondness for his old home town club Linfield, Rangers and Spurs, tries to catch football on TV when his work takes him jetting round the world.

But he never expected that when he worked for the first time with one of his favourite film actors that he'd also turn out to be a football fan.

He said: "I admit that I was star struck to be working with Robert Duvall. He is incredible. And he really is a big football fan.

"We talked about the amazing Brazil sides of the 1970s and he told me that his favourite player of all time was George Best. Imagine that?"

The two football addicts play on opposite sides in their new movie The Gingerbread Man.

Branagh stars as a womanising lawyer, while Duvall is the leader of a strange sect.

Before filming began, Branagh - who used an American accent in Dead Again - had to get his tongue round the southern drawl of Savannah.

He admitted: "I suppose I had a cliched idea that it was all a bit of a yee-ha! Texan kind of thing because I hadn't been to Savannah before. But I discovered that, like Scotland, there are lots of different accents. It's not a sort of yee-ha! accent, it's lighter and more subtle.

"So when I got there I worked with a dialect coach and met some lawyers, one in particular, whose voice I tried to model it on.

"And I had a couple of weeks to go around talking Southern to people. I did the thing of working through my embarrassment of going into shops and asking for things in a Savannah accent. I got found out a few times.

"We'd walk into a bar and I'd say: 'I'd just love a glass of wine here' speaking in the accent.

"And the barman would say: 'What are you speaking like that for? You're that Shakespearean guy'."

Mastering different accents is something that Branagh got used to long before he became an actor. But it was necessity that forced him to lose his native Belfast accent after his family moved to Reading.

"That was a little bit of self-preservation after we came to England when I was nine years old," he told me.

"The Troubles were pretty intense and it was a pretty tough time for the family, my mother in particular.

"We moved from where there had been a big support network of brothers and sisters to a place where we were isolated and people couldn't understand us. The first day in school I just repeated myself again and again and again.

"After a while that got me down, so I did something about it. But I felt very ashamed at losing my accent. 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, on the other hand, went to school on the first day and came home with an English accent. It caused terrific ructions within the family.

"It was a miserable time, especially difficult for my mother and pretty traumatic for all of us. But anyway, you get on."

Another trauma that Kenneth Branagh has 'got on' with has been the collapse of his marriage to Oscar- winning actress Emma Thompson. They had seemed like the ideal couple. But it ended in tears. Now Branagh admits that during the break-up of his marriage he'd been tempted to escape to the USA.

"But my mates and family were here, and in the end those things in the press are irritating at the time, but they blow over. I don't believe in flouncing off," he said.

Since then, he has been romantically involved with Helena Bonham Carter, who was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year.

"I won't tell you who I voted for, but I think you can guess," he grinned.

The pair worked together on Theory Of Flight, a touching drama in which Helena is a wheelchair bound victim of motor neurone disease.

Not surprisingly, Branagh reckons that Helena is fabulous in the unglamorous role.

In that movie, Branagh tackles the unsympathetic role. That's something that he's been making a habit of doing.

HE'S a lusty rogue in The Gingerbread Man and in the big budget comedy Wild, Wild West is cast as the villainous Dr Lovelace.

"He's a brilliant and diabolical character who is planning to take over the world," said Ken.

And he admitted that despite his Shakespearean hero image - he's been Henry V and Hamlet on the big screen - he prefers avoiding the square- jawed roles.

"I don't think I can do the clean-cut hero because I don't believe me in that role," he said. "I'd rather be someone with a less pleasant side.

"Like in The Gingerbread Man, I'm a character who is led by his sexual organ rather than his intellectual organ.

"My character is seriously flawed, separated from his wife and has an empty personal life.

"Maybe they asked me to play a role that wasn't so obviously likeable because British actors don't have so much of a problem doing that as some Americans."

A John Grisham thriller like The Gingerbread Man might seem an unusual choice for Branagh. But he says that he loves thrillers and has read all the Grisham novels and seen the films.

And the Branagh family obviously share his taste.

"There are a lot of visual red herrings in this film that throw the audience off the scent. When I showed this film to my folks - there were 12 of us - we put money in a pot to see who would guess how it worked out and my mother was the only one who got it right," said Ken.

Even now, long after he has established his reputation as a film actor and director, Ken finds that Americans still expect him to behave like the classical Shakespeare actor.

They half anticpate that he will turn up, clutching a book of Shakespeare sonnets.

"They are very surprised to hear me swear. That is the first shock, the first devastating blow to their expectations," he said.

"There is a degree of awe and intimidation which disappears very quickly. Two days in, I'm the foul-mouthed Brit."

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