As He Likes It

San Jose Mercury News, May 22, 1993
by Glenn Lovell

Shakespearean director takes common approach to life, art

Now it can be told.

Kenneth Branagh, the much-admired Irish actor and filmmaker who specializes in lusty treatments of the Bard, is really a regular guy who most enjoys a "beer out with the gang" and a good B-movie.

In a wide-ranging interview over biscuits and tea, the 32-year-old director and star of the current "Much Ado About Nothing" revealed:

His early passion was for low-budget horror films, such as "Curse of the Demon" with Dana Andrews and "One Million Years B.C." with Raquel Welch and "no dialogue . . . It was impossible to follow."

His boyhood home away from home was the Roxy Theater in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He didn't set foot in a legit theater until he was 16.

Given a choice, he would opt for Hollywood's sci-fi spin on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" - 1956's "Forbidden Planet" - over countryman Peter Greenaway's free-wheeling "Prospero's Books," with John Gielgud.

The play may be the thing in many cases, but money also counts for something. He refused screen credit for his Gestapo agent in Disney's "Swing Kids" because "they didn't pay enough. . . .If they had paid better, they could have had me."

The merry deceit of his "Much Ado" - co-starring Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, wife Emma Thompson and an unintelligible Michael Keaton as Dogberry - owes as much to the teams of Laurel and Hardy and Hepburn and Tracy as to Shakespeare.

Thompson's brand-new Oscar - awarded for "Howards End" - resides in the downstairs loo, on the toilet tank.

"Visitors stay in the bathroom for quite some time," he says. "You can hear them in there, saying, "I'd like to thank so-and-so who many years ago. . .' ".

As for wife and co-star Thompson, she's impossible to live with now, Branagh says with a laugh.

"She's appalling - a right nightmare. You can't speak to her. You have to book an appointment to see her. I sleep in the spare room."

Typical Branagh , who can always be counted upon to poke fun at Hollywood superstardom. He's having the time of his life playing the do-it-all auteur who's often compared to Olivier and Orson Welles. Besides the exuberant, impossibly romantic "Much Ado," shot for $11 million in a Tuscan villa and garden, he has directed four features - the Oscar-nominated "Henry V," the wildly inventive Hitchcockian thriller "Dead Again" and the lighthearted reunion comedy "Peter's Friends."

"Frankenstein' adaptation

He's now readying his most ambitious production, a $50 million-plus adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," with himself as the life-giving scientist and Robert De Niro as the frustrated monster. The period drama, to be produced by Francis Coppola as a companion piece to last year's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," will be shot in late August in London and Switzerland. Branagh , a fan of James Whale's "Bride of Frankenstein" as well as Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," describes his take as closer to the emotional heart of the Shelley novel.

"Ours will be much more of a Gothic fairy tale and much less of a horror film," he points out. "It's time, I think. It can be re-examined now. . . reclaimed from its schlock-shock horror associations. We're sticking close to the original story, its psychological and emotional insights. But there will be some departures because Shelley was vague about how the monster is brought to life and what he actually looks like."

Certainly the casting of Method actor De Niro is a bold stroke.

"I wanted someone who would thoroughly re-examine the monster and look at every clue in the book," he says. "Also, this is a part he hasn't done before. De Niro embraced the idea of a creature who speaks and indeed quotes Milton and Coleridge. His monster will be a figure of great pathos."

How about some advance word on Frankie's new look?

No can do, says Branagh.

"He'll be 8 feet tall, like in the book. That's all I can say. Even as we speak, De Niro is having body casts made. We're redefining the look. It will be very far away from the squared head and bolted neck of Karloff's monster."

And you can bet this Gothic fairy tale will be viewer-friendly, like Branagh 's other movies.

His approach to Shakespeare has always been to "unclutter the text. . . get rid of the obscure classical allusions and let the play speak for itself."

American cast

The decision to cast American movie stars in "Much Ado" rather than Royal Academy graduates goes hand-in-glove with this philosophy.

"I wanted it to have a different sound and look. . . to get away from the sometimes fruity voices and mannered delivery of British actors. I wanted it to feel like it was for everybody. Which is why I cast Reeves as Don John and Keaton as the pompous and psychotic policeman."

Reviewers, for the most part, have come down hard on the Yank half of the cast. Any second thoughts about opting for marquee clout over theatrical expertise?

"I think the Americans more than hold their own," Branagh replies with a tell-tale lack of conviction. "I was glad to be on the same screen with that cast."

The whole business of Brits being better suited to Shakespeare is so much tommyrot, in Branagh 's opinion.

"The notion that we understand Shakespeare better because he's our national playwright is a myth. The same fear and intimidation factor comes into play in England. There may even be an inbuilt resistance to Shakespeare in England."

If Branagh and Thompson seem especially at ease as the sparring Benedick and Beatrice, it's because the couple drew on their own relationship.

A classic conflict

"There was some degree of caginess in our courtship, and certainly we both use humor a great deal to deflect unwanted advances. But it's a classic conflict - two people very attracted to each other, trying to remain independent of each other. Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedies were built on that kind of adversarial relationship."

Branagh plans to return to Shakespeare on every third or fourth movie. "It's an ongoing process. Each play, each film, each approach will be different. I wanted to do "Much Ado" outside and on location because "Henry V" was done in the studio, with the battles shot in fields adjacent to the back lot."

Often lumped with the young Welles, Branagh would just as soon be likened to the David Lean of "Great Expectations" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Branagh even has a David Lean-like project on the back burner. It's the epic story of adventurer-entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes, who founded Rhodesia and, at 24, was one of the richest men in the world.

But first comes "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which he fully expects to bring its own logistical and post-production nightmares.

He's fit and eager for the challenge.

"I've been blessed with reasonably robust health. I seem to weather the storms. As kids, we were never mollycoddled or encouraged to indulge. There was a strong Puritanical sense about our family. If you weren't dying, you could go to work or school. When I'm filming, I lead a pretty routine existence. I'm not like Welles. I don't have wild appetites. I like a drink. I enjoy a good meal with friends. But I'm not a clubby person. I'm not interested in spurious celebrity."

And when the sun sets on the latest movie location and shadows fall on the editing bench, he returns to wife Thompson and what he calls "the normal life."

"I have no joy, as it were, staying late at the office."

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