Much To Do

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 18, 1993
by Harper Barnes


Kenneth Branagh has described himself as "keenly self-motivated," which would seem to be a vast understatement for a poor boy from Belfast who has pulled himself so high so quickly. Eleven years and three Oscar nominations ago, Branagh graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, an expensive theatrical education paid for by grants and odd jobs. He was under no illusion that stardom was a snap of the fingers away:

"I rather relished the gladiatorial aspect of getting a job as an actor," he said in "Beginnings," his 1989 autobiography. Writing an autobiography at 28 is, of course, another example of "keen self- motivation." Getting it published is simply more evidence that Branagh' s confidence in himself is not misplaced.

"I'd have done pretty much whatever came along: panto(mime), rep, telly, radio, Shakespeare, comedy, whatever. I'd have cleaned floors, made sandwiches, delivered papers - anything to make a quick buck until professional acting did come along."

As it turned out, none of those things was necessary. What did come along at the age of 21, after some highly gladiatorial auditions, was what he described as "an unbelievable break." He won a leading role in what became a very successful London play - "Another Country, " the story of the Depression-era school days of aristocratic British Communists, including one notorious spy.

Then came acclaimed Shakespearean stage roles; British TV performances of work by such distinguished writers as Ibsen and D.H. Lawrence, and a one-man performance of Tennyson's "The Madness" that led the London Times to call Branagh "the most exciting young actor in years." At the age of 26, he founded his own Renaissance Theatrical Company. Its purpose was to present classical theater directed by people known primarily as actors - such as Anthony Hopkins and Derek Jacobi.

Two years later, with the Renaissance company a rousing success, he directed and starred in a breathtaking, much-honored film version of Shakespeare's "Henry V," a play that many film makers had shied away from for fear of invidious comparisons with Laurence Olivier' s stirring 1945 version. Now, after a couple of lighter movies ("Dead Again" and "Peter' s Friends"), Branagh has gone back to Shakespeare.

He recently completed a long run on the English stage as Hamlet. And a film of the Shakespearean comedy "Much Ado About Nothing," directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, has just been released. It opens in St. Louis today.

The other day, seated in a suite high up in an elegant hotel, he gazed at the Chicago skyline and said, "It feels very strange to be here promoting `my' movie. I don't really feel like a movie star. That's not false modesty. I don't feel like a director, either. I feel like an actor who directs."

Branagh smiled. At 32, he still has something of a baby face, peach- hued, dimpled, blemish-free. He has a slim boyish physique - he is about 5 feet 9 inches tall, and has described himself as "Too tall for the short roles and too short for the tall ones."

His bushy, sand-colored hair and bright blue-gray eyes add to the illusion that he is just another talented young fellow from the British lower-middle class, one who casually calls people "mate" and uses slang phrases like "sod it."

"You know," he said, "the movie screen does such miraculous things. I grew up idolizing movie actors, and even now when I go to a film, I find myself reacting like an audience does. I'll say to myself, `God, that's amazing, how do they do that?' "

Branagh has been married since 1989 to Emma Thompson, his co-star in "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing," among other movies and plays. She, of course, won the best-actress Oscar this year for her performance (without Branagh) in "Howards End," and during his recent cross-country tour to promote "Much Ado," was in London working on a film with Daniel Day-Lewis.

"Emma is, of course, a really fine actress," said Branagh, "but another reason I like to work with her is that she has none of that prima donna attitude you get with some actresses," he said. "She shows up on time and knows her lines and always is professional, unlike some I could name.

"In our private lives we've always stayed out of that extra dose of celebrity. We don't go to premieres unless we have to, we don' t live in Los Angeles, don't have a big house or big car." Perhaps the lack of pretension of their lives is what led to his reaction upon seeing his wife's picture on a recent People magazine as one of the 50 "most beautiful people."

"I spotted it in the airport," he said, "and my first reaction was to laugh. I was delighted, of course, but you have to understand Emma and I have a pretty ironic household. There's a lot of `mickey- taking.' "

He explained that "taking the mick" was British slang for kidding or teasing.

There is a great deal of mickey-taking in "Much Ado About Nothing, " also, particularly between the two main characters, Beatrice (Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh). Each professes, in bitingly witty terms, to be contemptuous of the opposite sex, and particularly of each other. As Shakespeare shows us, they protest far too much.

"It's very amusing when they end up getting all ga ga over one another," he said. In answer to the obvious next question, he said, "Of course there are similarities between Beatrice and Benedick and myself and Emma. We danced around one another for years before we finally went for it. And a lot of our relationship came through humor. Still does. It can be very feisty."

This summer, Branagh begins work on his next movie, a new version of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Branagh will be Dr. Frankenstein, the 19th-century scientist who wants to create life, and Robert De Niro will play the monster that results. Thompson will probably not be in it. "We're going to do the book, which hasn't really been done before in any of the successful Frankenstein movies. We'll start in the Arctic, as the book does. The creature will speak, and quote Milton and Coleridge, as in the book.

"We'll approach it, not as if Frankenstein is mad, but as a plausible idea, as it seems to be today, in our world of genetic engineering, cosmetic surgery, people try to freeze themselves for immortality. You can imagine there's a guy out there now, trying to create human life, and getting to the point where he's so close. And all it takes is for him to do something ungodly - like kill somebody."

"We want the audience to get caught up in his quest, so that they are half rooting for him. We want to bring to life a real moral, ethical dilemma that has immense consequences today. "Perhaps I shouldn't say this - the marketing people might not like it - but I don't intend to make a horror movie."

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