Branagh Keeps Perspective Through First Hollywood Adventure

Salt Lake Tribune, September 1, 1991
by Terry Orme

At the relatively tender age of 30, Kenneth Branagh has been called a lot of things: Shakespearean wunderkind. The next Olivier. Genius.    ``I reserve the right to make a complete ass out of myself as, no doubt, many people already think I have and, no doubt, I certainly will in years to come,'' he said last week over the phone from Los Angeles, his home away from home for the last few months.

Nonetheless, the applause continues.

The Belfast-born, London-educated Mr. Branagh took the movie world by storm two years ago with his accessible, exciting and boldly anti-war ``Henry V.'' He's being pelted with hyperbole again with the release of his new movie, ``Dead Again,'' a surprising about-face from ``Henry V'' and the other Shakespearean pursuits that, up until now, have dominated his career.

``Dead Again'' combines the Hollywood staples of film noir and the romance of the '40s with such new-age themes as reincarnation. There's a little of Hitchcock's ``Rebecca'' and ``Dial M for Murder,'' and of ``The Third Man.'' Mr. Branagh, who directed the film and plays two roles, displays an affection for Hollywood classics in ``Dead Again.'' He also delights in throwing in some devilish satire of the genres.

It was the aura of Hollywood homage in Scott Frank's script that attracted Mr. Branagh.

``I didn't set out to do something 180 degrees from `Henry V.' The `Dead Again' script didn't just amuse or divert me. It socked me between the eyes. Scott Frank's script has a lot of references to the moods of other films, to the world of filmmaking that many of us have grown up watching, if only on television. The world of the classic black-and-white mystery.''    In ``Dead Again,'' Mr. Branagh plays Mike Church, a modern-day Los Angeles private eye, and Roman Strauss, a European composer whose marriage to a musician in the '40s ended tragically. She was murdered; he condemned to death for the crime.

The director-actor co-stars with his wife, Emma Thompson, who had a small, but prominent, role in ``Henry V'' as Princess Katherine of France. She recently was featured in ``Impromptu.'' Ms. Thompson, too, has dual roles: Grace, a mysterious woman who has lost her memory and becomes involved with Mr. Branagh's private investigator, and Margaret Strauss, the musician whose life ends in operatic tragedy.

Ms. Thompson and Mr. Branagh have been professional collaborators for four years, appearing together on the London stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company. They have been husband and wife for two years. Mr. Branagh says the daily segue between their personal and professional lives is easy and natural.

``We have a professional relationship during the day, and a personal one at night. Thank God we worked together for a long time before we got involved. We always work on the acting separately. We never talk about it at home. And then we share with each other, and the rest of the actors, at rehearsal. I don't like to work with Emma on our performances without the other actors. I don't think that's fair.''    The director assembled a varied and high-powered cast for ``Dead Again.''  Derek Jacobi, who directed Mr. Branagh in a Royal Shakespeare production of ``Hamlet'' three years ago, plays Madson, an eccentric antique dealer and hypnotist who begins to unravel the mystery of Grace. Andy Garcia plays a hard-boiled journalist of the '40s. German actress Hanna Schygulla, the star of such Rainer Werner Fassbinder films as ``Berlin Alexanderplatz'' and ```The Marriage of Maria Braun,'' also has a role.

The biggest casting surprise is Robin Williams in a small, but unforgettable part as a slightly seedy psychiatrist who has been banished from the medical community for malpractice.

While Mr. Williams has a reputation for ad-libbing, and changing dialogue to his liking, Mr. Branagh said the actor approached the script to ``Dead Again'' with kid gloves.

``Robin knew that my approach was to be as faithful as possible to the author who, after four and a half years of working on it, would always come up with something better than we could,'' said the director.

Mr. Branagh's respect for writers is unusual _ if not unique _ for a director and actor working in the movie business. As he says: ``In Hollywood, writers are used like Kleenex.''    His reverence is partly explained by the fact that he has spent most of the last decade interpreting Shakespeare. However, he extends the same considerations to all writers.

``I enjoyed enormously working with a living writer instead of with a dead one,'' he said only half-jokingly about making ``Dead Again'' and collaborating with Mr. Frank. ``Writers are the true creators. What I do as an actor is interpret, and a director coordinates other people's efforts. The very best film directors do create. But you are only there because of the writer.''    Mr. Branagh jokingly refers to the fact that he wears three hats in ``Dead Again'' as ``that whole megalomaniacal thing.'' He goes on to explain, however, that he's not a control freak, but directing and playing the film's two major roles seemed the most logical way to get the movie made.

``I felt strongly that the twists in the plot would be served immeasurably better with one man playing both parts, and one woman playing both parts. I told the studio, `Even if I don't do it, get two actors to play the four parts.' Emma has such a period face, and I knew she could do the accent. For me, I've come to be able to view my work as an actor quite objectively. I can see myself as Kenneth Branagh the actor when I wear my director's hat.''    Mr. Branagh also felt that if he had three key creative positions filled _ composer, set designer and costume designer _ he could direct the movie. He called upon his collaborators from ``Henry V'' _ Patrick Doyle, Tim Harvey and Phyllis Dalton respectively _ to join his team. He also wanted Mr. Jacobi aboard.

``There was a close group of people who were my anchors,'' said Mr. Branagh about his collaborators. ``But the rest of it _ making a Hollywood movie _ was really new. I discovered things as I went along and found out that the key was months of preparation and not panicking.

``In `Henry V,' we were able to shoot in roughly chronological order and it helped enormously. In this movie, the practical and economic logistics of doing all the 1940 black-and-white scenes first was impossible. It meant that I was playing Mike Church in the morning, and Roman Strauss in the afternoon. I would have to go stand in a corner and take a deep breath. It was like taking out one floppy disk and putting in another.''    With ``Dead Again'' opening to favorable reviews and good business at the box office, Mr. Branagh is ready for a breather. He will go home to London, ``read a bit, eat, drink and be merry.

``I'll wait for something to smack me the way `Dead Again' did. If that doesn't come along, then I'll hang on until the next Shakespeare film gets made, which I hope would be `Much Ado About Nothing.' It's sexy. It's young. It's a great comedy, and they are the hardest things to do.''

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