Acting As Fast As He Can

Toronto Star, January 30, 1998
by Judy Gerstel

Busy year working with great directors for Gingerbread Man star Kenneth Branagh

Come Oscar night on March 23, Kenneth Branagh may have a problem.

Most of the frontrunners for best actress have been, one way or another, his women: current companion Helena Bonham Carter (The Wings of the Dove); Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown) who's been in most of his Shakespearean productions on stage and screen; Julie Christie (Afterglow, opening here Feb. 20), who played Gertrude in Branagh's magisterial film of Hamlet; and Kate Winslet (Titanic), whom he cast as Ophelia.

There's even an outside chance that ex-wife Emma Thompson and ex- mother-in-law Phyllida Law could get nominated for The Winter Guest.

"I think I"ll stay out of that one," Branagh says dryly by phone from New York, where he's promoting The Gingerbread Man.

It's been 10 years now since Branagh, at 27, strutted on to the screen and the world stage with Henry V, which he starred in, directed, wrote and produced.

He hasn't seen the Oscar-nominated picture in a decade, but jokes about feeling ambivalent about viewing it now. "The worst thing would be to see it and say, 'Christ, I'll never do anything as good as that again.'

"The best thing would be to think, Ah, that's callow youth at work.'"

Branagh went on to direct, and for the most part, write and star in seven pictures in 10 years, during which he was also ubiquitous on the English stage, both acting and directing, and starred in other people's movies.

This has not endeared him to the English press; they find him, well, excessive. But he's won friends on this side of the pond with his easy-going, no-nonsense attitude and unfettered accessibility.

He's laying low as a filmmaker at the moment, acknowledging a change as he approaches 40.


"I've been consciously letting things come to me, letting myself be stimulated, which is a different kind of instinct for me and probably good--to be not so powerfully motivated by things you've always wanted to do."

He admits to working on the screenplay for an idea he has long cherished, a musical version of Shakespeare's Love's Labour Lost. He finds "It's getting bigger than I thought it would be--much in the style of an old Hollywood musical."

Meanwhile, in what only Branagh could view as something of breather (he's merely acting, not responsible for everything from financing to distribution), he's starred in four films over the past year.

The Gingerbread man, directed by Robert Altman, is the first to be realeased.

The others include The Theory of Flight, with companion Bonham Carter playing a disabled woman; The Proposition set in the 1930's Boston with Madeline Stowe and William Hurt, and the latest Woody Allen project, as yet untitled.

If you think it's strange that Shakespearean Branagh is playing a sleazy southern laywer in Gingerbread Man, just wait till the Allen picture.

"I guess I'm playing Woody in this one, an alter ego," Branagh says rather sheepishly.

As with all Allen's projects, Branagh is contractually not allowed to talk about it, but he does admit that he and co-star Judy Davis were the only cast members to see the entire script.

The cast also includes Leonardo DiCaprio.

He admits, "Woody, along with Altman, is something of a hero. So your power of observations is reduced slightly with the anxiety of wanting to please them, and quite frankly, you get a little paranoid about whether you're doing alright."

"But I know we got on well, because he felt he could say anything he like to me, including on day two, in the middle of the first take. We were doing something, myself and Leonardo DiCaprio, and about a minute in, he said 'Cut! Cut! Cut!'

"And he came over to me and said"--and here Branagh goes into a perfect imitation of Woody Allen complete with Manhattan accent and stutter--"You know, you know you shouldn't do it like that because, you know, it's too broad, an, you know, it's like Jerry Lewis, an, an, you know, it's not funny. So you shouldn't do it that way.'

"Okay. Fine. I turned to Leonardo and he just put his hands over his face and cringed on my behalf."

With Altman, whom he calls "a great sort of benevolent patriarch," he witnessed the great confidence in actor. "He gives many fewere notes tan I would to an actor. He doesn't worry too much."

It was because Branagh was willing to take on the lead role of the Savannah, Ga lawyer who is drawn into dangerous territory that Altman agreed to do The Gingerbread Man, his first suspense film.

"He's an extraordinary talent," says Altman unhesitatingly about Branagh. "He and I talked and we both agreed how we would handle the rewrite and what kind of film we would make."

The film lead to a furor--though Altman now reer to it as a tempest in a teapot--when Polygram took the picture away from the director after only average results frm preview screenings. Altman went to war and won it back.

Branagh found the three-month Savangh shoot hugely enjoyable.

"There was a chance to drink in the ambience and meet people. It was a great advantage of doing it there. Doing it on a soundstage away from the South would have been very difficult."

And from his work in the South to his musical version of Britain's bard, Branagh's second decade on screen promises to be as fascinating as his first.

"I recently moved into a new house outside London," he confides, "and found boxes with old props and things from Henry, the last clapper board from the show, and I found myself getting rather emotional."

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