Zen Branagh

He meditates, cooks at home, has just got married in secret and is putting 'relentless activity' behind him. Simon Fanshaw asks, can this really be Kenneth Branagh?

Daily Telegraph Magazine, 6 July 2003
by Simon Fanshawe
** Thanks, Catherine

Kenneth Branagh looks like a modest member of the rugby club. Depsite being the youngest Henry V the Royal Shakespeare Company has ever cast - at the age of 23 - and the man the press called 'the new Olivier', he is distinctly unflashy. Sitting on a window seat in one of those efficiently stylish boutique hotels in London, smoking, which he does a lot, and drinking white wine, he's reading a script. It is 'Edmond', a David Mamet play that he's about to appear in at the National Theatre. He has spent most of the past 10 years on film sets rather than the stage, and there is much expectation around after his stunning return to live work with 'Richard III' in Sheffield a year ago. The last time he was on a London stage was in 1992, playing Hamlet. In the past 20 years Branagh has done so much, persuaded so many people to act in plays and films he wanted to direct, that you somehow expect him to be on the phone, making arrangements, people to see, places to go, activity fizzing out of every pore. But he's surprisingly quiet. So much so that you barely notice him.

In fact, what strikes you about him is that while his presence on screen or stage is riveting, dramatic and often very funny, he's quite undistinguished-looking in his jeans and blue shirt. His face is contentedly chubby and he seems generally pretty happy and relaxed. He's a 'Hello, mate' sort of person. So it's a chap's hug rather than a handshake. I have known him - but not at all well - for a long time through his ex-wife, Emma Thompson. But you might as well know now, I can't ask him about her. It would be tactless and rude. After all, he has just got married again. His new wife is an art director called Lindsay Brunnock, and it was quite a shock to many of his friends to find out - most of them from the papers or when he phoned them from the honeymoon in Prague - that he'd married her, because she'd split up with him in December. Apparently because he wouldn't marry her. But he has now.

Their wedding was quite a contrast to the lavish ceremony in which he married Emma Thompson at Cliveden in 1989. Then there were multiple celebs in attendance along with most of the world's press. Ken and Em were Britain's premier theatre couple, after all. 'We were a bit naive really,' he says now, 'It sounds like I protest too much, but a good friend of ours said, "Did you really need all that publicity?" And I said, "No, we didn't even want it." ' The marriage lasted six years.

This time Branagh got married in secret, in New York, in the flat of two of the actors in The Play What I Wrote, the enormously successful comedy that he directed in the West End and transferred to Broadway this year. There were seven people in attendance. He responds rather gnomically to the fact that it was a surprise to most of his friends. 'Life is full of surprises.' What suddenly made you do it? 'I couldn't possibly answer that, Simon.' Yes you could. A pause. Then sweetly, 'I love my wife.' Would you have made the same kind of commitment 10 years ago? 'For reasons... I couldn't... in the end... er... you don't get married unless you love someone and you respond to that, you act on that.' Longish pause. And then he laughs, he face opening up into a delightfully creasy smile. 'One of the reasons I find myself continually pausing is not thinking "How shall I answer this?" but thinking, "Do you know I don't know.. I don't know, Simon... and I think I think about it less... and a journey in my life now is to be less analytical, and more helpfully for me, following one's instinct... and in this case my heart... and feeling happy to do so... privileged to do so... and being aware that there's something more powerful at work than my ability to understand it intellectually...' When he talks about his feelings, this man who is highly articulate about theatre and acting rather charmingly starts to stumble. You discover that he's actually quite shy.

However, he resists the idea that he's not emotional. 'What does one mean by that? Is it the number of hugs, the amount you say "I love you" to people, the ability to cry swiftly? I suppose on the whole... I kind of... er, there's some bit of me who sort of reckons that your tears kind of ought to be for yourself. My father's an interesting example because he's the most emotional and yet reserved man. I think I grew up in a culture that was faintly embarrassed for that to occur.'

It may be just that he's in his forties - 42 last birthday - but these days it seems Branagh is a much more relaxed man. He seems to have slowed down. 'Well I still feel an obligation to my talent, if I can put it that way, but I feel it less strongly than I did. No, I tell a lie. I do feel it strongly, but I feel there are different ways for it to be exercised and that doesn't always include relentless activity.' As his friend Stephen Fry says, 'He has nothing to prove, and the rambunctious desire to do everything simultaneously has eased off.'

In his twenties and thirties Branagh had artistic ants in his pants. At Rada he badgered Hugh Cruttwell, the principal, to allow him to play Hamlet. The role won him the Bancroft Gold medal [sic] for Rada's most promising student. On leaving in 1982 at the age of 22, he was immediately cast opposite Rupert Everett in the play 'Another Country', and has been frantically busy on stage and screen ever since. And when he works he does pretty much everything on set bar making the tea and painting the scenery. He stars, he directs, he writes the screenplays. He admits to having 'a racing mind. No question about that. An over-analytical, racing-into-the-future kind of mind and sometimes it's very difficult to turn it off.' As one of his closest friends, John Sessions, told him once, 'Kenny, you haven't found your golf yet.'

By the age of 27 he had founded the Renaissance Theatre Company with David Parfitt. And for the next seven years Branagh gathered a family of collaborators around him, casting as actors or directors the cream of British Theatre, among them Judi Dench, Richard Briers, Geraldine McEwan and Derek Jacobi, His schedule became manic.

He looks back on it now and says he can't quite believe it, but resists the idea that it was almost self-destructive. 'Without getting too cliche-ridden or sounding pious, I'm sure that across any doctor's or nurse's day they do a million things and there are huge pressures and many things to be fitted in.'

OK, but you do wonder what he was trying to prove to whom. In one year, 1992, for example, he delivered a screenplay on New Year's Day - of his film Peter's Friends - and it was in the can by March 24. By September, he had directed and starred in a film of 'Much Ado About Nothing' and had persuaded Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton and Denzel Washington to appear in it. By December, he had made 'Swan Song', a short film with John Gielgud, which received an Oscar nomination. In the middle of all that, he played Coriolanus and, while editing Much Ado, he did Hamlet at the RSC. How useful to the world does a Protestant boy from Ulster have to be? He just says, 'We had such terrific enthusiasm and excitement for what we were doing. Doing plays and doing Shakespeare was about as exciting as it could get.' And, he adds significantly, 'it seemed valuable.'

Branagh was born into a working-class Belfast family in 1960. Although he has only one older brother and one younger sister, theirs was a very large extended family. 'Belfast', as he said in his autobiography, 'seemed to be all about visiting your relatives. As well as my daily vists, the family went to see my grandparents at least twice a week. And as my folks seemed to be related to one half of Belfast and have been at school with the other half, visiting time was hectic.' It's not too great a stretch of the imagination to see how he replicated this in his working life.

His family left Northern Ireland and moved to Reading whe he was nine, partly because the riots were staring in Belfast and his parents wanted a safer environment for their children, and also because there was work in England for their father, who was a joiner. It was a wrench. Branagh was enormously conscious of his Irish accent and swiftly 'became English at school while remaining Irish at home. It was,' he says now, 'a dreadfully uneasy compromise about which I felt inordinate guilt.' But it made him a great mimic.

It also set him apart at school. It wasn't an easy time to be Irish. He was bullied, which he says affected him badly. He began to truant and he once even tried to throw himself downstairs in an inept attempt to acquire a protective limp. He eventually found a survival strategy through sport. He was by his own account 'a plodding workhorse' at rugby and football rather than possessed of any real sporting skill, but it eventually led to him being cast in the school production of 'Oh! What A Lovely War' when the drama teacher turned in desperation to the football team to fill the gaps in his undercast show.

Branagh was completely stagestruck. His parents were quietly appalled. Not least because it would have meant paying for an extra two years through A-Levels if he wanted to go to Rada. Branagh says that they still worry about him, 'but probably no more than they do about their other two kids. Although I think they do worry about the public nature of this business and how that affects me.'

As he rattled through his twenties and thirties, he barely paused, according to Stephen Evans, who produced the Renaissance films 'Henry V', 'Peter's Friends' and 'Much Ado' and went on to produce 'The Madness of King George'. 'The early years of pushing himself and forcing his head above the parapet took its toll. The marriage went wrong and, despite it being his fault [Evans doesn't elaborate on this any further] he found it very tough. And he's had that depression which he has always had to tackle.'

'I would call it Celtic melancholy,' Branagh says, and it doesn't seem so much of a coincidence that he spent much of his early acting life being 'professionally involved' with Hamlet. 'Hamlet is obvoiusly that sort of creature that is interested in the fundamental questions. Literature and drama are my way of discussing that "Why are we here? What are we doing? What is it all about? And what does it mean/" stuff. It is quite a powerful impetus with me to forage for information concerning all that.'

Consequently he reads a great deal. He has just finished Balzac's 'Old Goriot'. His enthusiasm is uncontainable. 'Jesus, the breadth of that man's mind, his analysis. He could watch us for 10 minutes and have our lives in three glorious paragraphs. The level of perception and compassion and humour just makes you feel good to be alive... to think.' And he goes on in a whirl of quiet excitement. 'The pleasure in good writing just rings all my bells.' And he laughs at himself.

Reading is one of Branagh's ways of being alone, and he's a lot more solitary than you'd expect. John Sessions says, 'He's just not naturally loud when he walks into a room.' And Stephen Evans adds, 'Oddly, he's not a natural extrovert at all. He really has to push himself to do all that stuff. None of what he has done is his natural habitat.' Stephen Fry agrees. 'I don't think it's something one should over-read, but there's no question that he is not all roaring enthusiasm and thigh-slapping bonhomie. Would be intolerable if he was.'

However, everyone you speak to does at some stage mention the fact that he is, in the words of both Sessions and Fry, 'screamingly funny'. Fry tells a story about when they were once driving through the South of France. 'It's very hard to convey on the page, but one of the sublimest experiences I've ever had was being stuck in a traffic jam in Cannes, not during the film festival, and Emma was absolutley desperate for a pee. To take her mind off it Ken did 10 minutes of French rap, which was possibly the funniest thing any human being has ever done. Made Emma all the more desperate of course...' Sessions says that 'like his acting, his humour is incredibly accurate. He cand pack a trillion observations into a minute and a half.'

In part what fuels him is this mixture of wild humour and the melancholy that he says 'is linked to that same interest in what it takes to be happy, and how necessary it is to refine and repeat that search, because human beings are so incapable of retaining whatever it might be that allows them to appreciate everything that is there for them in life, whether it be their loved ones or a great spring morning or whatever does it for them.' He starts to laugh. Why? 'I am just laughing at my own inability to retain the sense of what makes me happy.'

He talks a lot about happiness. What makes him happy is now, he says, what guides his work. 'I have been a lot less of a strategist career-wise than people think. I simply listen to my first reaction to those things that come my way. If my instinct is strong then I do it.' Stephen Fry confirms this. 'I don't think Ken is particularly ambitious in any usual sense of the word. He's driven more by the sheer love of it all. I think passion, not just for Shakespeare, which can't be over-estimated, but for acting and for actors and audiences. His inexhaustible energy comes from that.'

His instinct is obviously paying dividends. He is aonce again thriving critically and artistically. It's reversing a trend that seems to have started with his film 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' in 1994, which was given a monumental critical drubbing. However, it was where he met, and worked with, Helena Bonham Carter. They were an item until 1999. Despite its reception, Frankenstein didn't finish him in Hollywood in the way that one big turkey often can. He still says it was 'a hugely happy experience in terms of what we attempted and did.' But he has reservations in hindsight, 'notably my own performance. I was simply overburdened to the point where I just didn't produce the best work I could have done.' After that, his four-hour-long film of 'Hamlet' uncut was well received, but then he worked with Woody Allen on 'Celebrity', and was badly miscast as an Allen-esque comic sniveller in a barely-disguised impression of the Manhattan filmmaker. It was horrible.

Branagh has had his fair share of criticism. There is envy in the air when his name is mentioned. The British press have found Branagh-baiting good sport. The criticism does hurt Branagh, but he shrugs it off. 'And there are two ways of doing that,' says Sessions, 'as an act of insouciance or act of determination.' With Branagh it's the latter.

Whatever the gossip columnists and the mid-market tabloid hacks have thrown at him, his artistic stock has remained high. Nick Hytner, the new director of the National Theatre, describes him as 'an actor of fantastic size and passion', and his work recently has taken him to new heights. His terrifylingly disciplined display of suppressed violence, as Richard [sic] Heydrich, the Nazi general who pushed through the organisation of the Final Solution, in the television drama 'Conspiracy', won him an Emmy in 2001. He was applauded for his role in the harrowing film 'Rabbit Proof Fence', about the forced adoption of Aboriginal children. In contrast he has also done his bit for the export trade, as Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film, which turned out to be a bit of a comedic triumph as he created a witty combination of smarmy cowardice and greasy opportunism.

All these roles he took simply because 'the first voice in his head said yes'. And when he played Shackleton in the Channel 4 mini-series he returned to almost Shakespearean territory as he explored the kind of man who displays, rather revealingly, the boyish enthusiasms and passions that still motivate him.

'Shackleton is the kind of creature that fascinates me. I like explorers, that kind of peculiarly British strain of adventurers, those classical soldier poets, who can talk unpretentiously with real knowledge and great sensitivity, about a mountain and how it can be experienced like a symphony.'

In the work Branagh is doing now, he says, 'There's a level of fascination that goes way beyond playing the role.' With Mamet at the National Theatre he is entering dark and exposing territory. 'Yes, it's what you might call one of those X-ray roles.'

'Edmond' is not for the faint-hearted. First produced more than 20 years ago, it shows in 80 minutes and 23 staccato scenes an indistinguished, invisible, grey man who leaves his wife and explodes into a crazed binge of racism, homophobia and eventually a single vicious murder, all in some kind of attempt to make a primal connection with his identity and his manhood. He ends up in prison, where he is raped. The final scene after that should remain for you to discover, and not be revealed here.

'I find it very thought-provoking. It's provocative and cautionary,' says Branagh, revving up. 'I found it very shocking to read. Yet, as Mamet says, there is a strange kind of hope, although it is won at a terrible price which Mamet doesn't encourage anyone else to pay. This man has an awareness of his inability to have adventure. He attempts to turn over the grey man but he discovers in this case a racist and a homophobe... and neither of those things are him either... though the transient attractions of their intoxicating power soon reveal themselves to tbe source of hateful chimeras that Mamet explains perfectly.' Despite this articulacy, it is a curious fact that talking to him is a far more intimate, jocular affair than it looks in print. His voice is a lot quieter and more amused than the words make it seem.

The overwhelming impression he gives right now is of a man content in his work and life. He has found ways to relax. 'I can't play the guitar any better than I could when I was 16,' he says, 'and on the piano I can play three-finger chords in the major keys, and I can't really move my left hand much. So it's fantastically limited. But I must say I get endless, enormous pleasure into the wee small hours from playing.'

He cooks at home a lot these days, too. He lives in a house designed by Tim Harvey, who worked on so many of his films, buried deep in the Berkshire countryside, not very far from his parents and where he grew up in Reading. And he spends a lot of time with his dog, a Battersea mutt called Susie. And he meditates. He uses a Bhuddist mantra taught to him by a friend. 'I've done it for a couple of years now and I find it fantastically helpful, because it's so much easier to rest the body than the mind. Sometimes it's very difficult to turn off.'

He is developing two British scripts he plans to direct - both are adaptations of British novels, but he won't reveal more. He has also just signed off to direct and produce, but not appear in, yet another Shakespeare on film, 'As You Like It'. And he will star in a Hollywood adaptation of E Nesbitt's children's novel 'Five Children and It' in the summer. After Harry Potter, 'there's obviously an eight-year-old audience I have.'

And now he's married Lindsay he may be about to add to that audience himself. 'Yes, I would love to have children. If we are to be blessed. Who can say? Life would be fine without them, but I love kids. There are so many in my life already.' He sounds distinctly happy.

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