Kenneth Branagh Has Grip on Reality

Toronto Star, September 3 1991
by Catherine Dunphy

Kenneth Branagh has been meeting the press all day. All the very long day. This is the last interview before he rejoins his wife down the hotel hall and they slip away to see Alan Parker's new movie, The Commitments.

Most actors hate days like this: Morning to evening interviews with the face of the inquisitor changing on the half hour, but all too often the tone, tenor or content of the inquisition staying the same.

Some, like Kathleen Turner, limit their contact to one or two chosen scribes, when they have product to push.

Others, like Sean Connery, refuse to budge, in his case from his home by the sea in Spain. Through the miracle of modern technology, entertainment writers come to him via international telecommunications, but a telephone line is not enough. He will talk only if he can see their faces.

He is a big enough star to get what he wants. But now so is Branagh, only he acts as if he doesn't realize it.

He is the man who in everybody else's estimation is the obvious heir to the late Sir Laurence Olivier's talent, prestige and majesty. Not content with starting his own classical theatrical company, the Renaissance Theatre Company, the audacious Belfast-born theatrical prodigy then made a hit movie of a Shakespearean play, Henry V, not even one of Will's all-time top three.

He starred in it, directed it, and was nominated for several Oscars for it. But he compares the tub-thumping he's now doing to actors in Shakespeare's time "going into villages and banging the drum."

It is part of the job, he reckons, because the work of making a movie or staging a play isn't finished until people know about it.

"It is not the hardest thing in the world to do. I haven't spent the day lugging coal," he says.

He has spent it answering questions about why he chose his latest project, a nifty little genre thriller he directed and stars in called Dead Again, which is now running at The Plaza and other Famous Players theatres.

It's all about reincarnation and murder and Hollywood in its glamorous heyday. And it's about as far from Shakespeare as one can get.

Branagh looks amused. "People expect me to spend all my time in a study reading 1,000-year-old texts."

That's because he's known as the driving force behind his four-year-old theatre company, which is dedicated to bringing a revitalized, energized Shakespeare back to the masses, and has attracted to its fold some of the most stellar names of the British stage - Derek Jacobi (who has a juicy role in Dead Again), Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan (the mother of all witches in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood), and, naturally, Branagh and wife (Emma Thompson).

Last summer the company came to Toronto to present A Midsummer's Night Dream at the Elgin Theatre. This summer it stayed home, opening the other week in London's West End with their version of Uncle Vanya.

Branagh and Thompson interrupted their coast-to-coast promotion of Dead Again to be there for the opening, which is as it should be. Two-thirds of the Uncle Vanya budget came from Branagh's and Thompson's Dead Again pay.

"I think Chekhov would approve," Branagh says dryly. "Films will always subsidize theatre. Not because theatre is a higher art form but because the pay in movies is better."

Here is a classically trained actor with a firm grip on reality - and the reality of numbers. With British ticket prices topping 20 pounds, he says theatre is in bad shape right now.

Movies are an obvious answer, but Branagh is cautious about coming to that conclusion. He reasons that because of the way the financing is structured, independent movies take a long time to get into profits. Studio financed pictures, on the other hand, can limit his creative freedom.

It's a conundrum, but one that Branagh refuses to be defeated by. Blue eyes firmly fixed on the bottom line, he notes that Dead Again cost $ 15 million to make, "and I dread to think how much they are spending on the advertising budget. Enough, I'd say, to save the British film industry."

But he acknowledges that now that the Henry V video is out, more people will see the play than if his theatre company toured it for five years.

So the plan is that the next movie will be Much Ado About Nothing, and then, some day, Hamlet. Not because he wants to out-do Mel Gibson - he hasn't seen and probably won't see that movie, he says - but because it is Hamlet, the most mulled over and interpreted Shakespearean play, the Everest of every classical actor.

In the meantime, he plans to return home to North London and vegetate for the next 10 months.

"I have not stopped in 10 years," he says. "It was intense making this picture in this strange planet called Hollywood."

He and Thompson avoided the social scene. In their nine months working there, they went out only once: to a tribute to Martin Scorcese because, Branagh says, "I'm a big fan of his."

But, he adds, "being in America was like being in a film to me." He was "intoxicated" working in the Paramount lot on a soundstage next to Mike Nichols, near Demi Moore, with Kevin Kline and Sally Fields around the corner making Soapdish.

"And where we made Dead Again was where they did Citizen Kane."

Branagh looks as smug as any satisfied groupie. "The whole place was full of ghosts."

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