Pulling Together a Film out of 'Nothing'

USA Today, May 18 1993
by David Patrick Stearns

Kenneth Branagh would appear to have one of the most fabulous lives of anyone on the planet.

The 33-year-old Irish actor/director has made three critically lauded, modestly profitable films, and his latest, a sumptuous adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, may prove the most successful of all.

The phone rings in his hotel suite. It's Emma (as in Thompson, his actress wife, who recently won an Oscar for Howards End). The poor thing hurt her back, hasn't slept all night and can't catch the next flight from London to join him. Besides, she still must shoot a few scenes with Daniel Day-Lewis for the forthcoming In the Name of the Father.

And as the talk turns to Much Ado, it's filled with references to "Denzel" and "Michael" (Washington and Keaton, respectively), who played secondary roles at low salaries for love of The Bard.

Yet it's never as much fun as it looks. He lives by the skin of his teeth, grabbing meals on the run and feverishly working to make the next project fly. Even with his past record, Much Ado was a tough sell.

"I've never not encountered difficulty raising money," Branagh admits. "You have to jump through the hoop, saying 'It'll be sexy! Young! It'll have a beautiful location!' It means your ideas and commitment to the project get challenged, and that's probably good. You have to know this is the picture you want to make."

The resulting difference between Branagh's operation and the ragtag collections of celebrities that disgrace themselves at the New York Shakespeare Festival every summer is that Branagh doesn't hire Hollywood names on the basis of glitz.

"I wanted to get away from that mellifluous-voiced, fruity, tight-assed stuff," he says. "Much Ado always spoke to me as a very passionate affair, and I wanted the kind of ease and naturalism that American film actors have. Full-blooded is what I mean."

Casting Washington as the benevolent nobleman Don Pedro may raise eyebrows considering that white actors play his blood relatives in the film.

"You lose nothing in the play because of that," Branagh says. "I asked Denzel because of his natural grace, dignity and poise."

What came out of this approach is a highly spontaneous film. For Branagh's big soliloquy in the role of Benedict, he just set down the camera in the gardens of the Villa Vignamaggio in Greve, Italy (where Ado was filmed) and tried all kinds of things the whole day.

"The dialogue is so conversational . . . people said I had to have made up some of it. But that's what I've been working toward. Shakespeare, minus the stiffness, can be very disarming."

Also disarming is Thompson, who is never more beautiful than when in her husband's films, such as Dead Again, Henry V and Much Ado.

"She looked ravishing," he agrees. "I've been really lucky to have her. She also has a strong positive influence on everyone else. She's always on time, always knows her lines. Her value as a colleague far outweighs any annoyance or irritation I might feel with us knowing each other too well.

"I've admired watching her work develop, culminating in Howards End, which was such a strong piece of internal acting - rich and meaningful yet not showy."

So far, all of his films feature her. But they may diverge in Branagh's forthcoming Frankenstein, based on the original Mary Shelley novel, which doesn't have a good female role. "It's not a schlock horror thing. There's a whole series of things that have never been touched by even the best Frankenstein movies," he says. "With the whole moral debate these days about genetic engineering, I hope it'll have the same contemporary zing of Much Ado. I'll play the doctor, but I don't see him as crazy. He's a gambler.

"I don't want to make really violent movies," he says. "I'm drawn to films where people talk to each other."

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