There is (Sexy) Life After Shakespeare

Cosmopolitan, September 1991
by Jamie Diamond

Born on the Emerald Isle and raised in a dull British commuter town, Kenneth Branagh didn't spend too much time on the ski slopes. But when he moved to Hollywood earlier this year to star in and direct Dead Again, he had the sudden urge to go skiing. So he drove to Bear Mountain, a winter resort a few hours outside Los Angeles and, wobbling on his skis, made his way to a chair lift marked ADVANCED. Minutes later, he found himself perched atop the steepest peak, with only one way down: the most perilous, trauma-inducing trail.

Not for a second had Branagh considered starting on the beginner slope; he figured he could learn everything he needed to know about skiing while barreling at full speed down Bear Mountain. He knew he could think on his feet and assumed he could do the same on skis. "I had never skied before, and there I was roaring down the slopes," he recalls, "very, very swiftly. There was something in me that just wanted to go for it--the old light in the back of the eyes, that certain kind of 'Oh fuck it! I'm not going to fall!'"

He didn't (miraculously), and says he wasn't motivated by bravery: "It was recklessness. When I think about things too much, I'm not very brave."

Brave or not, Branagh must have seen that old light in the back of the eyes when he set out to make a mainstream movie out of a lesser-known, less-than-sexy Shakespeare play--Henry V. Not only did he adapt Shakespeare's prose for the screen, but he starred in the title role, sat in the director's chair, and wined and dined businessmen to raise $8.2 million in financing. Shot in seven weeks--on schedule and under budget--the first-time director's film was nominated for three 1989 Academy Awards and won one. His triumph led the Hollywood press to crown him, at age twenty-eight, the new Laurence Olivier, and led the public to cry, Long live Kenneth Branagh! Wait a minute--who is Kenneth Branagh?

Branagh is now sitting in his warm office at Paramount studios with the air conditioner turned off. In the corner, there's a television set the size of a Volkswagen. On the wall hangs a poster from last year's box-office smash Ghost--a good-luck charm, as Branagh's Dead Again, which was released in late August, is also a love story that flirts with the hereafter. And as a nod to the chap who wrote Henry V, the complete works of William Shakespeare sit on Branagh's desk.

In person, the actor-director, now thirty-one, is a surprise: He is slightly built and not particularly commanding, with milk white skin and translucent eyelashes more befitting a schoolboy than a movie star. He fidgets constantly--pushing his hair from his face, waving his arms--while his voice peaks and dips, sometimes high and squeaky, sometimes low and booming.

Two years have passed since Henry V, and Branagh is now firmly ensconced within the Hollywood system, working on a film with a studio's big budget. Yet despite his success, he feels uncomfortable with this new role. "I come to work and create a bit of cinematic fantasy in the same buildings that Orson Welles used for Citizen Kane," he says with obvious awe in his voice. "I drive home in a red Mustang convertible and have to pinch myself when I look up at the Hollywood sign. I never thought that when I turned up to work here, I'd be weaving those kinds of dreams that affect people."

His reverie ends when an assistant interrupts to inquire about flight plans on the MGM Grand and the Concorde. Branagh looks acutely embarrassed. "This happens only for a short time," he mumbles. "In London, I don't have a car. I take the tube." Isn't it enough that he refuses to turn on the air conditioner--does he want the world to think he flies coach? But of course. Branagh is proud of being humble. "It's an Irish tradition," he explains, "to want to take people down a peg."

And Branagh should know from Irish tradition. He was born in 1960 in a working-class neighborhood in Northern Belfast, where he grew up surrounded by a boisterous extended family. When Branagh was nine, his father, a carpenter, moved the family to Reading, England, a bland middle-class London suburb that Oscar Wilde once said was best seen from a passing train. His memories of that era are troubling; it wasn't exactly the best time for an Irish family to relocate to England. "Every night the TV news was full of things exploding," he recalls. "English soldiers were being killed. It was a mild, mild version of what happened during World War II, when people weren't terribly thrilled with the Germans who lived around them."

To avoid ostracism at school, Branagh perfected an English accent. This ruse was probably his first acting experience, but it brought him little joy; he felt he'd betrayed his family by pretending to be British. "It was a painful time," he says. "I started to worry about everything--the past, the future--instead of just responding to things as I had when I was younger."

He found a refuge in books. "I remember going into Woolworth's and thinking, Christ you can buy books!" he says. "My father said, 'Spend your money on something else. Once you've read a book, what can you do with it?'"

By his teens, Branagh had warmed to the works of Shakespeare, thanks in part to a teacher with an unorthodox approach to literature: He played Branagh's class a slow and suggestive Marvin Gaye-Diana Ross duet and then asked his young students what the song was really about. They responded with adolescent giggles. "So the teacher said"--Branagh's voice rises in an imitation--"'It's about sex, isn't it? That's what it's about. Now let's turn the corner and look at Romeo and Juliet again. Let's see if we can find some sex in that!'"

Such episodes, says Branagh, reinforced his passion for debunking "high" culture. "People go on like Shakespeare's a private club, that you have to know certain rules and be precious," he says. "You needn't think Shakespeare is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it shouldn't make you feel stupid either. Shakespeare's not an IQ test."

After high school, Branagh applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, one of sixteen hundred applicants for twenty-three openings. He was accepted--on the merits of a brazen Hamlet soliloquy--and graduated with the highest award for acting and an invitation to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. His rise was meteoric; at twenty-three, he starred in the RSC production of Henry V, the youngest member ever to do so. The critics said Branagh's portrayal of the tormented English king was brilliant. But he'd had help. To research the role, he'd consulted the future King of England, Prince Charles. "Actors have this very strange, intoxicating expectation that the whole world will be fascinated by what they are doing," he says, explaining his chutzpah in calling upon a member of the royal family. "I drove up in this battered old Volkswagen. I had on my one suit. I really was there to ask Prince Charles about kingship and stuff, not because I wanted to be his mate."

Chafing under the limitations of the RSC, perhaps the world's most prestigious theater company, Branagh left at age twenty-six to form his own troupe. His Renaissance Theatre Company, operating on a shoestring budget, produced a series of sold-out tours. The following year, Branagh risked being branded an egoist when he penned his autobiography, Beginning. He pumped the book's advance back into the theater company ("I've always robbed Peter to pay Paul," he says) and began to pull together the elements of Henry V--all the while acting, directing, and touring in Renaissance productions, not to mention jetting around the world to shoot television and film projects, including High Season, costarring Jacqueline Bissett.

It was during this frantic period that he was cast opposite Emma Thompson, who would later become his wife. "We were meant to play a married couple," Branagh says, recalling the day he met Thompson (Impromptu, The Tall Guy,) and the upcoming Howards End, costarring Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave) on the set of the miniseries Fortunes of War. "Neither of us had heard of the other. We didn't exactly go doiinngg," he adds, making the sound of a broken spring. Instead, Branagh initially resisted getting involved with his costar. "You spend a lot of time staring into someone's eyes, something tricks you into maybe something's there," he says. But there was something there. The couple married in 1989. "We don't slavishly rely on each other," Branagh says. "We're both independent and very different. Still, being married has allowed me to find the capacity to have some quiet and peace."

When Branagh isn't enjoying peace and quiet--and Thompson's good cooking--he's busy organizing groups of people around him. "I like the idea of building an artistic family," he says. "Even when I was sixteen, I knew somewhere in my secret soul that I wouldn't be just an actor. I knew that acting would open the door to the amazing possibilities of being involved in creative enterprises."

Writing a book, producing plays, directing movies, acting in films and on TV--that's a lot of creative enterprises. "There's some genuine interest there, some greed, but also some subconscious thing that says, if you do thirty things at one time, a half dozen can fail and you can still get away with the others," Branagh says.

His day of reckoning may be at hand with Dead Again. An Oscar nominee for best actor and best director for Henry V, Branagh no longer has beginner's back on his side. Instead, he has a reputation to maintain, if not top. People are counting on him. And he has to fly first-class. "Oh, it's agonizing!" he confesses. "Not like doing hard physical labor, but the more you know, the harder it is. You have nothing to lose with the first one, when no one thinks you can do it. There's tremendous fun to be had discovering things as you go; it forces you to make decisions you will agonize over in the future. Like skiing--you experience the fear after you've done it. Sometimes I want that blissful oblivion back."

Well, he's not going to get it. Unless he comes back in another life, which is exactly what he does in Dead Again, a love story-thriller with mystical overtones. "It's one of those kinds of pictures that was branded on me from watching TV as a child," he says, "especially black-and-white movies like Rebecca."

In Dead Again, Branagh plays two roles: A blue-blooded German composer and a streetwise L.A. detective. "Me missus," as Branagh calls Thompson, plays two parts as well. How did he master an American dialect? (Obviously, a chat with Prince Charles wouldn't have helped.) Branagh practiced his accent on, well, movie ushers. "On weekends, I sneaked out to the movies," he says. "I did a lot of ordering of popcorn and Diet Coke."

Dead Again's story line involves amnesia, hypnotism, reincarnation--plot devices that could easily turn hokey. But Branagh thinks it's worth the risk. "Something in all of us wants to believe that when circumstances take you away from the one who's meant for you, the gods or fate or whatever mysterious powers you trust in will bring you back together," he says. And if he's right, a Dead Again poster may earn its rightful place alongside his Ghost poster.

"If the film's a hit," said Branagh before its release, "it will be 'Ken, we want to make Dead Again Again. It's the sequel. He comes back as a donkey!" Branagh smiles wickedly. "If the film doesn't do well, it will be"--he drops his voice--"'Oh, Kevin Brandon, who did Henry the Eighth and that disappointing Fred Again? He's Dead, She's Dead? What was it called?'" Having been in Hollywood for nine months, Branagh already has the inside line: He masks his hope with cynicism.

He also says he's changed. In the past, he used his energy to resist things. Not he's going toward something. "And yet, I can see the absurdity of it all," he insists, waving his hand at his enormous television set, his storyboards. "Here I am at thirty-one, doing this. Although I'm thrilled that I'm doing it and enjoying it and thinking I can, at the same time I'm thinking, What the fuck am I doing here?"

And then he gets that old light again in the back of his eyes.

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