Stratford on Sunset

GQ, September 1991
by Johanna Schneller

No lips--the man has no lips. There's a great dimple in his left cheek when he smiles and a keen intelligence in his eyes, but his head is too big for a body that doesn't exactly spend a lot of time at the gym. So why does Kenneth Branagh keep making these grand entrances in the films he directs? The just-released Dead Again, his first American effort, is full of Branagh bashing through double doors, smoldering and whispering in dimly lighted rooms like some mad cross between Vincent van Gogh and Charles Manson. In his first film, Henry V, which earned three Oscar nominations two years ago and got America to line up for Shakespeare, he emerges from the smoke and backlighting like Darth Vader. He certainly isn't shy about making a spectacle of himself.

Dramatic entrances, you see, are the story of Branagh's life. At 20, just minutes out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, he was headlining a hit West End play, Another Country, which also launched Rupert Everett and Daniel Day-Lewis. At 23, he was the youngest Henry V in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company. At 26, he founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, whose King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream sold out around the world last year. And at 27--the age of Henry himself at Agincourt--Branagh made Henry V in seven weeks, for a spare $7.5 million.

Along the way, he married his frequent costar, Emma Thompson (Impromptu), wrote an autobiography, Beginning, and earned equal parts enmity and admiration in Britain. In June, Branagh returned to his native Belfast to supervise a Renaissance play he wasn't acting in and, at the ripe old age of 30, to take the first extended break of his life. "I had the sweetest letter from my mother the other day, saying she was so glad I was gonna stop for a bit," he says. "She said I should go to a health farm."

Indeed, Branagh looks rather pasty this afternoon, slumped on a couch at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a site chosen because it was halfway between his other appointments. More and more often, he finds this work of being famous eclipsing the work that made him famous in the first place. It's a dilemma that his favorite character, Hamlet, whom he's played several times, might define as "To be a star, or not to be?"

Branagh's got Hamlet on the brain these days. "It's impossible to say you are unchanged by suddenly being at the helm of a Hollywood picture," he says. "Sometimes I felt very alone inside the system. Hamlet, textually, is 30, and he expresses so much of the indecision, neuroses, worry, anxiety and stress I see in this town, where one lives at a pace destructive to the human spirit: You get up too early, you work too long, you do not nourish your soul, you literally do not nourish you body because the air is so polluted. You grab leisure time, you grab space. Hamlet expresses the sea-change that occurs, that means a person like me is considering stopping a while."

So Branagh will rest. But he has to be careful. Because here in America, fame doesn't like to nap. It either grows, in all its pros and cons, or it evaporates like a ghost.

Teatime in Branagh's Spartan office at Paramount. Sheets of paper--the outline for Dead Again--line the walls and a giant pair of scissors (which figures prominently in the film) hangs nearby, along with a portrait of Emma, who costars with Branagh. A romantic mystery, Dead Again flashes back and forth from the present (shot in color), in which L.A. private detective Mike Church takes his amnesiac client Grace to a hypnotist, to the 1940's (shot in black and white), where Grace recalls--under hypnosis--the lives of Roman and Margaret Strauss, a passionate conductor and composer and his concert-pianist wife. Branagh and Thompson play the lovers in both eras. (Branagh even does two accents, American and German.) The film is old-fashioned, in the best sense: Heavy on plot twists and period atmosphere, it both pays homage to and gently sends up classic films older than Branagh himself.

By late May, the two eras aren't meshing well--"You either like it or you go, 'Fuck me, what is this?'" says screenwriter Scott Frank--so Branagh's been spending long days in the editing room. One reason he's having such a hard time with the final cut, goes the in-joke, is that he's in most every frame, and he hates to cut his scenes. Tired but alert, wearing jeans and a cotton shirt, he balances a cup of tea on a saucer in the palm of his left hand for the entire conversation. You get the feeling he could leap up and dance around the room without spilling a drop.

Branagh speaks in soliloquies, not sound bites. Though he sprinkles his speech with "fuck"s and "Christ"s and "me"s instead of "my"s, his beautifully modulated voice gives him away and justifies any dramatic entrance he'd care to make. As Henry, Branagh wasn't the most compelling-looking king in the world, splattered with blood and mud. But when he spoke, he sounded like an avenging angel. "With an instrument like that," Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker, "he can play anything."

A lot of people are banking on that. One of the film's producers, Lindsay Doran, nursed Dead Again through three Paramount regimes and her own move to Mirage Enterprises, Sydney Pollack's company. "We wanted a stylish filmmaker who had all the technical skills, and we wanted a romantic who cared about people," she says. "We didn't know if such a person existed. Then we saw Henry V." Branagh's appeal--as opposed to that of Laurence Olivier, whose 1940's version of a godlike Henry was much revered--was that he played the king as a man, with all his contradictions, doubts and humor on display. In his first meeting with Doran, Branagh laid out his demands: He would direct Dead Again if--and it was a big if--he and his wife could star. "Everyone swallowed a lot," Doran says. "But Ken inspires such confidence, without arrogance. He said, 'Let me be Lon Chaney,'" and we said 'Oh, what the hell. Let's go for it.'"

Despite Henry's success, it's big leap from a small Shakespeare picture shot with a company of friends to a $15 million Hollywood thriller. It doesn't help that Branagh is not as well known here as are Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman, two peers perched with him on top of the British heap. And it sure doesn't help that everyone keeps comparing Dead Again to Alfred Hitchcock's first American film, Rebecca, which won the Oscar for best picture. But "Ken didn't have to adapt to making a Hollywood movie," Doran says. "Hollywood adapted to making a movie with Ken."

Branagh's not famous enough? Well then, he'll persuade Robin Williams, Campbell Scott and Andy Garcia to appear in cameos. The first American crew is too sluggish for Branagh's liking? He'll replace them. "Ken works very fast and wants other people to keep up," Thompson says. "It's that Anglo-Saxon-terrier quality that barks and yaps and says 'C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon!" He also brought over five members of his "central artistic family" from Henry V. Despite the studio's initial resistance to the British invasion, "they were the most fun people on the crew. They had a shorthand that really helped," says Scott Frank, who was on the set daily. "People think, well, you've done this Shakespeare film, so you must have a fucking brain the size of the Empire State Building and be tremendously serious, [plummy voice] very, very English, very intense and witty and so forth," Branagh says. "But for me, it's hugely exciting to be working on a detective thriller in Hollywood as my second film. It gives me the chance--the necessity--to ask people how things work. They respond to that, as long as they that, finally, you are in the driving seat."

The pressure mounts because he's fond of scenes that ask a great deal of everyone involved. While filming the climactic murder scene, to the accompaniment of an opera, with huge shadows and a moving wall and special-effects people under beds and flicking blood onto curtains, "literally every single member of the crew was working," Branagh says. "We eventually got it, and there was an enormous cheer and a great camaraderie. That felt like making movies. When you suggest doing things like that in preproduction, people say, 'Well, you'd have to do this, that and the other' and shake their head. But I'd say 'I know, and wouldn't it be great? It would be hard, so that's a challenge, then, isn't it? Why don't we do that, then?'"

He gets away with it because--like Henry--he doesn't ask anything of his crew that he's not willing to do himself. "How it was physically and humanly possible for him to learn two accents and be in every scene, plus the constant demands of being the director, I don't know," Doran says. "I don't think any of us realized the hours of preparation that none of us saw. He made it seem effortless."

Why does Branagh push so hard? "Sometimes it can be a bit anal retentive," he admits, "and sometimes it's mixed in with just a stupid guilt: 'Well, I'm healthy, I have a certain amount of talent, and I must do things.' You know, the Protestant work ethic slapping you on the back every now and then."

The Protestant ethic was very much in evidence in Branagh's childhood home: His mother worked in a textile mill, his father in construction. He grew up surrounded by a noisy extended family that was amazed by his appetite for books, magazines and movies. But one night, when he was 9, the Troubles in Belfast swirled too close for comfort. A huge Protestant mob swarmed through his neighborhood, smashing the windows of Catholic homes. "Suddenly, the entire street poured out of their houses, ripped up the paving stones and built a barricade," he says. "It was like being in one of those classic scenes from a police series, where the camera rises up and ambulances pour in and lights are going, and then somebody comes in with a raincoat and says, 'So how did he did?' It all felt a bit tingly and not, from my point of view, actually unpleasant." His parents saw it differently, and moved the family to Reading, England, where Branagh tested his acting skills by trying to appear English at school and Irish at home. He also started writing to actors such as Derek Jacobi and Laurence Olivier--they wrote back, which astonished him--and appeared in every play he could. At 18, he earned a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. John Sessions, a fellow student, remembers their first day: "Ken wore that look he often does, like he's listening very carefully while looking down the barrel of a gun. He was easily the best person in our year and arguably the best in some time." Former RADA principal Hugh Crutwell, who has since consulted on Branagh's projects, says that Branagh hasn't changed since his school days: "He's developed and grown, yes, but he was not one of those who's all tied up and needs sorting out. Ken was securely himself from the moment I met him."

After graduation, a six-month stint in Another Country led to lots of BBC television work, a place at the Royal Shakespeare Company and a fame that fanned out in all directions, like fire. Plenty of British critics, however, say that Branagh's ambition far outweighs his charm. Over the past several years, he has been a recurring tabloid target. The first straw was his leaving the RSC to form Renaissance--taking several select actors with him, including Jacobi and Judi Dench--and persuading Prince Charles to be a patron. Then he wrote and starred in the company's least successful play, Public Enemy. And writing his autobiography at 28--though he admits in the first lines that he did so just to earn money for Renaissance--only added to his reputation as a megalomaniac.

His friends dismiss the criticism as mean-spirited jealousy. Branagh simply sighs: "Australians call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome: people who get too big for their boots and need cutting down to size. I suspect nothing would annoy certain sections of the British press more than Dead Again being very successful. Nothing could please them more than it being a total fuckin' disaster. And of course, if it was a total disaster, I would be back in favor."

Before she met him, Emma Thompson was one of Branagh's naysayers. "I was aware that he was considered to be the Great White Hope of British theater. Therefore, I avoided his work like the plague," she says over yet another cup of tea in their rented home in the Hollywood hills. From the outside, the place is nondescript, but the gate opens onto a charming garden with a pool and a stunning panorama view. "I think we should pass out grass skirts as guests come in," Thompson says. She starts the interview looking glamorous, fresh from a photo shoot, but quickly proceeds to slip into jeans, remove her makeup and tie her curly blonde hair into a lumpy ponytail. She periodically jumps up to answer the phone ("Hi, matey" to Branagh) and stir a huge pot of chicken stock simmering on the stove ("Hello, you lovely" to the stock). "And here's our fridge," she says tongue in cheek, whipping the door open to reveal heaps of fresh pasta and vegetables.

Thompson is getting meals ready for her husband because she's going to England to star in the new Merchant Ivory film, Howards End. "I was just reading [E.M.] Forster last night," she says. "He said this lovely thing about marriage, that though its pleasures are great, they are only afforded to very few." Thompson and Branagh met playing a doomed couple on the BBC miniseries Fortunes of War and went on to play several others (most notably in Henry V) before tying the knot themselves, in August 1989. "It's fun playing marriages that are going desperately wrong, 'cause it makes you feel, you know, smug," she says.

They've continued their professional alliance, with Thompson starring in two roles on Renaissance's world tour. "I'm sure there's treats in store for us, working together, with regard to tension. So far we've been lucky," she says. "When Ken directs me, we kind of do it together. He can also come up and whisper imprecations in my ear and I'm not gonna tell anybody."

She calls their reincarnated-soul-mate roles in Dead Again "an interesting metaphor. If we had any kind of past life, I would say that we'd probably been brother and sister. That's what my metaphor would be. We went through hell and high water, breaking up and getting together, but the thing we enjoy most now is just being able to be at ease with each other. A lot of people get together and are not, in the most primal sense, at ease. I think the whole notion of romance is to blame for that. Romance is a bit of a con, really; it simply does not last, in that way. Friendship and humor, work and thought last. You have find somebody whom you can sink into, as into a comfortable armchair."

Still, Branagh is not without his romantic side. When the Gulf war started, last January, Thompson was at their house in London (purchased after Henry V, on the very same block where she grew up) and Branagh was in L.A. "He thought, If the world is gonna blow up, I'd like to be on the same side as my wife," Thompson says, and he flew over to bring her back with him. For her twenty-eighth birthday (she's now 32), Branagh left a series of notes in her flat that led to a small pile of presents. "The last envelope was 'Go and look in the airing cupboard,' and Ken was in the airing cupboard. A good present, that," she says.

"Em's and my relationship is and always has been much more than just a surface attraction," Branagh says. "It always felt like something strangely more...something. I find it a totally, utterly mysterious and wonderful thing that I can barely talk about coherently."

But what works at home may not always work onscreen. Several people associated with Dead Again express some reservations about the robust and straightforward Thompson's playing a frail mystery woman who doesn't speak for half the movie. They suggest that someone more mesmerizingly beautiful--Michelle Pfeiffer, say--would have better served the role. Indeed, neither Thompson nor Branagh looks authentically American up there onscreen as Grace and Mike, despite their crack accents. They both come off better as Margaret and Roman, the Europeans.

"Ken pulls back from the sex and violence," says one insider. "He's shooting his wife, so it's more chaste than it could have been." Branagh bristles at the suggestion. "Someone else wrote that part, and Emma's her own person. The last thing she'd want is to be molded by me into something. Anyway, if there had been some sort of explicit sex scene in this, I suspect that we would not have been drawn to it. I think there's a double frisson there that is nobody's business but ours. And I think she's a terrific actress, really as good I've ever worked with. Knowing that seems to sort everything out. 'Cause I think, Well, who would you rather be working with? Somebody less talented?"

So far, Branagh's only taste of superstardom came one night in Chicago, on Renaissance's world tour. At a party after the play, "a great crowd of people completely enveloped me. I must have shaken hands with everyone in that room," he says. "Finally, I grabbed my wife and said 'Look as though we're having a very, very intense conversation that cannot be interfered with.' I saw someone coming, so I started saying very loudly 'She's got cancer. It's going to horrible.' I thought, That's got to put them off. I was very serious, I'd gotten to 'She's going to die' and suddenly [flat Chicago accent] 'Excuse me, Mr. Branagh, would you mind signing this? I want you to meet my nephew, he's such a fan of yours.' Completely impervious. I though, Oh, well, and went along.

"I found the attention startling," he continues, "I don't mind meeting new people at all, but when it's as if people are touching the hem of your garment, it's not really satisfying. You are a thing to them, rather than a person. And they become that as well." So how does he escape the Hollywood star-making system? "Directing is engrossing; you don't have time to get sidetracked by that sense of being in a dream factory. Which it is if, like me, you've watched a lot of films as a kid and were very intrigued by it all. I can't help but be shocked every time I drive through the front gates of Paramount; I keep thinking they're going to not let me in one day."

Branagh's Oscar night, in 1989, when he was a best-director and best-actor nominee, sounds like a movie in itself. "I took Johnny Sessions, and we ended up at the My Left Foot party until around four o'clock. My last conversation was a very drunken with Steve Soderbergh, another first-timer, talking about 'our next movie.'" Branagh flew to Tokyo at eight the same morning, arrived at three in the afternoon and was doing Edgar in King Lear at seven that night. "John and I were kind of hysterical on the way back, in post-Oscar euphoria," Branagh says. "I had introduced him to Steve Martin while we were all peeing, lined up at the trough. You couldn't shake hands. But that's the kind of evening it was; you're so excited that you socialize in mid-pee."

"We felt a bit self-conscious singing 'Happy Birthday' to Akira Kurosawa," Sessions says. "It's not as if we play golf together or anything."

Sessions lauds his friend for returning to England after Dead Again, for not staying to "wallow in the vague romance of Hollywood. He's not getting his face stretched every day, lying there with cucumbers on his eyes for six hours, building a swimming pool shaped like a foot. He's got a game plan. He's always known the sort of contribution, as an actor and a director, that he wanted to make."

Still, it's likely that Branagh will have to choose between being a theater impresario, a film director or a lead actor. Taking a sip of tea, he acknowledges the conflicts: "Sometimes it frustrates me enormously. Playing Edgar in Lear, my performance suffered from the work load I had around it. That doesn't mean I was particularly bad, just that I disappointed myself and was aware of paying a price. It was all such a whiz from the moment I left the RSC with the notion of forming a theater company, a crazy race to keep things afloat, moneywise. At one point, I was on the verge of selling my flat, that's what it had come to. That's why I'm going to stop for a while and consider things more carefully."

He wants to keep Renaissance small, twenty or twenty-five people--the size of William Shakespeare's own company--and to do a slightly more commercial version of what Ingmar Bergman did, directing theater in his native land and making movies, using the same people in both. "God, how I would love a fairy godmother to wave her wand over our coffers and say 'Look, we'll give you this amount of money every year; do a play, do a film. You are not forced to make a profit. Just do things to entertain people,'" Branagh says. "That's my idea of heaven. And being allowed to get on with it."

He sets his cup down and laughs. "Then again, maybe Dead Again will kill me. Maybe it'll be a terrible disaster, and I'll take every other career down with me; Paramount will go bankrupt; it'll be 'Kenneth's Gate.' The choices will be much simpler then."

Unlikely. Despite its flaws, Dead Again is a well-crafted, funny thriller that keeps you guessing--and does so without the sex, schmaltz, violence and techno-hardware that fuels most summer fare. At a June screening on the paramount lot, Branagh paced outside the theater, hissing a speech to himself while the cast, the crew and studio executives filed in to see his final cut. His entrance was typical: Bounding down the aisle to fond applause, he begged for a little extra, then asked for quiet. "What you are about to see is the, um, exciting combination of the film you read, the film you shot and the film we edited," he said. "I've been given lots of good ideas--all of which I will take credit for--and I've made the inevitable cuts, which I will also take credit for. I stand by every frame. I'm very proud and hope you'll feel the same way." Judging from the line waiting to clap him on the back two hours later, they did.

Despite his talk of rest, Branagh already has ideas for a follow-up film, either Thomas Hardy or Shakespeare. There's always Hamlet. (He hasn't seen Gibson's, but when the time is right, he'll go to "nick Mel's best bits.") "I think people get wound up in Hamletian ways about fucking freeways, about bills, mortgages, bereavements," Branagh says. "One of the reasons I am so grateful to be involved in these works is that often a part of why we feel uncomfortable with the human condition is our lack of language. What these plays give us is a wonderful cathartic release into an expression of these things. It gives me little bursts of spiritual solace that I don't get from any religion. I don't mean one goes and prays at the mantel of Sir William but just that it's a practical faith. When you're doing your own Hamletizing, his irony is so life-affirming. At base camp, he says we're such a fucking grubby mottled bunch of humanity. I find that comforting and inspiring."

And just imagine the entrance he could pull off at Denmark.

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