Much Ado About Kenneth

Rough Cut, December 1996
by Andy Jones

Kenneth Branagh likes to do press for his films. That makes him very unusual in Hollywood. "If you were back in Shakespeare's time," he says, "if you pulled up on some cart into some village, you'd go bang on doors and say, 'Hello, we're playing on the green tonight. Please come and see us.' You know, you'd want people to see the work. Why would you not want to talk about it?" In fact, Branagh prefers a somewhat more intimate settings like this Ritz Carlton suite in Atlanta than press junkets where five or more reporters sit around a celebrity and write the same story for their respective publications. He also believes getting out among the people helped the box office take for Henry V. "Although the traveling is grueling," Branagh says, "I'd rather do this than the junkets. It's horrible for everybody. You know, you just get knackered and everybody gets three minutes and it just seems ridiculous." It is. Besides, up close and personal the Shakespearian thespian looks great. Relaxed in a nifty four-button suit by Kenzo puffing on Marlboro Light and chatting up reporters about Hamlet -- his cinematic piece de resistance, Keanu and Romeo and Juliet. In fact, he is so charming we forget that what we really want to know is if he still loves Emma. Does he miss her? I couldn't tell you. Too distracted by those sparkly blue eyes.

Branagh talked to Andy Jones before heading to Los Angeles -- "The hills of Beverly, " he says; Seattle and Vancouver.

You know, this seems like a really, really basic question, but it's not one I've really seen you answer, other than through your work. So, what is your connection with Shakespeare?

Well, I don't know. I mean, it keeps changing. I certainly don't come from a background that would suggest that I have any connection -- until I was 15, I hadn't seen any of his work. My parents didn't really go to the theater, weren't really aware. When I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, my dad was like, "The Royal Shakespearean Company?" He just didn't know it existed. So I don't know. Perhaps it's the Irish blood in me responds well to words and music and poetry. And there is sort of music in this work. There are mysterious things that I can't explain. His power as a poet seems to get under the skin, you know. So the first time I saw Hamlet, I was affected by it in a sort of visceral way. I didn't really, remotely, even now, fully comprehend the play or why. It makes you shiver a bit when it works well. It just does, like a great piece of music. You go back to it and you hear something different. As you get older, you hear it differently or see it differently.

For me it's not a sort of an airy, fairy thing, it's something that just makes me feel good, you know... there's just something in that language that's irresistible. I don't pretend to understand it, or, I understand it has an impact on me. I do not consider myself a specialist about it or an expert on it. I don't consider myself an intellectual about it or academically sound on it. But I have an intuitive enthusiastic response to the stories. I resist, always, giving lectures, this kind of stuff. I just do it. So, it's a mystery to me, I must say. I don't sit up at night reading the plays, you know, a great big volume under the arm in a pair of black tights... you know, looking in the mirror being marvelous.

I think most people get that from Shakespeare eventually -- with lots of help from a good teacher who can help show you the way through the language to the meaning. Did somebody help you?

I certainly had a very good teacher when I was 16, 17. And you have to see a good production, one that captures your imagination, you know, perhaps one that's not full of artificial voices and people, sort of congratulating themselves. It makes people think that I'm much more intelligent than I know myself to be because I do this type of stuff. But, I'm not trying to be falsely modest about that, it's just a fact. And one of the things that makes me keep doing [Shakespeare] is because there are so many experiences of my own, both early on and all the way through my professional life of seeing performances that also seemed to me like watching paint dry. There is a difference between it working well and it transporting you and when performed badly you can't imagine a worst way to spend your time than seeing a Shakespeare play badly performed... it's agony. Agony. Meaningless.

What if Keanu Reeves is Hamlet? Would that qualify as agonizing?

I didn't see it. [smiles coyly] But I commend Keanu enormously for his courage and his commitment to it. He's, to me, a very genuine individual and I think a much more talented actor than anybody gives him credit for.

You have worked with him...

I have.

And you got a lot of flack for casting him in Much Ado About Nothing.

Yeah. I personally think it's just because people find it much harder to drop the baggage that actors may have. Maybe because movies are so huge here in America. When people are in a successful movie, the image from that picture goes with them. [Keanu was in] Bill and Ted, those two movies, and that image of Keanu is one that people carry. And actors that don't fall naturally into a way of presenting yourself in all this circus of media, you know, so that people think, well, that's who he is. I think, for instance, he did a beautiful job in that Bill and Ted film, but actually doing that kind of stuff is not remotely as easy as it looks. If it were, everybody would be doing it much better. It has real charm, real lightness of touch, real kind of comedic ability. I mean, he worked like a dog on Much Ado, he's really easy to work with. And I think when you're in his position and you know that you're gonna get flack out of every corner for doing something like Hamlet, people would say it's an act of hubris or vanity, I'd say an act of great courage.

Well, it may reflect how much he doesn't really care about what the media thinks, or he's just unaware of all this nonsense and just wants to be an actor.

Yeah, something that might be very expanding. It is, sort of, on a crass level. To do it is to remember a great many words, that are quite complex and render them understandable for an audience, there's the sword fight, having the breath to do it... It's not brain surgery, but anybody who has ever done any public speaking will know that you get nervous. And although it's our job and to some extent we love it, the anxiety thing is also part and parcel of it. And if you're a big movie star and you're human and sensitive to people, and take a carefree attitude regularly, then it's probably a big thing to do.

Speaking of the anxiety, I read somewhere that when you were younger you had a little problem with corpsing on stage.

That's sort of a weird form of hysteria. It's when you giggle and it usually happens in very sort of tragic moments. Almost always has to do with the hysteria. When you're acting in a big, powerful scene, and there's a number of takes you get to where you can give it you're all and then you're just sort of on the edge of either laughter or tears. And then anything going wrong will set you off. So, suddenly, you've been yelling at Julie Christie, you're grabbing her. And during take five, when you grab her, you put your finger up her nose and suddenly collapse with laughter in the middle of a scene that ought to be terribly sensitive. You find something utterly obscured, suddenly funny. And suddenly you're also thinking, "What am I doing? What is this job?" I get dressed up, I shout at a very beautiful woman in an old hut full of strange lights and a big piece of metal pointing at me. This is a very odd job.

Eighteen million dollars I think, is a bargain for Hamlet.

I think so. I mean, everybody got paid the sort of minimum and we had enormous help from the film stock people, the labs, the camera people and some cost price dealers. It's rather sad that it's so costly but everybody was aware of this being a very unique project.

Have you seen Romeo and Juliet?

I have. Yes. The new Romeo and Juliet.

I was thinking that maybe you would make a more accessible Hamlet, not that your Hamlet wasn't accessible. But, we're paid to see a four hour movie. And certainly Romeo and Juliet connected with a lot of young people. Obviously, Hamlet doesn't have to connect with 18-year-olds or 12-year-old who identify with Claire Danes. But did you ever have any thoughts about doing Hamlet in a completely non-traditional way?

Well, I think in many ways we do, in all honesty. I mean, as much as you get away from gothic, gloomy stuff, get away from this whole idea that the court people were manic-depressives. And I mean, the ideal is absolute total realism for as many people as possible but in the end you know, you have to follow your own artistic instincts about what you think works. And I couldn't, in my mind, come up with a kind directorial concept set in this century, that I thought worked for enough parts of the play. One of the prices you pay for modernizing is that you can make certain scenes work brilliantly in a modern context and then lots of other things in the play fight it. What I wanted to do was get a strong interpretive line, put it in the 19th century, make it bright, make it sexy, and opulent and powerful and corrupt and all the things that sort of royal family in crisis might be surrounded by. But I tried to open up the play as much as possible to let the audience react to it. Not always telling them what to think, or always explaining what I mean. I wanted to make that real clear. He's the king, he's the prime minister, those two people are in love, those two are his friends... make that as clear as possible and then let Shakespeare do the rest. And let some of the, you know, magical poetry work on them. And, interestingly, the movie is playing at three cinemas in New York, and L.A. and Toronto and someone from New York's Castle Rock office walked past the theater where it plays at 9:30 and it's been sold out every morning since we opened.

Nine thirty in the morning?

Yes. There's a queue round the block every morning and they said that the makeup of the audience is extraordinary. It's absolutely multicultural. The ages range from octogenarian to 15-year-olds. And I think what Romeo and Juliet has done, for us, actually, is open up a whole audience for whom it is not an un-cool thing to consider going to a Shakespeare play. I met a kid on a street corner in Chicago the other day and he said, "Your movie's gonna be a hit. We've had it booked for months. Our teacher is taking us. We saw Romeo and Juliet." And we started talking about the two plays. I'm talking to this 15-year old black kid in Chicago about two 400 year old plays as if they were current movies and he's interested in the differences. There are plays that you need to bring up-to-date and that and you need to be really radical about in the way you treat them. But in Hamlet's case, I think there's something about wanting to lay it out. And to hope and dare to think that the audience will say, "I'm prepared to come along." A different kind of accessibility is what I hope for.

Who else do you want to work with now that you've worked with pretty much all of Hollywood in one movie. Who else is left?

[laughs] Lots of people. I like Hackman very much. I think he's permanently marvelous. Morgan Freeman, I think, is probably one of the greatest actors currently working today. Lots of people. I get excited about anybody who does a half decent job.

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