Playing Iago in 'Othello' Helps Branagh Rebound From Bad Year

Chicago Tribune, December 24, 1995
by Laurie Werner

When audiences see Kenneth Branagh in the film version of "Othello," opening Friday, they'll see the usually affable Irish actor in an atypical role: the villain, the classic scheming traitor Iago.

They'll also see him in a role he hasn't played in quite a long time, that of hired hand, actor only, without the additional credits of writer and director that have marked his prodigious, high-speed stage and film career.

Such a low profile seems a welcome relief after the kind of year that he's had. At the end of 1994, Branagh the comprehensive artist was on view in "Frankenstein," an ambitious, overwrought, $50 million epic that he directed and in which he co-starred that was ignored by audiences and denounced by critics. As if that weren't enough, his widely publicized "golden couple" marriage to Oscar winning actress Emma Thompson officially ended this fall after rumors of separate lives and affairs on both sides.

Branagh, now 35, for years had nothing but success after being hailed as a wunderkind, the next Olivier, the next Orson Welles. Nominated for an Oscar at 28 for his first film, an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V," he wrote his autobiography the same year. But 1995 has been a year of shakedown, and of reflection.

And so it was, he affirms, a refreshing change to take a step back and be directed by someone else, his colleague Oliver Parker, in a familiar venue, the glorious poetry of Shakespeare.

"It was very nice," he says on this afternoon in New York. He looks a bit different from usual--his hair is short and platinum blonde for an upcoming production of "Hamlet," but his voice is as mesmerizing and clipped as ever. "I didn't have to watch rushes and have those end-of-day discussions about camera shots and next week's costumes. At the end of a take, I could just sit down and have a cup of tea, being blissfully unconnected. Never having played Iago before, it was enough just trying to get a great part right."

His version is very different from the rest, a villain with a disarmingly pleasant demeanor. There's no obvious menace here; this aide to the great Moorish general is only trying to help him, to protect him, by planting the suggestion of adultery involving Othello's new wife, Desdemona. Branagh's pleasant, baby face works for him in this: How could someone who looks so sweet really be so devious, so evil?

"I've seen it happen in the theater," he says. "There are quite enough Iagos around . . . people who think, 'I could have played (a certain part) better.' "

This jealousy is something he knows very well firsthand. His rapid success has been the source of bitterness on the part of his peers for years.

"In England, if someone does well, it's a threat to anybody else's potential success," says Michael Maloney, who's known Branagh for 13 years and co-stars with him in "Othello."

Given Branagh's career trajectory, he knew it was inevitable that there would be resentment. He's been on a gilded path since his first audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After graduating, his first stage role, in the West End production of "Another Country" in 1982, won him a prestigious Society of West End Theatres Award for most promising newcomer of the year. Two years later he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and earned the lead in "Henry V." Three years later, in 1987, he left to start his own theater company, Renaissance, which staged classics such as "Look Back in Anger" and "Much Ado About Nothing." To raise money for the company, he wrote his autobiography, "Beginnings."

In the meantime, he starred on television in, among other projects, the BBC series "Fortunes of War," which paired him for the first time with Emma Thompson. After the success of his film "Henry V," he was invited to Hollywood where he directed the film noir hit "Dead Again," then the English comedy "Peter's Friends," and a lusty, populist version of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." The film achieved the near-impossible, making Shakespeare a hit. The result was his invitation by Francis Coppola to direct the ambitious, big-budget version of "Frankenstein," starring Robert De Niro.

Just before he began the project, Branagh admitted to being daunted by the enormity of it, dealing with the enormous egos, the large sums of money. Still, he was excited by the prospect of taking a story usually relegated to the horror genre and making a scenery-chewing moral tale out of it. Its absolute crash was a serious shock.

Despite the critical drubbing, Branagh still had to fulfill his promotional obligations; he spent six weeks taking the film around the world, answering questions from interviewers ranging from hostile to indifferent. "It was challenging," he says. "But I'm proud of it. I did my bit."

In a way all this analysis helped him crystallize the experience, good and bad.

"I'm proud of keeping it together; we came in on budget," he says. "And they made their money back; the film did $22 million in the U.S. and $86 million internationally."

Still, some of the criticism lingers; his voice gets scratchy as he describes it. "I made the film exactly as I wanted and that makes it worse," he says. "Because you realize that you've put your heart and soul into something that in the end most people thought wasn't very good. People said, 'You must have been interfered with . . . but they (the studio executives) were very good about it. It's my picture. The responsibility is mine. When you think about it, it is just a film. The world didn't stop turning, as I recall; the sun rose the next morning. But it did shake my confidence. It was a tough time for me."

Especially since the British press seized the opportunity to bring the previously soaring Branagh down to earth. He professes to be philosophical about it. "If you achieve any measure of success, there's an equal, opposite reaction. There's nothing you can do about it," he says. "But what surprises me is you think it can't get worse than that (he laughs) and then it gets worse. So far, though, it hasn't stopped me from working."

In fact, as Maloney points out, others might have withdrawn after a smack like that; Branagh just upped the pace. Besides acting in "Othello," he wrote and directed "A Midwinter's Tale," a lean and comic look at a dysfunctional theater company putting on the worst possible production of "Hamlet." It stars Maloney as the passionate, if hapless, director, with appearances by Joan Collins, Jennifer Saunders and Julia Sawalha (otherwise known as the mother and daughter from the caustic British TV comedy "Absolutely Fabulous") and is to open in the U.S. in February.

With that film finished, he started pre-production on a film version of "Hamlet" due to begin shooting next month with an all-star cast including Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Gerard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. He's been in four or five productions of the play already--he can't remember the exact number--and feels he gets closer to really understanding how to play it each time.

"It's like listening to a great piece of music," he says. "The more you listen to it and the more your life experience changes, it speaks to you in a slightly different way. One hopes in a slightly deeper way."

His recent life experiences, he admits, will have an effect. The official breakup with Thompson, whom he married in 1989, obviously hurts deeply; his blue eyes tear as he discusses it.

"The end of a marriage," he says slowly, "is just incredibly sad--deeply, deeply sad. Something that you take one day at a time to continue coming to terms with. I'm sure that one is inevitably changed by that, in some ways that I can spot now, some that I can't, ways that will be affecting me for the rest of my life."

The long separations as each worked on his/her career, he admits, contributed to the downfall of the marriage.

What will happen now, though, no one knows. "We talk, we're friends," he says. One thing he is sure of is that they will work together again.

Meanwhile, he's carrying on with his life. Maloney, who's also in "Hamlet," says Branagh doesn't whine about what's bothering him, he just works. His industry and stamina are legendary.

But Branagh lets down the armor from time to time. He does so while looking back briefly at the last year.

"It's been a challenging year but I'm reasonably happy, whatever that means," he says. " 'Hamlet' is partly about a man trying to be happy, trying to find some inner peace, acceptance of the ups and downs of life. What's the point of carrying on when life has so many surprises?"

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