Kenneth Branagh's Learned to be True

Calgary Sun, February 9 1997
by Louis B. Hobson

VANCOUVER -- Kenneth Branagh hasn't actually made a pact with the devil. He's just shaken hands with the hooved one.

It happened back in 1988 when Branagh, then just 28, produced, directed and starred in a screen version of Shakespeare's Henry V.

He was immediately hailed as the new Orson Welles, a true film wonderkind.

"I knew as soon as the Oscar nominations and the international awards started coming in that my life would be put under a microscope. I'd no longer be a private person. I'd belong to the world, body and soul," explains Branagh.

The continued success and scrutiny that has followed Branagh through such films as Dead Again, Much Ado About Nothing and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has seen the end of his marriage to actress Emma Thompson.

He is currently living with his Frankenstein costar Helena Bonham Carter.

"I don't really resent being watched all the time. I realize it goes with the territory. It's difficult at times but the rewards far outweigh the personal discomfort."

Had Branagh not enjoyed such celebrity, he would never have been given $20-million US to direct and star in his four-hour version of Shakespeare's classic Hamlet.

"I saw the play at 15. It changed my life. The experience is what made me become an actor. I want to try to share the joy I experienced 20 years ago with as many people as possible."

It was always a given that Branagh himself would play Shakespeare's brooding Danish prince but the remainder of the casting tantalizes the imagination.

The reclusive Julie Christie plays Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude. A major star of the '60s and '70s and an Oscar winner for Darling, Christie all but retired from films in the early '80s.

"So much happened to Julie so early in her career. She is still so insecure because she doesn't know why things work for her when she acts.

"She doesn't understand that she's that rare thing called natural talent. It's only in the last couple of years she has agreed to come back."

Branagh says Christie had a great deal of advice for Kate Winslet, the 22-year-old actress who plays Hamlet's spurned lover Ophelia.

"With the release of James Cameron's Titanic this summer, Kate is on the verge of experiencing the same kind of media frenzy that marked Julie's early career.

"Julie told her it's realistic to fear the level of exposure she's going to get from a single movie like Titanic.

To play the aging acting manager called The Player King, Branagh turned to screen icon Charlton Heston.

"He is an acting tradition and the remarkable thing about him is that he absolutely loves the game of acting.

"Once he's in front of those cameras, he is absolutely ageless. He's always been one of my favorite actors. He's not just the man of epics but a true actor's actor."

Branagh says he cast Jack Lemmon as the castle guard who first sees the ghost of Hamlet's father because "he can play an ordinary man so well. I wanted one of the first characters the audience meets to be completely non-threatening and that's what Jack always is.

"He's everybody's neighbor. He's everybody's best friend. The unfortunate thing with Jack is that he carries the baggage of being an American movie star.

"That was basically the problem I had casting Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing. People don't believe they can do Shakespeare when in fact they are perfect for it."

Billy Crystal plays the grave digger and Robin Williams is the flamboyant nobleman, Osric.

"Billy and Robin are two of the world's funniest clowns but they also have an amazing vulnerability. Cast them in a drama or in Shakespeare and they're on such unfamiliar ground that they beg to be directed."

For Branagh, the most difficult but important casting was to have British stage star Derek Jacobi as the evil murderer and usurper Claudius.

"Derek played Hamlet in that production I saw 20 years ago and he directed me in my first stage Hamlet. He is my mentor and I wanted desperately for him to play Claudius.

"He felt he wasn't bullish and lecherous enough. Claudius is traditionally played as a kind of debauching Henry VIII. I had to show Derek we could initially make Claudius more sympathetic and intellectual, then he signed on."

Branagh also called on Gerard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough, Rosemary Harris and Judi Dench to star in brief cameos.

"I am naughty really but these are some of the greatest actors in the world and I wanted to have even a brief moment with them."

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