O, Thou Empty Villain!

Toronto Sun, December 28, 1995
by John Coulbourn

Kenneth Branagh gives an understated portrayal of Iago

NEW YORK - They are questions just begging to be asked.

Kenneth Branagh is hyping director Oliver Parker's new celluloid take on Othello. In the movie, which opens in Toronto tomorrow, Branagh plays Iago to Laurence Fishburne's Moor, and his Manhattan promotional appearance is causing quite a stir.

It's not the affable actor's celebrity status that's causing ripples, though. Instead, it's his hair, dyed a sunny blond for his upcoming performance in a new movie adaptation of Hamlet, which he'll direct.

So, Ken, do blonds really have more fun?

"They get much more teasing, is what they do," he says with a wince, adding that the new look is something he's trying out in preparation to play the Melancholy Prince of Elsinore.

But just because Hamlet is a Dane, does it follow that he has to be a blond? "He doesn't - and he may not be," Branagh says, fingering the shiny straw-colored beard. "This can best be described as a work in progress."

Othello, on the other hand, is a work completed, and Branagh is obviously pleased with the work he's done. His Iago is a study in understatement.

"It's all so extreme," he says of most other takes on the character. "There are many people I've met who are not even closet Iagos. They're right up there. Sit in the green room or get drunk with a bunch of actors.

"Oliver described him as an onion man," he continues in obvious agreement. "You peel the layers away and there's nothing there."

It is Iago's emptiness, Branagh asserts, rather than his evil, that leads him to destroy Othello's marriage and his life. It was that emptiness, as much as anything, that framed Branagh's take on the role.

"I wanted the events (in the play) to surprise him as much as they surprised Othello," he explains.

But working with Fishburne meant one surprise too many, he confesses with a laugh.

Recalling a scene in which Othello grabs Iago and plunges his head under the ocean, Branagh says both actors had agreed that Fishburne should do it as the spirit moved him. After being unexpectedly ducked into water that he describes as "f---ing cool, leather pants wreaking havoc on my nether regions and my mouth full of snot, I said to him `Okay, we've done surprises now. Surprise is good, now I'd like to try planned.' "

Planning, in fact would seem to be the order of the day in Branagh's life. He's gearing up for his Hamlet, which will feature Robin Williams as Osrick and Billy Crystal as the grave digger.

And after that? "I've been doing sunny juves a bit," he says. "Now it's time to head for the more mature roles - King Richard, the Scottish gentleman whose name I won't mention because I'm pathetically superstitious."

That's about the only name he's loath to mention. He talks about his defunct marriage to Emma Thompson without batting an eye.

"You end up just being philosophic about it," he says, adding that he hopes the two of them will work together in the future.

The break-up, though, has taught him a thing or two.

"I feel sorry for anybody who's got to deal with something personal under an intense public spotlight," he says softly lighting yet another cigarette.

"I keep myself pretty clear of all that stuff, for obvious reasons."

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