Renaissance Man

Vogue, September 1991
by Georgina Howell

Kenneth Branagh had just flown back to New York from Los Angeles in the Paramount private jet, an experience he describes as "sproncy." At JFK Airport, eight limousines awaited the party of eight.

"I said to them, 'Just drop your spare cash in a wee mug and send it to us. We'll make a film with it. We'll save the British film industry with it!'"

Britain's rocketing thirty-year-old theatrical prodigy is still collecting transatlantic anomalies.

"I'm always looking over my shoulder as I get on the plane," he says. "I keep thinking this isn't quite me."

No two or three job descriptions are sufficient to contain the talents of a classical and modern actor and a director of plays and films who has his own successful company and is also a playwright with the first installment of his autobiography already in paperback. Hollywood in 1991 doesn't quite know what to do with this brand-new Orson Welles, but never mind, he took what it had to offer. He seized the wheel of his own star vehicle, Dead Again, directing and playing two roles opposite his wife, Emma Thompson, and has fed a large part of the resulting cash into his company, Renaissance, to fund a sparkling production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya's.

In New York, Paramount swept its freshest virtuoso into a gala preview of Harrison Ford's new film, Regarding Henry. Branagh watched the arrivals from the crowd until a hardworking publicist slipped the word to a CBS correspondent and escorted Branagh to a camera.

"Right," said the presenter, leafing through his notes in search of Branagh's name. "What part did you play in this film?" "I'm not in this film," said Branagh. "I'm here because--"

And then a car drew up, the cameraman screamed, "Christ! It's Richard Dreyfuss! Over there!" and Branagh disappeared behind a frieze of flailing arms and legs.

Telling the tale in Snowdon's London studio, Kenneth Branagh tucks his old shoes under his chair, his sandy hair on end, and his treacly clarinet voice spreads itself on the air with the mesmerizing rise and fall of the Irish storyteller--Belfast flavored, a rasp in its lower register, a sense of the words being edible, the use of repetition with a velvety emphasis. Once the worst-dressed student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he still wears brown leather lace-ups with the blue jeans, and his open-necked striped shirt still climbs out of his pants.

Outside the studios, he's hardly recognized.

"I was hanging round this shop on Rodeo Drive, trying to attract the assistant's attention.. I wanted to buy some pants, but he was too busy fawning around the heels of some television actor who'd come in behind me." Branagh slides into a laugh. "Finally the guy left, and the assistant made out my bill in a kind of dream. He said, 'Do you know who that was? That was Sam Elliott. That's who that was.' Then he looks up and slowly his hand floats up to his cheek, and he goes"--in a queeny California accent--"'Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I know you, don't I? You're famous, aren't you? You're the one who played Henry VIII!'"

Kenneth Branagh may not be famous yet, but he will be. No one who saw him in Henry V will forget him.

"In California I was the latest version of the European director with a hit of a kind. I'd won a couple of wee prizes, and it was Smilesville. Suddenly it was, 'Oh, hello. Perhaps he's talented. Or something.'" The opportunist grins. "So I get to direct this kind of Hitchcock movie and play an American detective and a German composer." Mr. Putty, he turns a haughty profile; his hairline raises half an inch. "I eyebrow my way through the film as Roman Strauss! And it's fiendishly clever. The whole is fiendishly clever. I've watched Dead Again for five previews, and no one gets it."

At twenty-seven, Branagh was the entire force behind the award-winning Henry V. He owned the company, he raised the money, he directed it, cast it, adapted it for the screen, and starred in it. Then he wrote about it in his autobiography, Beginning, and funded a further season for Renaissance.

The saga of getting the film onto celluloid fills the last forty-two pages of Beginning and rivals Shakespeare's own plot for drama and suspense. No one thought Kenneth Branagh could do it. David Puttnam, scheduled to be executive producer, was about to slot the last million pounds into place when he lost confidence.

"It is my absolute belief," Puttnam said on the afternoon of the West End press night for Branagh's Hamlet, "that this film will not be made."

It may be the last time anyone will underestimate Branagh's ability to make things happen. The film is history. It was made with a cast that included every British actor of note and went on to win the Best New Director award from the New York Critics Circle. Branagh was nominated for Oscars for Best Director and Best Actor, and he won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Best Director award. The film--which Branagh describes as "a dodgy play about war"--was grounded in the idea of the king as a killer, a brilliant patrician, and a doubting, dangerous young professional.

The critics were spellbound; people lined up who had already seen the film four or five times--for many, this was the greatest film or theatrical event of the decade. Sir Laurence Oliver is dead, long live Kenneth Branagh!

Actors believe Kenneth Branagh has an Olivier fixation. Branagh is more Cagneyish, more belligerent, but there is the same technical mastery, the power and presence, the rapid rise to great roles. There is the filming of Henry V to mark the connection, and even the similarity of the lower half of the face, with the lipless mouth above the same strong, dimpled chin. Some see a resemblance in Dead Again to Olivier's famous movie of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, in which past and present also merge in a murderous cliff-hanger with gothic overtones.

"I'd say he uses Olivier as a useful template for how to pace his career," muses actor and mimic John Sessions, who has known Branagh since they were students at RADA. Britain's fastest-talking comedian, Sessions is in the first week of his one-man show for Renaissance, Travelling Tales. "A life plot? Oh yes. As he achieves his objectives it becomes more and more distinct. Kenneth intends to go down in the history books."

His rivals have another name for what Branagh chooses to call "a measure of ambition." Did he really feel he couldn't play Henry V without consulting Prince Charles about how it felt to be the Prince of Wales? It may not have contributed much to the ultimate performance, but it certainly oiled the wheels in anther direction. Today Prince Charles is the supportive and interested patron of Renaissance, and a signed foreword on Kensington Palace letterhead on the front page of the Renaissance program for Uncle Vanya wishes you an enjoyable evening in the theater.

Kenneth Branagh has come very far very fast for a boy who grew up under the shadow of Gallagher's tobacco factory in the heart of Protestant Belfast. His early life was an Ulster remake of On the Waterfront. His grandfathers lined up for work on the docks, and his father, now retired, was a carpenter. These days, he passes the graffiti-sprayed streets smoldering bonfires of Tiger Bay in a taxi on his way to the Grand Opera House, but the background will, one day, be a great feather in the cap of Sir Kenneth Branagh, K.B.E. Already, in Beginning, he dwells lovingly on the details: how he was born on Saturday, December 10, 1960, just in time for the football results; how his mother would scour the streets for cigarette butts when her father was broke and out of cigarettes' how she pawned her coat at twenty-one to pay her way to Manchester. The Branaghs moved to Reading after a street riot of window-smashing Protestants from Shankhill Road, and Kenneth began a second, more personal war, which he describes as learning to be "English at school and remain Irish at home."

He suffered a patch of bullying, but nothing too traumatic; Branagh was already in control, already a star. In the blink of an eye he way captain of the rugby and football teams, writing children's-book reviews for the local paper, and at sixteen he was juggling four parts in the school parts in the school play. Another blink and the Central School and RADA were competing to offer him a place. From here on triumphs came in pairs, and there are those who accuse Beginning of being little more than a well-disguised boast.

"Ken was right up there from the start," says John Sessions. "Seven or eight of us who'd just got into RADA had to redo our audition pieces for the voice teacher, Robert Palmer. We all tried to show what we could do. Then Ken got up and did Hotspur's 'I deny no prisoners,' and that was it. Color of voice, sheer presence, technical control, attack--twenty-five things you could name were already in place. We knew straightaway that Ken was first division."

By this time the famous theater school had presented him with its ultimate bouquet, the Bancroft Gold Medal for outstanding student of the the year, he was bowing out as the prince in the traditional final production of Hamlet and using his old Belfast accent to play the lead in a concurrent television play, his first professional role. The Royal Shakespeare Company offered a leading juvenile part, but Branagh chose instead the passionate, witty role in which he beat Rupert Everett to the SWET (Society of West End Theatres) Award for Best Newcomer. He chose Judd in Another Country, the Julian Mitchell play set in a private boys' school. "Was I putting on a voice?" He signals derision. "Is the pope a Catholic?"

Married to the actress-comedienne Emma Thompson, Branagh has no car and lives in a somewhat bleak north London house with three bedrooms and a garden just big enough to eat in.

"Em cooks. A couple of mates come round. We stay in. We don't go to dos. Absolutely not our scene."

They have seen so little of each other this year that they have made plans to spend a couple of months together when she finishes filming Merchant Ivory's Howards End, the E.M. Forster novel, with Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave.

Branagh and Thompson met while playing the leads of the BBC television series of Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War, and after a pause for thought and a damaging stag night at Madame Jo Jo--London's transvestite club--the wedding of theaterland's new prince was celebrated with a celestial thirty-thousand-pound garden party at Cliveden. Many an actress's heart ached under the summer sunshine that day, as it circulated that the bride had exacted an eve-of-wedding vow from the flirtatious Branagh that his relationship with his leading ladies would be, from now on, unswervingly professional.

He now gets ribbed on talk shows for giving the lead roles to his wife, an aspect of Branagh-knocking likely to increase after Dead Again, with its lingering, soft-focus final clinch. She has played Alison to his Jimmy in the Renaissance Company's Look Back in Anger and Princess Katharine to his Prince Hal, but still, the accusation is not quite fair to the talented Thompson.

You have to catch planes to keep up with Branagh, whom I next encountered yawning on a kitchen chair in a dressing room of Belfast's Grand Opera House. In a town that kills with kindness he can't enter a pub without being bought a half dozen drinks; on local television he's "one of our own, now." Unawed, people come up to him in the street and tell him, "Good you're back, Kenny." When work is done and there are friends to drink with, he can revert to his Tiger Bay archetype. His family occasionally still has to pull him in, legless and steaming, let him sleep it off, and bring round with the famous three-egg Ulster fry-up. In his hometown he is a hero, but he travels on public transportation and can become invisible at will. His tough Northern Irish features slip easily into the Belfast scenery. One Kenneth Branagh steps off the bus as you pass the stop; another emerges from the swing doors of the Crown as you cross the road. But it's as if he's on dual control.

"He comes on like a plumber," a friend said recently. "Then he does this other thing."

Before the camera or onstage the full face narrows and hardens, the eyes gleam, he adds three inches to his five feet nine and half inches. Still, he is not wrong when he calls himself a "short-assed, fat-faced Irishman": when he had to strip for Julian Mitchell's play Francis, a colleague hissed derisively, "I've seen more meat on a dirty fork."

Coming to the end of an enormous effort--commuting to L.A. to finish the film while tracking Uncle Vanya's tour of Britain--Branagh catnaps on theater floors at odd times of day; he now looks rumpled, as if he might have been doing this just prior to my arrival. Under his direction Richard Briers--Britain's familiar television sitcom king--had produced, on the previous evening, the most explosively violent Vanya I have seen in five productions.

"I didn't want Renaissance to be the Kenneth Branagh Gets All the Big Parts Company," says Branagh. "It always makes me think of the conversation that goes, 'Isn't it great about Ian McKellen and the Actors' Company? This week he's playing Hamlet, and last week he was in something where he just played the footman.' 'What was the play called?' 'The Footman.'"

"But could you go back to being an actor now, without directing the thing too?"

He leans back and laughs. "Very, very easily. Utterly, simply...Why, do you have something you'd like me to do? I can job in and be a lovey any time you want."

A "lovey" is Branagh for actor. Just as the four-year-old Renaissance was becoming known for its popular and accessible approach to the classics, its artistic director mounted a campaign to stamp out the "darling Dickie" era of theatrical posturing. Adjusting classical performances in keeping with the realism and pace expected by movie and television audiences, he has punctured the incestuous, inflated tone of voice he calls "that arty-farty, rose-tinted, old stagy thing." He puts on a "lovey" voice. "Darling Jolly Jiggy came to see me in Worthing, came to stay...offered me a season...mahvellous."

"I crossed some kind of scary Rubicon on the read-through day of Henry," he says. "I stood up in front of a group of about fifty actors including Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, and Alec McCowan and launched into a preamble that said, Let's not be loveys, lardying away. I said, We're making a movie, we're not making a historical theatrical document. I used the words 'I don't want any acting.' What I meant was I didn't want curtain material. Which is costumes and a lot of this..." He draws himself up, sucks in his cheeks, puts one hand on his breast, and looks into the middle distance. Then in a precious, sonorous voice he intones, "Because when people stand like this, their arse gets a bit tighter, and suddenly the don't talk like human beings anymore, they start talking like someone from Playland."

His voice softens, and the rod goes out of his spine. "I said, Don't do that thing when you get a funny till in your voice that I don't believe. If you do that you'll look silly. You'll just look silly. Which was very cheeky coming from me. But I had nothing to lose. What were they going to do? Walk away?"

Even as a novice, Branagh would fight whenever his performance was threatened by mediocrity. He usually won his point. Making a film for an Australian director who prided himself on turning out the maximum number of pictures in the shortest possible time, he once protested. "Hold on, hold on, we've only done it once. I'd like another go."

"It's dialogue, Ken. We need to get on to the fucking action."

"The dialogue is interesting, you philistine git."


"OK, the fucking Queen of May gets another take."

Since those days his scorn has accumulated, and his scorn is beginning to be feared. In Beginning he castigates the powerful Trevor Nunn, joint artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, for his prolonged absences from the company. It may finally have reached Nunn's ears that members of the RSC, not unprompted by Branagh, who joined them for a year, had written to a popular British children's television program called Jim'll Fix It begging to be introduced to their director. In any event, Nunn put in a surprise appearance to inform his actors that, like Marin Luther King, he "had a dream," and that dream was to see all the RSC shows being performed at Stratford within a fortnight.

"I imagine that subsequently he woke up and found other things to do," says Branagh. "The next time I saw Trevor was twelve months later. Still dreaming, I presume."

When Trevor Nunn finally caught the penultimate performance of Henry V at the end of its second, Kenneth Branagh found himself enveloped backstage in Nunn's hairy embrace, and he describes the scene with relish in Beginning: "Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugely enjoyable......" (The body language was pure Uriah Heep) "...may I just say that it is my very great ambition to work...with you" (he started to move backwards) "...really..." (one hand out the door) "...and I really mean that...Byeeeee!!" The whole thing had taken a minute and a half.

Yes, I'd been "Trev'd."

Branagh does not hide his own light under a bushel, but he doesn't claim blanket success either. Triumphant as he has been, he admits his failures, notably in Hamlet. He returns again and again to the role that obsessed and baffled him and that he can hardly wait to try again. "Oddly enough, I have the whole play absolutely clear in my mind as a movie. But in the theater I tired to play Hamlet, and Hamlet played me, and finally it just defeated me." He puts both hands in the air and waves them above his head.

"I felt as though this whole theater were Hamlet and I were a Ping-Pong ball knocking about in one room. In order to play it I need--"reaching up, he grasps a water pipe near the ceiling with both hands and uses it to pull himself out of his chair--"that! I need an anchor. To stop it coming out whatever way it wants to. What happened is that I just became an enormous bundle of playing intentions."

Then, still holding onto the pipe, he looks down at his chair as if something nasty were emerging from underneath it.

"Oh, fuck! Oh, crikey! I've done that a bit too quick! What? Oh, God, I've got another big speech in a minute...What'm I...Now I've got to run round the back and...Whoops! The closet scene! You've got to scream at your mother for twenty minutes! And four hours later you get to the end and there's a sword fight! By that stage you're..." Kenneth Branagh is on his knees on the floor, offering me a dusty ruler.

"'Kill me! Kill me quick, Laertes!'"

He falls back into his chair. "Gielgud writes a wonderful essay about the process of playing Hamlet it in his book Early Stages, and it's like someone describing running the Grand National."

Branagh cannot resist performance. When not acting the whole of Hamlet in five minutes, he's telling stores or running through a quick characterization. Through the airport check-in, when asked if he packed his own case, he sometimes varies the script with "No, a terrorist packed it for me when he was slipping the bomb in." Choosing a shirt for a photo session, he demonstrates the pockets in in his new suitcase, and as he does so, by indefinable degrees he becomes a traveling salesman hawking ladies' underwear. "Sock jobbie, shoe thingy, what can I show you? A bit of a suit...Oh! Which I apparently chose not to put in at this special time. As it happens I have a slip of a blue cardy here...Christ, the digital lock's broken."

Branagh the actor is permanently on display, but I was able to watch Branagh the director that afternoon in Belfast, auditioning a nineteen-year-old actor who came dejectedly out of the shadows onto the stage of the Opera House, carrying a shopping bag.

After the first run-through Branagh was onstage in a flash, talking inaudibly to the boy and returning to the seats with a "Good! Very good! But physicalize it!"

The student again intoned from Richard III.

Branagh came right up to the end of the stage. "Less king," he said, strutting about with a hand on his hip. "More this." He did a pratfall, face down, on the edge of the stage.

Four or five tries later Branagh is bending over his pupil, who is now prone on the floor, insisting, "Roll over, be quite fetal about it. Let your voice come out of the solar plexus. Come on! He's so ashamed, he's in such a state."

"This is torture," groans the actor.

"Good," says Branagh, very calmly and pleasantly. "Try it again! Try not doing any of that" (flails arms) "or that" (rolling sailor's walk) "or that" (runs hand through hair). "Now. Stand up. Remember, you own this theater. You own Belfast."

Branagh is in a position to steer his career in any direction he chooses, but asked about his future, he evades the question.

"Too many people think I have some canny agenda. God knows there are enough films I'd like to make, God knows there are enough plays I'd like to do, but you get blocked through tiredness or this crazy schedule. No, I don't want any of those jobs that will give me an ulcer. I don't want to end up running the RSC."

Dead Again is an entertaining, if quirky, film, but it hardly scratches the surface of Branagh's talents. He has, today, just turned down another film script and has talked, not very convincingly, about basing Renaissance in Belfast. Do his ambitions lie in another direction? Would he accept the National Theatre should it be offered to him one day?

For the first time in two hours he looks put out, a little flustered. This is not a question he wants to answer now.

"Uh, ah, But you see, I would actually be able to deal with it if, as of next week, I had no work again. If I could still act, I'd be OK." He examines this in uncomfortable silence and says he is not sure what the next move will be. He says it twice. The title of his autobiography was taken, of course, from As You Like It:

I will tell you the beginning:
And, if it please your ladyships, you may see the end.
for the best is yet to do.

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