Not a Quiet Actor's Life For Kenneth Branagh

Taking a breather from big films, he directs a comedy close to his heart - about actors trying to do Shakespeare

The following is excerpted from a Monitor Radio interview by Sharon Basco that aired Feb. 9.

When Kenneth Branagh made the film version of ''Henry V,'' he was hailed as the next Orson Welles or Laurence Olivier. It was his first film, and it earned him an Oscar nomination and the New York Critics' Circle Best Director Award. More praise followed for the 1991 film noir ''Dead Again'' and for his lusty, all-star-cast version of ''Much Ado About Nothing'' in 1993.

''Much Ado'' was the third film Mr. Branagh made with his wife, actress Emma Thompson. Their highly publicized separation last autumn capped off what Branagh himself called ''an awful year'' - awful, too, because of the critical and box-office failure of ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' the $40-million film he had directed and co-starred in with Robert DeNiro.

After ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' Branagh left the high-budget film world, at least temporarily, and retreated to more familiar territory. He financed his own film, ''A Midwinter's Tale,'' about actors staging a threadbare production of ''Hamlet'' in a dilapidated village church.

Monitor Radio: Do you think Americans connect with a story about eccentric regional British actors?

Branagh: Well, I hope that the film will get across to people regardless. In the states, I've already come across a lot of people who have experiences of college productions. Somebody said to me, ''You were in Minnesota. You saw our production of 'Death of a Salesman.' This was it. This was our nightmare.'' And other people who know nothing about such things were just interested from the outside in, you know, the lives of actors from a reasonably authentic viewpoint. Having had some experience with this now, what's in the film is very personal and nothing is exaggerated, from the mad-audition sequences to the various nightmares associated with putting on a play with no money.

Seeing this film, it is frightening to think that it's close to reality.

Certainly I've had [crazy] women come in and tap dance Shakespeare at me because they felt that, in a couple of minutes, that would be the way to impress and get the job. Or people doing it with glove puppets or just being bad. And I've certainly been [on the other] side of the desk, being bad as well, with nerves getting the better of one.

The opening of your film is reminiscent of ''A Chorus Line'' with the actors introducing themselves.

I hadn't thought about that actually, but it's certainly influenced by a lot of backstage stories. I remember ''42nd Street'' and being struck and haunted by Warner Baxter yelling at Ruby Keele, ''You're going out there a kid. You're going to come back a star.'' It can change a life. And that sort of dream in actors, and I guess in people who watch actors, is ... that there'll be the [one] part or play that will transform things ... and give you a great career.

You use a song by Noel Coward.

Well, there's something old-fashioned about what the characters in the film want to do. They want to somehow be back in a world where actors weren't quite so ridiculed ... and where anything was possible. Where a happy ending is possible and where their natural disposition to be sentimental, which is very true of actors, can be indulged.

Why didn't you use ''Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage''?

At one point, I had about a dozen Noel Coward songs and you're right to pick up on it. All the characters in the film are named from Noel Coward songs. [The film] was going to be riddled with Noel Coward songs but in the end we stuck with one which seemed to be a kind of keynote: ''Why Must the Show Go On?''

Your hero ends up being so unrealistically heroic. Why doesn't he take that tacky three-film contract that he's offered and fly off to Hollywood?

Because every actor in that situation would, and every actor would wish in their dream that they didn't, that they were able to stay here, keep their souls pure and clean and not run away.

Stay poor.

Yeah, and stay poor. Stay happy maybe, you know. Given that even actors who aspire to all that, know that it doesn't necessarily contain the seeds of happiness. [The film's] being in black-and-white, and in the slightly fairy tale setting, led me to want a kind of happy ending that people could feel was a little bit cheesy, but it was what I fancied doing.

You haven't stayed poor. You haven't taken any tacky three-film Hollywood contracts either, but how happy do you stay being at the top?

Well, you said, ''stay poor.'' I said, ''stay happy.'' I've been in situations where I have had the luxury of using my own money in these situations. Large checks have been waved in my direction, and I occasionally have happily accepted them if I thought that they also were connected to good bits of work and where the money might finance something else.

Do you think there's a difference in the way Americans approach the filmmaking process and the way Brits do?

There's inevitably a cultural difference. Since the birth of cinema, for 100 years, people around the world have wanted to watch American movies more than they've wanted to watch movies from their own countries. So that means in our country often there's a chippy kind of resistance to being mainstream in what might be thought of as an American way, which means that at our worst we just do terrible kind of pale imitations of what we think might be a successful American movie.

That's where I notice a difference, but the theatrical tradition does have a big influence. It has a big influence on acting.... Sometimes, practically it helps us and sometimes it gets in the way of being very good at acting. We're not necessarily as free, we're more concerned about turning up on time, being civilized, being polite with people. Ain't necessarily the best way to get a good performance.

Britain has a history of patronage. Didn't you have some sort of support from the Prince of Wales?

The Prince of Wales, way back when I was playing Henry V in the theater, in the Royal Shakespeare Company and then later on, became patron of our theater company, which ran for about seven years, called the Renaissance Theatre Company.

He's very interested in the arts, he's been a good supporter to the company. You don't get many experiences where you're playing Shakespearean characters who are often kings and queens and princes - people who experience a kind of isolation that as an actor it's harder to have direct experience of - to meet someone like that.

It is interesting to see how people deal with [royalty], to have a sense of the inevitable melancholy that it produces - to be treated, however privileged they are, as a kind of creature from outer space. To see the loneliness that it involves, however many private planes you get on. There's no plane to take you away from yourself. In some strange way, I think that informed the playing of the role for me, and he was very open and honest about talking about it.

Where do you come down in the debate over violence in films?

To put it in highfalutin' terms - if it's good art, then it's good enough. Shakespeare wrote plays like ''Titus Andronicus'' where people had hands chopped off, tongues cut out, where people are baked in pies. They put eyes out in ''King Lear,'' so you know sex and violence have been part of everybodys' lives. If it's appropriate for the story, if it's presented with integrity, I think it's right. Maybe it's copping out to not worry about the social ramifications of that, but there seem to be about 19 different double standards that operate.

If it's good art, it's good.

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