It is a hot, rather drizzly evening in London. And not much more than four years after we first agreed to do this interview, Kenneth Branagh and I finally sit down and talk together. It never seemed like it was going to take that long. At first when the interview date kept on stalling, I just thought he was busy. Branagh’s always busy. That’s what Branagh does. He stays busy. He puts Shakespeare on screen – four so far: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and Love’s Labours Lost. And he does pretty much everything on set bar making the tea and painting the scenery.
He stars, he directs, he writes the screenplays. And in between he appears on telly and stage or writes his autobiography, the breathless pace of which just makes you want to lie down for a while. He’s got artistic ants in his pants. In one year, 1992, he delivered a screenplay on New Year’s Eve – Peter’s Friends, which only a very small group of us actually like – and the film was in the can by March 24th. By September that year he had directed and starred in Much Ado About Nothing. By December he’d made a short film with John Gielgud called Swan Song, which got an Oscar nomination. Oh and by the way, before Christmas he’d played Coriolanus at the RSC. So I just thought he was busy. And clearly in need of some kind of therapy to work out why he so obsessively filled his days like that. How useful to the world does a Protestant boy from Ulster have to be?
Then I thought he was getting difficult. A bit starry. Too important to be interviewed. Because after seeing him last year in dazzling form as Richard III at The Crucible in Sheffield directed by Michael Grandage, it seemed, with him back on stage after ten years and clutching rave reviews, the perfect time to do an interview.
But no. It was on, but then it was off. He was still busy. Or something. First, with half the rest of UK thespiana, he had to go and do his bit for the export trade, as Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film, which turned out to be a bit of a comedic triumph as he created a witty combination of smarmy cowardice and greasy opportunism. He was also just back from a snow bound stint on a telly miniseries, playing Ernest Shackleton of The South Pole. So maybe he was just exhausted. Or cold. And I assumed that he was being precious. He just couldn’t find the time to slip off the smoking jacket and raise himself from his actor’s couch long enough for a chat. You see, if you read the wrong papers and take Branagh’s public image at face value, it’s very easy to lapse into those shallow cliché’s about him being the smug, theatrical, marrying-Emma-Thompson-at-Cliveden-and-getting-just-a-little-above-himself kind of person beloved of the mid market tabloids. It’s far too easy.
Until you meet him. Or talk to his friends about him. Or interrogate people who have worked with him. Then you realise fairly quickly that, as his great friend and the bluff-talking producer on Henry V Stephen Evans, says, “Oddly he’s not a natural extrovert at all. He really has to push himself to do all that stuff. None of what he has done is his natural habitat.”
It turns out that Branagh just doesn’t really like doing interviews at all. I think they faintly embarrass him. He’s torn between the expectation that he’s supposed to put on a performance, which he certainly can, and what he’d rather do which is talk about his work as openly as possible, which the press seems less interested in. So he puts them off because he’s not so sure about his relationship with them. But in the end he kept his word. And here we are.
Trying to make sense of Branagh is clouded by so much of the drivel that has been written about him. If you read the press cuttings here are some things you would think you know in descending order of truthfulness: he once asked Prince Charles for advice when he was the youngest ever Henry V at Stratford; he married Emma Thompson pretty much for publicity; that overlapped for a short while with going out seriously with Helena Bonham-Carter; he falls in love with all his leading ladies; the fact that his Frankenstein film flopped so badly at the box office means he’ll never work in Hollywood again; he thinks the world of himself; his whole life is a constant fur-lined Jacuzzi of celebrity. And yah boo sucks, he’s not a very good actor anyway.
Here are things that you may not know about Branagh. He’s quite shy, he meditates with a Buddhist mantra, he has a terrier mutt called Susie, he’s extremely funny; he plays the piano and the guitar very badly; he just got married to a production designer called Lindsey which was a hell of a shock to all his friends because she’d split up with him in December; the new director of the National Theatre describes him as “an actor of fantastic size and passion”; he’s got four Oscar nominations and he won an Emmy in 2001 for playing Richard Heydrich the Nazi General who pushed through the organisation of the Final Solution; and one of his more “florid” friends describes him as a man who “needs to walk the dark valleys himself in his own head”.
On the drizzly London evening, he’s actually very chatty and not walking those valleys at all. His face looks contentedly chubby and he seems happy and relaxed. Two things are pleasing him. The marriage, about which we are not supposed to talk, but of course we do, and the fact that he’s about to start rehearsals at the National Theatre for a play called Edmond, by David Mamet. It is not for the feint hearted. First produced over twenty years ago, it shows in eighty minutes and twenty three staccato scenes, an undistinguished, invisible, grey man who leaves his wife and explodes into a crazed binge of racism, homophobia and eventually a single vicious murder, all in some kind of attempt to make a primal connection with his identity and his manhood. He ends up in prison, where he is raped. The final scene after that should remain for you to discover and not be revealed here.
“I find it very thought provoking. It’s provocative and cautionary”, says Branagh revving up, “I found it very shocking to read. Yet, as Mamet says, there is a strange kind of hope, although it is won at a terrible price which Mamet doesn’t encourage anyone else to pay.” And then he heads off into the kind of gentle rhetorical swoop describing a character he is about to play, which has marked him out among actors as super-articulate. Which he is when talking about “the work”.
“This man has an awareness of his inability to have adventure. He attempts to turn over the grey man but he discovers in this case a racist and a homophobe… and neither of those things are him either…. though the transient attractions of their intoxicating power soon reveal themselves to be the source of hateful chimeras that Mamet perfectly explains.” Wow. Although it doesn’t sound as flashy when he says it. It is a curious fact about Branagh that talking to him is a far more intimate, jocular and easy going affair than it looks in print, where he can seem over wordy and, in the eyes of those who want to dislike him, probably pompous. His voice is a lot quieter and more amused than the words make it seem.
To his very core Branagh is an actor. It’s absolutely what drives his enthusiasm about life. He is steeped in it. He became completely enlivened, not talking about himself, but about John Gielgud, the only person he’s ever worked with who simply rendered him speechless with admiration. He also does a great impression of him. When Branagh talks about the theatre or the characters he’s played, his words flow in way they simply don’t when you ask him about his emotions or how he feels.
When we talk about the part of Shackleton, who he played in a miniseries in 2002, he is unfaltering and also rather revealing about the boyish enthusiasms and passions that still motivate him. “Shackleton is the kind of creature that fascinates me. I like explorers, that kind of peculiarly British strain of adventurers, those classical soldier poets – like Mallory – who can write like an angel, who can talk unpretentiously with real knowledge from a very physical man, but with great sensitivity, about a mountain and how it can be experienced like a symphony. They have a combination of massive sensitivity and imagination with tremendous physical prowess. It’s a fine combination to have. There’s a distinction made these days between those who are softy and fuzzy and those masculine climb-up-mountain types. But scratch an explorer and you’ll find a poet. The evocation of the artistic imagination in response to physical feats I find very interesting.”
But ask him about how he’s changing now he’s over forty – 42 in fact on his last birthday in December – and he finds a different rhythm. Is he more able to make commitments now he’s older? There’s a pause. “It’s impossible for me to answer …… getting married …. that’s as big a commitment you can make…… so I am very happy to have done that”. It was quite a surprise to your friends. “Life is full of good surprises.” What suddenly made you do it? “I couldn’t possibly answer that, Simon”. Yes you could. Another pause. Sweetly, “I love my wife”. Would you have made the same kind of commitment ten years ago? “For reasons… I couldn’t …in the end……ever… you don’t get married unless you love someone and you respond to that, you act on that” . Longish pause. And then he laughs, his face opening up into a delightful, creasy smile. “One of the reasons I find my self continually kind of pausing is not thinking how shall I answer this, but thinking, do you know I don’t know…. I don’t know Simon….. I don’t know….. I don’t know….. and I think I think about it less…. and a journey in my life now is to be less analytical, less, for me, analytical and more, helpfully for me, you know, following one’s instinct…. and in this case my heart …… and feeling happy to do so……privileged to do so… and being aware that there’s something more powerful at work than my ability to understand it intellectually…… “
All of which makes sense, but you want to reach for the verbal senacot and a few full stops. This is clearly why he doesn’t like interviews. He finds it difficult probably because, as he says, he feels some obligation to tell the truth.
He was born into a working class Northern Irish protestant family. Although he has only one older brother and one younger sister, theirs was a very large extended family. “Belfast”, as he said in his autobiography “seemed to be all about visiting your relatives. As well as my daily visits; the family went to see my grandparents at least twice a week. And as my folks seemed to be related to one half of Belfast and have been at school with the other half, visiting time was hectic.” It’s not too great a stretch of the imagination to see how he replicated this in his working methods, choosing to collaborate with the same people time and time again, like Patrick Doyle, the composer, the designer Tim Harvey and a series of well known British actors like Richard Briers and Judi Dench who featured large in his Renaissance Theatre company.
His family left Northern Ireland and moved to Reading when he was nine, partly because the riots were starting in Belfast and his parents wanted a safer environment for their children, and also because there was work in England for his father, who was a joiner. It was a wrench. Branagh was enormously conscious of his Irish accent and swiftly “became English at school while remaining Irish at home”. “It was”, he says now “ a dreadfully uneasy compromise about which I suffered inordinate guilt.” But it made him a great mimic.
It also set him apart at school. It wasn’t an easy time to be Irish. He was bullied, which he says affected him badly. He began to truant and he once even partly threw himself downstairs in an inept attempt to acquire a protective limp. He eventually found a survival strategy through sport. He was by his own account “a plodding workhorse” at rugby and football rather than possessed of any real sporting skill, but it eventually lead to him being cast in the school production of “Oh What A Lovely War” when the drama teacher turned in desperation to the football team to fill the gaps in his undercast show.
Branagh was completely stage struck. And his parents were quietly appalled. Firstly it meant paying for him for an extra two years through A Levels if he wanted to go to RADA. And also it meant that he was probably gay. Branagh says that they still worry about him, “but probably no more than they do about their other two kids. Although I think they do worry about the public nature of this business and how that affects me”. But his mother did say to him the other day, and he says, “it sounds sort of arrogant to repeat it, but it is funny. She said to me in a very worried way,” – he adopts her flat, working class Ulster accent, which in its own way is very comic – “ ‘Sometimes I think you might be a genius. And genius is very close to madness’. I said ‘don’t worry mum .. I really don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about on that score’ I mean.. If only that were the case”.
As he rattled through his twenties and thirties, barely pausing, according to Stephen Evans, “the early years of pushing himself and forcing his head above the parapet took its toll. The marriage went wrong and, despite it being his fault, he found it very tough. And he’s had that depression which he has always had to tackle”.
“I would call it Celtic melancholy”, Branagh says and, without over-egging the pudding, it doesn’t seem so much of a co-incidence that he spent much of his early acting life being, as he puts it, “professionally involved with Hamlet.” “Hamlet is obviously that sort of creature that is interested in the fundamental questions. Literature and drama are my way of discussing why are we here? what are we doing?, what is it all about? And what does it mean? stuff. It is a quite a powerful impetus with me to forage for information concerning all that.”
Consequently he reads a great deal. He’s a lot more solitary than you’d expect. And the melancholy he says “is linked to that same interest in what it takes to be happy and how necessary it is to refine and repeat that search because human beings are so incapable of retaining whatever it might be that allows them to appreciate everything that is there for them in life, whether it be their loved ones or a great spring morning or whatever does it for them.” He starts to laugh. Why? “I am just laughing at my own inability to retain the sense of what makes me happy.”
He talks a lot about happiness. What makes him happy is now, he says, what guides his work. “I have been a lot less of a strategist career-wise than people think. Recently I simply listen to my first reaction to those things that come my way. If my instinct is strong then I do it.” This is obviously paying dividends. There is a sense that the manic energy of the earlier years has slowed down. The time of Renaissance Theatre he describes as “having an absolute clarity about what made one happy. There was a terrific enthusiasm for what we were doing and doing Shakespeare was as about as exciting as it could get.” He was driven, according to Patrick Doyle, a fellow Celt, “by guilt – it’s a Celtic cross we all bear. It’s the Northern Ireland work ethic. If you’re not working you’re wasting time.” Now Branagh talks differently about what he is doing. He says “there’s a level of fascination in playing the kind of characters that I have for the last couple of years that goes way beyond playing the role – a chance to immerse oneself in different kind s of ideas and times in history and kinds of writing.”
“Yes there used to be a lot of guilt”, he says, “you know that one has health, that one has privilege.” He talk about himself as “one” rather a lot, which is annoying, but it’s difficult to work out whether he’s being regal or shy. Fairly quickly I realise it’s shy. “If you mean was I driven by an obligation to my talent, I feel that far less strongly than I did. No I tell a lie. I do feel it strongly, but I feel there are different ways for it to be exercised and that doesn’t always include relentless activity. It’s far easier to rest the body than the mind. I have a racing mind, an over analytical racing into the future kind of mind. So it’s fantastically helpful to meditate. I started a couple of year ago through a friend who’s in a little group.”
The turning point seems to have been the film of Love’s Labours Lost in which he paired Cole Porter’s songs with Shakespeare’s words and choreography that one critic said Branagh “danced like a builder”. It was a critical and financial flop. He got pasted and according to a well-placed studio source it cost $17.4million and took only $3.3m at the box office. Branagh’s next job was just as an actor. It paid off. And he was lavished with praise for playing a curmudgeonly playwright in the indy comedy “How To Kill Your Neighbour’s Dog”. Then, on his way to Australia to play the pivotal role of the Chief Protector of the Aborigines in the harrowing Rabbit Proof Fence, he agreed to play Heydrich in Conspiracy, which won him the Emmy. The he directed the “Morceambe & Wise show” Play What I Wrote in London and there was Shackleton. Once again he has been thriving critically and artistically. And alongside this acting he has been developing “rather more seriously than I have before” two British scripts, working as director with the writers. He has also just signed off to direct and produce but not appear in yet another Shakespeare on film, As You Like It.
His friend John Sessions says, “Kenny hasn’t found his golf yet”. He’s not a relaxer. Although he has picked up again on music. “I can’t play the guitar any better than I could when I was sixteen”, he says, “and on the piano I can play three finger chords in the major keys, but I can’t really move my left hand much. So it’s fantastically limited. But I must say I get endless, enormous pleasure into the wee small hours from playing.” Reading too plays a bigger and bigger part in his life. As he says “The pleasure in good writing just wrings all my bells”.
It’s a revealing meeting with the wunderkind because it’s enjoyable for reasons that were entirely unexpected. His wild wit – Patrick Doyle and Stephen Fry have both unprompted described him as the funniest man that they know – and his driven ambition were on my list as predictables, but “his big Celtic heart”, as he calls it at one point, wasn’t. And how hard he works to hide it, wasn’t either. Although he resists the idea that he’s not emotional. “What does one mean by that. Does expressing oneself emotionally have to fall into a number of categories? I am not trying to be contrary about this but …. so my very answer may be revealing anyway .. .. but is it the number of hugs, the amount you say ‘I love you’ to people, the ability to cry swiftly? I suppose on the whole..” and here he’s back in stumbling mode, “I kind of.. er, there’s some bit of me who sort of reckons that your tears kind of ought to be for yourself. My father’s an interesting example because he’s the most emotional and yet reserved man. I think I grew up in a culture that was faintly embarrassed for that to occur”.
His recent work has been loaded with a quiet power, when he wasn’t larking with Harry Potter. And as he reveals more and more of himself on stage and screen he seems to be moving into the most artistically interesting time in his career. The Mamet play is certainly what he calls ‘an x-ray role’. And marriage won’t be any less exposing. Almost his parting words were “These feel like exciting dangerous times.” And as Mamet says in Edmond “every fear hides a wish”.