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Kenneth Branagh takes on Hollywood

Kenneth Branagh takes on Hollywood — The director is making waves with the success of ”Dead Again”

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The short blond man with two shiny brown shoes is tired, and no wonder. Kenneth Branagh, the wunderBrit who directed, stars, and costars in Dead Again, the paranormal potboiler that breathed last-minute life into an otherwise disappointing late-summer moviescape, has just capped off more than a year of work on the film with a promotional campaign that had him zigzagging from London to Dallas, Chicago, Seattle, New York, and L.A. in the past few weeks. Now, back in his stripped-down office on the Paramount lot, Branagh’s baby blues are rimmed with pink and as lusterless as the faded couch across from them. But the 30-year-old actor-director can’t complain. Already an acclaimed Shakespearean — his 1989 film, Henry V, garnered him Oscar nominations for acting and directing — he is clearly making the most of his Hollywood success. ”In a big country like this, when people don’t know who you are,” says Branagh, wearing a slouchy Ralph Lauren Polo shirt and Hollywood regulation black jeans with his polished wing tips, ”you’ve got to go banging the drum a bit, like actors used to do in the village square.”

It’s not so much Branagh’s drum roll as his directing and acting that have made Dead Again an unexpected hit. The stylish mystery, written by Scott Frank, combines Hitchcock with Shirley MacLaine, black and white with color, and ’40s film noir with modern romance, but Branagh wasn’t first in line for the job. ”We offered the script to all the usual suspects,” says Bill Horberg, Paramount’s senior vice president for production. ”But the Larry Kasdans and Peter Weirs either weren’t interested or weren’t available.” Branagh was both — to the extreme. ”In our first meeting,” remembers coproducer Lindsay Doran, ”he said, ‘You have me at white-heat enthusiasm.”’ Not exactly a good bargaining stance — nor an easy sell for his backers. ”It was an uphill battle,” Horberg recalls, ”to convince some people at the studio that Mr. British Shakespeare Art Film was a good choice.”

The suits can relax. Aside from winning critical praise, Dead Again climbed to No. 1 at the box office, earning nearly $20 million (it cost about $15 million to make) in its first three weeks, which gives Mr. Art Film ”an overwhelming sense of relief. After 18 months of work,” Branagh says, ”you just want someone to like your film.”

The thriller, which elicits gasps, shudders, and screams from audiences without a single car chase or mutable cyborg, is driven by parallel love stories. Composer Roman Strauss (Branagh) and his wife, Margaret (Branagh’s real-life wife, Emma Thompson), led a charmed life until Margaret’s brutal stabbing — with a pair of elegant antique scissors — in 1949. Zip to the present. Detective Mike Church and a fetching amnesia victim he names Grace (Branagh and Thompson again) work with a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) to unravel Grace’s history.

With a cast that also included Andy Garcia, German actress Hanna Schygulla, Campbell Scott, and, in a surprise cameo, Robin Williams, Branagh had no shortage of talent at his disposal. But he himself has been the center of attention. He’s continually shadowed by the comparison to Orson Welles — another stage-trained Shakespearean who mastered the Hollywood idiom on his very first try — but Branagh expertly sidesteps the compliment. ”I’ve been the beneficiary of very good writing,” he says. ”I mean, Henry V has been around for 400 years.” As for Dead Again, he notes, ”the timing of the release (just as the summer movies were fading at the box office) was crucial. And the fact that Dead Again is so different has, I suspect, made the audience’s reaction disproportionate.”

There are conflicting opinions on whether such statements represent false or real modesty. The British press, which built Branagh up as the theater’s savior, has subsequently trashed him as an egomaniac, but others contest the charge. ”He originally wanted to have the opening credits read Dead Again: A Scott Frank Film,” reports producer Doran, ”but it was against union rules.” Says Frank, ”People call him this arrogant enfant terrible. He’s just not. He’s got a wonderful sense of humor about himself.” Branagh claims he’s unfazed by the criticism: ”You’re exposed and some people will like you and some people won’t. Once people meet me, they get disabused of the idea that I’ve got some ermine cloak on.”

Modest or not, Branagh likes to take charge. ”Ken is a true leader of folk,” says Emma Thompson. ”He loves holding the reins.” Branagh says he’s not as collected as he appears. ”People wish to see you cool when you’re directing,” he says. ”They need an anchor. The fact is, I’m just as frightened as anyone else.”

One of the studio’s fears with Dead Again was that audiences might see through the American accent Branagh developed for his detective role. Long before shooting began, he put his verbal disguise to the test by visiting a Hollywood book store. ”I was f—in’ terrified,” he recalls. ”I waited for someone to say (perfect John Wayne drawl), ‘Hey, you’re not an Amerricun. How dare you come here with your fancy British ways!’ But I got away with it — then went home and threw myself on the bed with the effort.”

Branagh and Thompson’s retreat during the 10-week shoot was a rented house in the Hollywood hills with a pool, a garden, and, he says, ”a great view of the city — if you could see through the smog.” He spent weekends learning his lines and brought home models of the set ”to practice my little shots.” While shooting Henry V, Branagh warmed up by directing a few scenes before he had to step before the camera. ”This time, right from the start, it was goatees and hair gel and playing the piano,” he says.

”His schedule was incredible,” says Patrick Doyle, a Scottish friend who composed the film’s music. ”He’d have a fitting, a dancing lesson, a voice lesson, and a piano lesson and then he’d direct.” Frank adds, ”Ken’s like a shark. If he’s not busy, he’ll die.”

Branagh got busy early. Born the son of a carpenter in Belfast in 1960, he and his family moved to Reading, England, when he was 9. There he had his first lesson in the uses of artifice, quickly learning to substitute the ”suburban twang” of his schoolmates for his unfashionable Irish brogue. At 16 he was plucked from the soccer team (he was captain) to act in a play, and when the drama teacher suggested he consider making acting a living, he gave up his planned career in journalism. While attending the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Branagh turned down a lucrative TV-movie offer in order to play Hamlet instead. After graduating, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, becoming the youngest member ever to play Henry V. To prepare for the role, he met with Prince Charles (who has since become a patron of Branagh’s 4-year-old acting troupe, the Renaissance Theatre Company). ”He’s a very witty bloke,” Branagh says. ”Talking to him genuinely affected the way I played Henry V.” By the age of 28, he had re-created that role in his acclaimed film version and, wasting no time, written his autobiography, Beginning.

During this whirlwind of professional activity, Branagh also managed to squeeze in a personal life: Five years ago, while shooting Fortunes of War, a BBC miniseries that later aired on Masterpiece Theatre, he met Thompson. They’ve collaborated ever since: He made guest appearances on her popular British TV comedy show Thompson; she played Princess Katharine in his Henry V. ”Emma is a uniquely gifted actress whom I admire, but we don’t make a point of working together,” says Branagh. ”And if it ever, ever, ever got problematic, I wouldn’t even dream of it.” Still, there are advantages. ”If we didn’t work together,” says Thompson, ”we’d never see each other.”

Branagh has no shortage of future plans: He’d love to play Iago to Gérard Depardieu’s Othello, and says he’d jump at the chance to be directed by Coppola, Allen, or Scorsese. But in the meantime, ”I’d like to eat, drink, and be merry,” he says. ”And maybe watch a few movies.” So before he plunges into his next project, Branagh plans another career breakthrough: a vacation.