Kenneth Branagh interview

James Mottram 30 November -0001

The talented actor and director has one of the most diverse portfolios in the game. He talks to us about his secretive new film, meeting the president and why cinema is bringing us back together

“It’s always fun when you walk past a set and there is a big troll catapult outside!” laughs Kenneth Branagh, gesturing towards the window. “It never gets old.” It’s a statement that might cause befuddlement were it not for the fact that I’m standing in an exquisitely designed mansion for Branagh’s latest film, Artemis Fowl. A brightly-hued fantasy adventure backed by Disney, it’s adapted from Eoin Colfer’s beloved novel series, which has sold 25 million copies in 44 languages.

Currently, we’re in the upstairs library of Fowl Manor, all built at Surrey’s Longcross Studios. There are leather-bound books as far as the eye can see, including, on the table next to us, a copy of Doris Lessing’s Under My Skin. But it’s Colfer’s work that’s occupying Branagh right now. “It felt very original,” he says. “I loved its Irish-ness, coming from the north part of that country. And the collision sometimes, and the proximity of worlds. Very different worlds. I like that creatively. It always feels like it’s a good place to be.”

His 17th (!) film as director, it’s allowed Branagh to reunite with old friends—including Dame Judi Dench, who plays Commander Root, a sort of fairy police overlord (originally male in the books).

“I dote on him,” says Dench, who has worked with Branagh around a dozen times—even directing him on stage in Much Ado About Nothing back in the Eighties. “He behaved so badly,” she chuckles, recalling when he mischievously muttered, “Oh God!” every time another actor burst into song. “I was furious with him! But it made me laugh so much.”

 

Dressed in jeans, a navy shirt and black puffer jacket, Branagh is eloquent and erudite in person, but also warm and welcoming. To some, he is the modern Sir Laurence Olivier—the actor who has done more than anyone else of his generation to bring Shakespeare to the masses. But to younger viewers, Branagh represents something else. He directed Marvel movie Thor, made a beautiful version of Cinderella, and even starred in the second Harry Potter film, The Chamber of Secrets, as the vain teacher, Gilderoy Lockhart.

Although his experience of the “untouchable Potter” spanned just in one film, it wasn’t lost on him.

“Once you’ve been in a Harry Potter film, there’s suddenly this vast audience that you’ve never had before,” he says. “I was at Grand Central Station in New York, just having a hamburger, and this little lad from the deep south of America almost fell over and came up to ask me for my autograph. You find that happens all over the place—it just reminds you how extraordinary the impact of [Potter] is.”

There is obviously hope that Branagh, who turns 60 in December—though his sandy hair and blue eyes make that hard to believe—will do the same with Artemis Fowl. Set in a world of fairies and magic, he calls it “a bit more Celtic” than Harry Potter, and one of the real joys has been the chance to film in Portrush, in his native Northern Ireland.

“I always think when I fly there—there is a green unlike any other. That Irish green sounds like a sentimental thing to say but that’s how I feel about it.”

Born in Belfast, the middle of three boys, Branagh grew up in the Tigers Bay area of the city.

“I was a pretty boysy-boy in terms of the things I liked,” he remembers. “I liked playing football. I had an Action Man! With various uniforms and stuff!” Theirs was not a household full of books, but Branagh’s origins as a storyteller were cemented early on. “I was Irish—I grew up in a big family and people are always full of stories, very elaborate stories, and I was aware of that.”

When he was nine, Branagh’s family moved to Reading, where he spent his teenage years before applying—after poor A-level results—to the prestigious drama school, RADA. But what did his parents think of his move into acting?

“They were very, very surprised, and very nervous,” he says. “My father was a joiner…brilliant with his hands. I haven’t inherited any of his practical skills, but he was really a master craftsman. So a natural thing would’ve been for me to do something like that—to go and be an apprentice and you’d have a very clear career path.”

Instead, Branagh learned his chosen trade on sets and stages. During his first summer break at RADA, he landed some extras’ work at Eton College on British classic film Chariots of Fire. Paid £10 a day—“very welcome cash”—he remembers when it announced that one lucky extra would say a line. “I swear to God, I thought I was going to die—the trampling was so instant! It was a metaphor for life in show business—the buffalo hunt to get down there and say, ‘Hello Abrahams, you’ve got rockets on your feet!’ was overwhelming.”

He didn’t get any dialogue that day but it scarcely mattered. By 1984, Branagh was fronting a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s Henry V—a play he would indelibly bring to the big screen five years later in a blood-and-thunder directorial debut that saw him nominated for two Oscars. Remarkably, he had yet to turn 30. Together with his then-wife Emma Thompson—whom he also directed in Dead Again and Peter’s Friends—he spearheaded an emerging new generation of British talent.

Branagh’s successes were crystallised when he went to Washington DC with his 1996 film, Hamlet, where one of its stars—the iconic Jack Lemmon—was being honoured. Branagh took his parents along on the trip, which included a visit to the White House.

“We met the Clintons. We waited in line… and President Clinton said, ‘Ah, Mr Branagh, big fan of your work!’ And my parents, I thought they were going to pass out—so proud! My mother’s understated phrase was, ‘My God, son, you’ve come a long way from York Street!’ ”

As treasured as you’d think Branagh should be, it hasn’t always been easy for him. He faced intense media scrutiny during his time with Thompson, while critics were vitriolic over his 1994 film, Frankenstein.

“Nobody died,” he shrugs. “But it was personally very wounding.”

As the 2000s arrived, Branagh found renewed vigour as an actor— notably in TV dramas Shackleton (where he also met his now-wife, art director, Lindsay Brunnock) and the BAFTA-winning Wallander. On film, he played his hero Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, earning him a fifth Oscar nod.

When we catch up, Branagh— like everyone else—is in lockdown, which means speaking via Zoom. Once again, he’s in a well-stocked library—this time his own. And with cinemas shut, Artemis Fowl is now debuting on new streaming service Disney+. Branagh, meanwhile, has been finishing his next film as director, Death on the Nile, his second Agatha Christie adaptation since 2017’s hit take on Murder on the Orient Express, in which he reprises her mustachioed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

Calling the era of COVID-19 “a time when so many people are continuing to have significant challenges”, Branagh has been struck by the changes the pandemic has brought, wreaking havoc on the arts and entertainment industries in particular.

“We obviously know about lots of individual tragedies, but in general the shake-up to our social patterns and our way of life has been really significant,” he nods. “Cinema represents the communal extreme of that opposite—of suddenly being together again to watch something.”

It’s why he’s holding out hope for his new film, Tenet, a hush-hush blockbuster from Christopher Nolan, with whom Branagh previously worked on the Second World War film, Dunkirk. An espionage thriller with a time-travel twist, Tenet is about as top secret as they come. Branagh isn’t even allowed to talk about his character—a sharply-dressed Russian national. Is he the baddie?

“I think you’ll just have to judge for yourself when you see the film,” he grins, enjoying the cat-and-mouse of it all.

One thing that’s become clear is that Tenet might be the film that saves Hollywood; while all other blockbusters postponed their releases, Nolan’s film has held onto its mid-July slot in the hope cinemas will reopen.

“If ever there was a film that was part of that opening vanguard of movies… I think this certainly deserves its place,” says Branagh.

Filled with lots of jaw-dropping action, he calls it “a very powerful statement about what can be marvellous about movies”.

No amount of cajoling will get him to spill any secrets about the film, but he can reveal he was on location in Amalfi on the Italian coast.

“The greatest experience of going to work was getting in a boat and crossing the bay from Amalfi and looking up on the cliff to the house that Gore Vidal lived in, in Ravello, just as the dawn was rising,” he smiles. Acknowledging the power of both the arts and the artist… there’s something about this that simply sums up Kenneth Branagh. 

Artemis Fowl is available on Disney+. Tenet will open in cinemas on July 17


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