For a certain generation of film lover, Kenneth Branagh's flawless rendering of HENRY V (which he directed and starred in) was our introduction to Shakespeare on film, and perhaps Shakespeare in any form. His adaptations were joyful, easy to follow, and well worth celebrating. Over the years, he has given us interpretations of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST, AS YOU LIKE IT, and his crowning achievement, the four-hour HAMLET.
Although Branagh often cites Derek Jacobi as his reason for getting into acting in the first place, much of what he's accomplished as an actor and director owes a significant gratitude to Sir Laurence Olivier, who remains the British acting realm's greatest star.
Over more than 20 years as a film actor--and even more as a television and stage fixture--Branagh has given us memorable roles in such films as DEAD AGAIN, PETER'S FRIENDS, FRANKENSTEIN, OTHELLO (in which he played Iago opposite Laurence Fishburne), THE GINGERBREAD MAN (directed by Robert Altman), CELEBRITY (directed by Woody Allen), WILD WILD WEST, the TV movies CONSPIRACY, SHACKLETON, and WARM SPRINGS, RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (directed by Phillip Noyce), HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OFSECRETS, VALKYRIE (directed by Bryan Singer), and PIRATE RADIO (directed by Richard Curtis).
In 2011, Branagh engaged in two quite memorable endeavors. First he directed the summer season's first Marvel superhero entry THOR, starring his friend (and Olivier protégé) Anthony Hopkins. Many believed Branagh was the perfect choice to direct THOR's slightly elevated (some might say Shakespearean) speak and story. Although this may be common knowledge, he does confirm in our interview that he directed the IRON MAN 2 tag involving the discovery of Thor's hammer in the New Mexico desert, just as Joss Whedon directed the Loki-reveal tag in THOR.
Branagh's second, and perhaps most impressive, achievement was co-starring opposite Michelle Williams' Marilyn Monroe as his hero Sir Laurence Olivier in the retelling of the tumultuous THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL production in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. And to absolutely no one's surprise, Branagh was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, marking his fifth nomination (including two for HENRY V--acting and directing; one for his marvelous 1992 short film SWAN SONG, starring John Gielgud; and one for adapting HAMLET).
I was lucky enough to catch up with Branagh just a couple of days ago, so he was still in he whirlwind of pre-Oscar festivities as well as a battery of other awards ceremonies he's been attending since the beginning of the year. We talked about the controlled chaos of awards season, his history with Olivier as an inspiration (the two never met), whether or not he's curious to see THE AVENGERS, and working on MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, which is released on DVD on March 13. Considering how busy he's been of late, I was surprised he was able to give me a full half hour of his time, but I somehow struggled through the interview with one of the most articulate and enjoyable human beings I've ever conversed with. Please enjoy my conversation with Kenneth Branagh…
Kenneth Branagh: Hi, Steve.
Capone: Hello, sir. How are you?
KB: I’m very well, how about yourself?
Capone: Good. Where are you right now? I’m going to guess you’re in Los Angeles somewhere?
KB: I am. I’m in Santa Monica enjoying the sunshine.
Capone: Have they even let you leave the state of California in the last few weeks?
KB: Yes, I have. I mean I’ve been backwards and forwards a bit to the UK, and they’ve been remarkably good about letting me just get on with my life [laughs], but there have been some wonderful moments. I particularly enjoyed, and I came in just for that weekend, to be at the nominee’s luncheon, the Academy Awards Nominees luncheon, which was such a sort of friendly and tensionless affair. There was a sense of what I imagine--not being through the school system here--the feel of a kind of high school graduation is like. It was great to see unalloyed and childlike enthusiasm from Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Spielberg down to first-time filmmakers who were going through it all at the beginning of their careers.
Also there was a lovely moment when they were doing the the Class of 2012 photo where just because of the sort of alphabetical nature of it, Max Von Sydow ended up being on the bottom level like King Max, and everybody who was then called down from the bleachers to go and get their certificate, like a school ceremony, went past and kind of kissed the ring of the great man. It was really a beautiful thing to see, so many just say “Thank you very much, sir.” This included Spielberg and Scorsese and everybody else. That was nice, and I loved the atmosphere of that day. It was really celebratory, and everybody was sort of so generous and not worried about all of the stuff that comes with that kind of “Is somebody going to win” kind of night.
Capone: I was actually just looking at that photo blown up last night like blew, and just went through person by person to see who I could recognize there. It’s a great photo.
KB: That’s going up in the loo at our house I can tell you, the Class of 2012. I'd never been able to go to that function before, because I had always been working when I had the luck to be nominated previously, and so it was a real personal kind of highlight for me of this period.
Capone: Yeah. If that was a highlight for you, have there been more ridiculous moments of the last few weeks connected with getting this nomination?
KB: [laughs] I don’t know about ridiculous, but I might call it sort of “beautifully absurd” at times. Just the sort of focus on it and the intensity is something other people who’ve even down this road many times have commented to me about, just that there are a vastly increased number of events. I suppose one beautifully absurd moment is being measured once again for another suit. I’m not saying dozens, but a few. I’ve been measured for more clothes during this period of my life than in the entire previous 50 years. I am a man who is wearing the same clothes repeatedly, and I am nothing compard to the challenge of the girls at this time. There are so many other kind of industries connected to this. The fashion industry has an enormously key connection to this time of year. So I’m passing clothes on now. I’m actually re-gifting and recycling wherever I can. This is not something that I expected to be doing, but it’s because the intensity and the number of events and shenanigans has increased exponentially.
Capone: In the years when you have been nominated, do you make a point to watch not just your fellow nominees, but all of the nominees?
KB: I try to as a matter of course. At this end of the year I would anyway. I’m a member of the Academy and so I have a chance to go and see screenings all the way through. The whole season is really from October onwards loaded with Academy screenings by distributors are being organized. I try and see as much on the big screen as I possibly can and I would do it as a matter of course because there’s the concentration of a lot of interesting work at this end of the year. But I’m a cinema guy anyways. It’s a very enjoyable pastime for me and never feels like a busman’s holiday. I like going to pictures and the end of the year I like to see what’s around and what people are going to see and what’s catching the eye, and so it’s something I would do anyway.
Capone: What caught your eye? What surprised you out of last year’s crop?
KB: I particularly was captivated by MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. I thought that that had great delicacy and beauty to it. I was surprised and diverted. I thought Owen Wilson’s performance was really beautiful, and a kind of simple, beautiful idea worked out with great skill. It played to every one of Woody Allen’s strengths and it seemed like a sort of refinement, a sort of essence of work that he does. I thought it was absolutely ravishing and enchanting and funny, and so I was particularly struck with that.
Capone: I could not agree more. Alright, we're actually here to talk about your movie, although I’m almost hesitant, because I’m sure you’ve dissected every aspect of playing Laurence Olivier that you possibly can. [Branagh laughs] Was there ever any hesitation on your part to play this character? I know in the earlier part of your film career people drew very heavy comparisons between what you were doing and what Olivier did with his Shakespeare work especially, and now this idea of embracing him fully seems like it runs counter to maybe some of the comparisons that you might not have wanted early on.
KB: There was hesitation, for those reasons and for the fact that the comparisons were almost always unflattering, you know, and it was a measure of his dominance, his preeminence as an actor, as a director. So the idea of placing oneself in that kind of firing line again just seemed something that would be nice to avoid, and then this particular screenplay arrived and confounded that idea, because it showed him and her in a snapshot from the life, but with enough to indicate more than idolatry. They weren’t trying to idealize them, quite the opposite. In this particular episode in Olivier’s life, it was a chance to see him warts and all.
One of the things that his own writings reveal is great candor about this time. He didn’t feel that he handled the Marilyn situation well. He did go into it feeling that he might be becoming old fashioned and that she could renew him. He was infuriated by her and sort of emasculated by her and he found this very throwing. It was a very traumatic episode in his life, but at various times it seemed to bring out both the best and the worst in him. So that this portrait of Olivier seemed to me, even though it was a snapshot in time, was actually very interesting about a global look at his character, which to me was authenticated by what Olivier himself wrote about this time. So for me, it had the ring of a certain kind of truth that broke through all of my sort of petty concerns. It’s at the end, do you think it’s good work and if you do, you’re lucky enough to be asked. Then say yes.
Capone: You mentioned this is a snapshot in time, and this an interesting time, not just in film in England, but you were on the brink in the late '50s of this cultural shift. THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL might not have gone over quite as well two or three years after it was made. Was that something that you were drawn to?
KB: Simon Curtis, our director, was very clear that this key moment in 1956 was a watershed moment, after which things really weren’t the same again. Rock n’ roll arrived that year literally into the UK, Bill Hailey and The Comets arrived. And if you like sex, it arrived in the shape of Marilyn. Sex in the movies arrived with her and with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean. Socially, times were changing. People were literally wearing different clothes and literally wearing longer hair, Teddy Boys, rock n’ roll, plays like LOOK BACK IN ANGER were using swear words and talking about abortion and generally being revolutionary, and there were revolutions happening in that year as well in Hungary, with the Hungarian uprising.
The sense of the world was in a torment, and the world of refrigerators and televisions and the great American dream was coming to us, and we wanted some of that to, please, and were shaking out of our old empire traditionalists, you might say fuddy-duddy way of being in the world and looking at the world. I think in this very light way, a film like this and Simon’s take on it offers this little abstract kind of vision of it--Marilyn Monroe representing all of that new-world Americana sex, freedom, optimism, and Olivier representing tradition with stuffiness, unwillingness to change, empire, the history of Europe, etc
And although that slightly over weights what the film is trying to do, there’s no question that Simon’s take on it activates one’s sense of that time in the world being a very volatile one, and actually what I felt when I watched the film for the first time was that Simon had given this sense of an elegy for a lost time, a lot time of innocence if you like where fairy tales might have been possible, but we could see that the world to come would not allow for the kind of fairy tale of a celebrity like Marilyn to kind of have happiness without paying a price.
Capone: That almost makes the film that they were making ironic, because it is essentially a fairy tale being told amongst this tumultuous production.
KB: Yes, that’s right and in a way it feels as though, I think, the original film now does creek a little bit. I think the chief virtue of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, apart from the sort of effervescence of Marilyn Monroe and seeing Olivier being alternately brilliant and then a bit of a "stiff shirt" as the The New York Times called him at the time, but he directed it with, I think, a sense of melancholy. The tune, the lovely tune that becomes the song that Elsie sings in it that we see Michelle as Monroe do a little dance to in the film, is a very haunting melancholy aire. And it feels as though there’s something of Olivier’s own sense of some of this that actually beyond what he may have consciously been doing, directing a film of a successfully stage production of a liked comedy in a sort of Ruritanian atmosphere, he carries a sadder, more wistful, almost tragic kind of quality to it. THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL now doesn’t really succeed as a comedy anymore, and it does sort of show its theatrical roots clearly, but it does carry something more than its outward appearance, and I think that vein of melancholy tenderness, if you like is, what Simon took from it and I think really infused MY WEEK WITH MARILYN with.
Capone: What were some of the qualities of Olivier that you latched on to for your portrayal beyondjust the voice? What did you want to pull out from his personality and mythology?
KB: From those who worked with him that I spoke with, there was this sense that he was permanently on show and that he was many men in any one day and that he loved acting, he loved it. So I wanted to get the sense of his relish for it and his relish not just in the performing; you see him at the read through, and he’s doing his accent and he just loves it. He loves being the best. He loves being the most prepared. He loves being the most precise. And then in the rest of his day, he loves being the man who is charming to his actors and then another performance as the frustrated producer and then another performance as the vain matinee idol and then another performance as the sort of arrogant paternalist figure to someone like Colin [Clark, upon whose memoirs the movie was based].
It’s as if he had, and he seemed to talk about this in his books, a sense of observing himself all of the time, being conscious of the effect that he makes, and I think he wanted that very much as an artist. As a person, he liked to control and be aware of the effects that he made and one of the most illuminating stories I ever heard about him was a night when he play Othello on stage, and Tony Hopkins and Derek Jacobi were in the cast. He was absolutely electrifying, in what was always a tremendous performance, but this particular night it transcended anything they had ever seen. And as he came off stage, all of the actors applauded him in the wings. They applauded him all the way to his dressing room, and he rushed past them with this thunderous look on his face, went into his dressing room, and slammed the door. Hopkins was assigned to go up and knock on the door. Olivier shouted, “Yeah, come in.” He opened the door and said, “Sir Laurence, why are you so angry? We thought that was the greatest performance any of us have ever had the privilege to see.” And Olivier responded by saying “I know it was and I’m angry, because I don’t know how I did it.”
KB: So he was kind of, you might say egotistical to acknowledge that he had somehow been the vessel for it that night, it had just flown, it had been something beyond him and he had this. Whatever the film says about him being a traditionalist and Marilyn being method, I think both had each a little of the other. But Olivier was more than just the supreme technical actor, occasionally, perhaps memorably and often, he could transcend all of that, but he didn’t feel very comfortable in that. He was amazed by that sort of mysterious part of the artistic process, and I suppose to answer your question, I wanted to give that relish of the man who performed roles in every area of his life, including his profession, and then is surprised when real things come and smack him in the face like Marilyn’s behavior, like his own sense of abandonment and frustration. I like those scenes in the film where, as it were, the real man creeps through surprising those around him and perhaps most all of surprising himself.
Capone: I think we see that when he meets Marilyn for the first time, and the façade just drops for a minute, and he’s just taken aback by her sheer beauty.
KB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And in theory, that’s what happened. When they met in New York actually even ahead of the filming, although she kept them waiting as she always did, he was completely bowled over by her for the meeting where the job was arranged, and he thought it would be like that forever and a day. He did not realize what it would be like to wait for her every day.
Capone: You mentioned that you had consulted with people who knew Olivier. Are there any people we would know?
KB: Anthony Hopkins, who worked with Olivier for 10 years at the International Theater, and Derek Jaccobi likewise. They're both great protégés of Olivier, and Olivier across the '60s was running the National Theater and bringing to the world the talents of those two, Albert Finney, Ian McKellan, Maggie Smith, Peter O’Toole opened the National Theater as Hamlet directed by Olivier. He really did send a generation of actors out there into the profession, and they were all in various ways in awe of him.
Capone: Did you shoot this film before or after you shot THOR? I'm assuming after.
KB: It was after, and in fact I was still editing THOR.
Capone: So that was your opportunity to talk to Hopkins.
KB: Yes indeed. We did, as a matter of course, talk a lot about that time, because Hopkins understudied Olivier and actually went on for him one night when Olivier was ill. He told the story to remind you of the awe in which Olivier was held that when he was at the theater and he was told Olivier was sick that night and he wasn’t going to play. The company manager went out onstage at the old Big Theater and said “Ladies and gentlemen, due to the indisposition of Laurence Olivier…” he said the groan that you could hear from that audience you could hear on the other side of the world, and you had seats flipped up as people were leaving. They'd come to see the world’s greatest actor and when that remark came up “and therefore the performance of Edgar this evening will be played by Anthony Hopkins,” and no one had ever heard of Anthony Hopkins. Of course, like they say in 42ND STREET, Hopkins went out there a kid and he came back a star. And the first person in his dressing room the next day to congratulate him was Laurence Olivier.
Capone: And he does a great impersonation of Olivier, because he dubbed those lines in SPARTACUS.
KB: That’s right. You are absolutely right, yeah.
Capone: I think that the relationship between Olivier and Vivien Leigh--and they aren’t even on screen that much together--but we certainly get a lotof information about their marriage in just a couple of very key scenes. That probably could have been its own movie, the complexity of their relationship. What did you and Julia Ormond talk about in terms of how to play those scenes together?
KB: There was a vast amount written about that time, which had followed lots of stress and strain in that marriage in the preceding few years. But I think we have to understand that the Oliviers were sort of minor royalty in the UK. When you saw them at that time, they really almost dressed like a kind of a prince and princess or a king and a queen, and they often played kings and queens and they were often being photographed together and being very regal. They were, after all, Scarlett O’Hara and Heathcliff, these two great movie stars. They had been world-beating movie stars as well and they were great leaders of the English stage. They really were looked up to as royalty.
So there was tremendous pressure on them I think. They had their public positions, and in a way the only people who could understand what pressure they were under were the two of them. I think it allowed us to understand that probably in what would have been for them very rare private moments, life could have been very tricky indeed. She certainly was by all accounts sort of very prone to mania. Some would say that she was bipolar or certainly at that stage with medication and medical episodes that she was very unstable and fragile.
And of course to have been recast by her husband in the role that they had spent a year playing on stage just recently with a new movie star, but someone who had not proven to the world that she had the range of Vivien Leigh, must have put them under incredible pressure. So I think they were united in their isolation, the Oliviers, and the tension between them and their private disagreements and the public requirement for them to be the perfect couple was what Julia and I spoke about, just that feeling of the dynamic between once the door is closed “You bastard!” the gloves were off, and then they’re out in front again and it’s King Larry and Queen Vivien, and everything is lovely. [Laughs]
Capone: I have to ask before I let you go. First of all, I thought you did a great job with THOR.
KB: Thank you very much.
Capone: Are you curious to see THE AVENGERS? Are you curious to see how they treat your Thor and your Loki? Are you interested to see what Joss has to say with those characters now and where they go?
KB: Most certainly. I think that for anybody who has been involved with the Marvel film universe, your fascination with the way the characters develop is total. When we were making THOR right at the end, one of the most interesting things for me was to see what the tag was going to be right at the end of the movie. But I also like the fact that I didn’t have anything to do with it. It was a surprise for me as well in the same way as we provided a little teaser for THOR at the end of Jon’s [Favreau] film with IRON MAN 2. So I will be absolutely fascinated to see it. I’m really, really, really looking forward to it, and I have to say I hear that it is brilliant.
Capone: I just heard that too. I heard people have now seen it and they think it’s great, so I’m very much looking forward to it.
KB: I heard that as well, and that's not just me bigging up my Marvel partners. I’ve heard that people are incredibly impressed by it, so I’m looking forward to it.
Capone: I guess I'd heard that it was Joss that shot THOR's tag and CAPTAIN AMERICA's tag.
KB: That was Joss. THOR's tag was Joss’s first day of doing all of that and then [AVENGERS cinematographer] Seamus McGarvey lit it, and our boys (Stellan Skarsgård and Tom Hiddleston] were in it. So it was the beginnings of that part of it. So handing the baton over is… John had let us come in and do the end of IRON MAN 2, and it was fun. It’s a very unusual kind of relationship. It’s really fun and I really wish it all the best, and I know it’s going to be a huge hit. I’m very fond of all of those boys, very fond of my lads, all my lads in that with Chris and Tom and Stellan, and I’ve loved Robert Downey Jr. since we did THE GINGERBREAD MAN together.
KB: And you know all of the other kids, Mark and everybody. I have a really great feeling for it all, and I’m looking forward to it.
Capone: Do you know what you are doing next in terms of either acting or directing?
KB: I don’t quite, to be perfectly honest Steve, and I’m absolutely delighted about that. [Laughs] I’m enjoying the sunshine in Santa Monica and thinking no further than the next cup of tea, which is coming my way in about five minutes.
Capone: Great, well best of luck on Sunday.
KB: Thank you very much.
Capone: And thank you very much for taking the time out to talk to us.