Interview: Kenneth Branagh

The actor and director on swapping sonnets for comics

Just before Christmas, Kenneth Branagh flew back home from America (where he’s been directing the blockbuster Thor for the past year) to celebrate his 50th birthday, a landmark and a time to reflect on what has gone before.

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In Branagh’s case there’s an awful lot to ponder, and, indeed, to be proud of – TV (from Fortunes of War to the excellent Wallander), theatre (he made his debut in Another Country and recently was a universally acclaimed Ivanov), a host of films as an actor (Harry Potter, Valkyrie), director (Sleuth), or both (Dead Again, Peter’s Friends).

And, of course, Branagh has made it his mission to bring Shakespeare to the cinema masses, directing and appearing in five of the Bard’s plays for the big screen, including a blistering Henry V.

Indeed, reading his CV – four Oscar nominations, four Bafta wins – makes you feel giddy with the sheer scope of it all. The working-class boy from Belfast has certainly made his mark. His half-century shindig lasted an entire weekend and encompassed all his passions.

“On the day itself, a Friday, I went with a group of male friends to Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant, The Fat Duck, and had a most sensational lunch.

“In the evening, my wife had organised a party for all of my family. On the Saturday I went to see Derek Jacobi play King Lear, which was superb.

“And on the Sunday I watched Spurs play Chelsea. It was a great example of everything I like most in life – great food, Shakespeare, my family and friends, and Tottenham, too. And on the Monday I got on a plane and went back to Los Angeles to get back to work on Thor.

“I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them.”

He is, then, a contented man. “Actually, I had a bump at 40 but only a little one. Maybe in my game, the therapeutic effect of playing characters who reflect a great deal more than I do about such things means that, when it comes to my own life, I tend to just get on with it as best as I possibly can.”

Whilst others might project on to him their expectations of what his career should be – early on he was constantly labelled the new Laurence Olivier – he is happy just to make choices that interest him. Indeed, there were a few raised eyebrows when it was announced that Branagh would be directing Thor, based on a character from a Marvel comic, and he admits that when he was first approached even he was a little taken aback.

“I didn’t imagine myself ever making a superhero film, but when I thought about the constituent parts of the story it made perfect sense,” he says. “Thor has got several big battles in it, a reckless, headstrong young hero who has to confront his past and deal with a complicated relationship with his father, it has lots of savage Europeans hacking each other to death at various points, and all of this sounded very much like Henry V.”

Nevertheless, it’s slightly odd to watch Ken present footage of his film at the 2010 Comic-Con festival in San Diego – a geeks’ paradise where all things pop culture are celebrated – to 6,000 screaming fans, alongside some of his cast, relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor, and Natalie Portman, the love interest.

Ken is clearly a little overwhelmed by the ear-shattering, rock star reception. “But I think that was probably more for Chris and Natalie, not me,” he smiles. “It was quite extraordinary stepping out there on that stage.”

So, he continues, his decision to take on Thor is not quite so left-field as it seems. He first read the comics when he was a boy growing up in Belfast (his family moved to Reading when he was nine) and was entranced by the vivid artwork and the blend of Norse mythology and superhero action.

It was, he says, great storytelling, and along with the books he read and the TV and films he watched, it fed his imagination and encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming an actor, and post-A levels off he went to RADA.

“The Jesuits say ‘give us a boy until he’s seven and I’ll give you the man’, and many of those formative experiences now connect,” he says. “I can see that the powerful impressions that were stamped upon me then – whether it was reading Thor, watching a BBC matinee on a Saturday afternoon, or going to the cinema – made a very strong impact.”

Making Thor has been a huge commitment. Branagh and his cast, including Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Thor’s disapproving father, filmed in America for four months, and he stayed on to edit the film and oversee the extensive special effects of an epic reported to have cost in the region of $150 million.

Branagh and his second wife, art director Lindsay Brunnock (he was married to Emma Thompson for six years until 1995) rented a house near the beach in California and even shipped out their much-adored pooch, a black labrador called Molly. “My wife has been with me and that’s made a huge difference,” he says. “We’ve had a simple time really, we haven’t done the Hollywood networking thing.”

He doesn’t appear on screen in Thor – “I didn’t even think about it, to be honest.” But he will make a welcome return as TV as Wallander, the world-weary Swedish detective, later this year.

“I love playing him. I admire his dogged determination, his intensity, he just keeps on going and, even with all the mistakes he’s made, he continues to try to be a father to his daughter, to have some sort of romantic life. I like his quiet persistence, I find it quite heroic and touching.”

Throughout his career, Branagh has always returned to work on television and believes that the medium is currently producing excellent dramas. “I think television goes through phases, like other creative arts, where suddenly a group of people are producing exciting work all at once. And given the way that cinema has changed and how difficult and expensive it is, a lot of creativity goes into television that might otherwise have appeared in the cinema and that’s very valuable.”

He’ll be back on cinema screens himself later this year in My Week with Marilyn, a comedy drama set around the making of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957, with Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe and Branagh as Laurence Olivier – a neat slice of casting considering that Ken has often been compared to the much revered Larry.

“Playing Olivier was always going to be a huge challenge, whoever did it, but I was happy to be involved in something that is very tender, very surprising and, I think, very funny.” Olivier died in 1989 and Branagh, sadly, never got to meet him. “But I once wrote to him and asked his advice about playing Chebutykin, the old soldier in Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

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“And he wrote back and said ‘I can’t really give you any advice but I think if I have to, I’d say I would just have a bash and hope for the best.’ So I’ve pretty much taken that on board and I continue to have a bash and hope for the best.”