With Branagh, From Belfast to Savannah

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Star of the Robert Altman film "The Gingerbread Man," Kenneth Branagh has directed eight films, including three adaptations of Shakespeare, including a four-hour "Hamlet" released in 1996 that was hailed as the most faithful adaptation ever released. In tending the eternal flame of Shakespeare, the 37-year-old actor has been seen as a guy born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Born into a working-class Belfast family, Branagh grew up in the midst of the Troubles until he was 9, when his family moved to Reading, England.

"The Gingerbread Man," based on a story by John Grisham, finds Branagh cast as a slick Savannah, Ga., lawyer who picks up the wrong girl. Branagh can also be seen later this year in "The Proposition" and in "The Theory of Flight," which co-stars Helena Bonham Carter (his companion since 1995, when his marriage to actress Emma Thompson ended). Having just completed Woody Allen's next film, Branagh passed through L.A. recently en route to Japan to promote "The Gingerbread Man." Over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he ruminated on Altman and Shakespeare.

Question: How did you hook up with Robert Altman?

Answer: At this point we're all familiar with legal thrillers, particularly those from the pen of John Grisham, so when I read the script for "The Gingerbread Man," I said I'd only do it if an extraordinary director was involved. When Altman signed on, he immediately made it clear he wanted the film to have a different look and emphasis. Bob wasn't interested in the intricacies of the legal system, and wanted it instead to be a film of moods, moments and atmospheres. Hearing him discuss the film was like listening to a painter--he talked about wind, the color red, close-ups of rain. The essence of Bob's genius is his ability to stick to his original vision, while simultaneously creating an environment where happy accidents can occur.

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Q: [Your co-star] Robert Downey Jr. recently commented, "Bob's so loose on the set that he'd tell Ken, 'Just walk with your kids and talk to them.' " And then he talked about a scene involving the aftermath of a big shootout, and Bob's direction to him was, "Just play the scene"--when there was nothing scripted. Was that also your experience of working with Altman?

A: Bob has a funny way of working with actors. The first day I met Embeth Davidtz, he sat us down and said, "Let's read through this scene," then as soon as we began to read, he got up and started to walk out of the room. We both anxiously looked up, and he said, "You should do this by yourselves for a while." But you never feel abandoned with Bob because he's so kind and is so clearly the boss. There is lots of improvisation on his set, but Bob only retains what he thinks is helpful for spontaneity.

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Q: What is the fatal flaw in your character in "The Gingerbread Man" that leads to his undoing?

A: He's an arrogant control freak who's driven by a certain kind of vanity, which he thinks he presents in a charming way. He thinks his success allows him to do anything, including flirting with the sleazy world of lowlife catering waitresses, and the morning after, he rationalizes this rampant sexual activity as some kind of Sir Galahad gesture. Can this man realize how far gone he is in terms of his utter lack of interest in other people's welfare?

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Q: How was Robert Downey Jr. on the set?

A: He was an absolute delight. He was under a court order while we were filming, which I'm sure was something of a strain, but he's one of the nicest guys I've ever met, and he's certainly one of the most talented actors I've worked with. In addition to being an excellent actor, he's an accomplished musician and artist, and he does it all effortlessly--he never shows off and is really good company. Robert inarguably has the devil in his eyes and he's a creature of great appetites, [but] he's also kind and supportive, and has a wonderfully sunny personality. I hope he learns to look after himself, because he's too valuable to lose.

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Q: Why do you love Shakespeare?

A: It begins with the fact that he had profound insights into human nature, which he expressed quite poetically. His sensibility was a complex combination of extravagant romanticism and savagery, and he was unremittingly harsh in his view of human folly; and yet, one of the leitmotifs in his work is hope, which I think he recognized as a necessity in order for the human spirit to survive. I'm also drawn to the elusiveness of Shakespeare. We know little about his life, nor do we know what the plays were in their original form, what his politics were, or whether he approved of war or religion.

I'm a bit of a romantic, so the plays that work best for me are the comedies--the situations are less grand and thus more immediate, and I like the way they combine bawdy humor with profound melancholy. At the moment, a film adaptation of "Love's Labour's Lost" is percolating away in the back of my mind. It's a story of two couples who get together in a jolly, romantic way, only to be abruptly separated when the father of one of the foursome dies. This forces them to examine the question of whether this holiday romance means anything. The pain and delicacy with which this question is examined is very true to breakups, and to the way life forces you to be realistic about relationships which are largely fueled by lust or romantic projection. Suddenly life knocks at the door with a loud thump and asks: What do you really feel? Do you want to be together forever?

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Q: Does the love in the play stand the test of time?

A: The play concludes with a question mark and leaves you unsettled. "Does it stand the test of time?" is, of course, a question directors must ask themselves when working with the classics. With "Love's Labour's Lost" I want to eliminate things we in the late 20th century have difficulty understanding, and replace them with lyrics we can understand.

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Q: Do you feel you've been typecast?

A: People seem to assume that anyone who'd do a four-hour film of "Hamlet" must be a heavyweight intellectual, incapable of enjoying life. In fact, the thing I showed the greatest facility for in drama school was comedy, and when I left school I felt that unless I made an effort, I'd spend the rest of my life in sitcoms. This isn't to suggest I've aspired to be part of some elitist, English intelligentsia, because I admire many kinds of work. I've known ("Trainspotting" director) Danny Boyle for 12 years, for instance, and when I return to England I'm going to be in a short film Danny's directing that will be part of cinematic trilogy, a la [Martin Scorsese's] "New York Stories."

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Q: Why did you rid yourself of your Irish accent?

A: The Troubles were very much present on the street where I lived as a child, so when my dad had an opportunity to work in England we left. Being an adolescent boy, I very much wanted to fit in so I learned to speak differently. I by no means reinvented myself, however, because I still feel Irish. And my family, of course, are tickled pink with all the wonderful things I've been able to be involved with as an actor.

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