Kenneth Branagh: ‘The life of an actor? Strange men phone and offer you money’
The actor and director talks Shakespeare ‘trutherism’ and his working-class upbringing
Kenneth Branagh: "I couldn't get arrested," he says of his early acting career. Photograph: Gregg Delman/The New York Times
A quarter of a century ago, Kenneth Branagh formed one half of a partnership that bossed the United Kingdom. Alongside Emma Thompson, his then wife, he trampled triumphantly across chat shows, Shakespearean stages and the covers of magazines. When he made a (very good) film of Henry V, he practically invited comparisons with Olivier. Britain being Britain, there was inevitably some backlash about “luvvies”. But he has survived. He has prospered.
“I didn’t entirely understand what was happening with the coverage,” he says. “It was a moment in time. There was a willingness to please rather than any pursuit of fame for its own sake. You want to support the work you do. You want it to find an audience. But I might have found a way to be a bit discriminating about the volume of stuff.”
It is a tad disconcerting to see Sir Kenneth – huge false nose on Northern Irish face – as a worn-down version of the older, retired Shakespeare in his engaging new film All Is True. In real life, he looks eerily unchanged. He’s still got all the hair. The face is the same shape. Can we reasonably call a 58-year-old boyish?
The title of All Is True – referencing an alternative title for Shakespeare’s Henry VIII – is cheekily provocative. It asks us to question whether, as the film posits, the Bard really did settle down to gardening and grieving over the death of his only son.
“We speculate, just as Shakespeare did – with frankly much less to go on – in his own historical dramas,” he says. “The notion of providing a fiction based on fact and offering a title that has a knowing wink also appears in Shakespeare: Twelfth Night or What you Will, Much Ado About Nothing. The title of All Is True feels very Shakespearean – as if it’s an invitation to defy or debate.”
The film sits in odd relationship to a recent television series by the same writer. Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow starred David Mitchell as a version of Shakespeare infuriated by Elizabethan commuting issues and by the concerns of a squabbling Brummie family. Elton’s script for All Is True could hardly be more different in tone: sombre, thoughtful, elegiac.
I wonder if Branagh worried whether fans of the series might have the comic versions of these characters lodged in their heads as they approached the film.
“Well, I don’t mind that at all,” he says. “[Upstart Crow] is as mocking and affectionate as Shakespeare is in his own plays. He would be the one who – often to the dismay of critics and academics – would bring in the low comedians in, say, Hamlet. The gravediggers arrive and seem to undercut the sublime nature of the introspection that had gone on before.”
Both the series and the film have fun with ongoing controversies concerning the true authorship of the plays credited to Shakespeare. Twenty years ago the argument that significant amounts of the work – or all of it – was written by others was largely the preserve of cranks. Now, friends and colleagues of Branagh’s such as Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are tending towards Shakespeare trutherism. How the heck did this happen?
“My feeling is that the debate is completely fascinating,” he says. “I read all of it and I am riveted by it. Yes, great friends of mine are passionate in their belief in alternative theories … No smoking gun has been found in my opinion. Some completely brilliant theories have been put forward. But for the moment I am with the man from Stratford.”
And he doesn’t get into punch-ups with Jacobi or Rylance when they come round for scones?
“Most certainly not. I may not be right. I am open to people whose work I revere and whose opinions I respect.”
Belfast days and ways
Not a trace of Branagh’s Belfast accent remains. Then again, he did leave Northern Ireland when he was just nine years old. His dad, a plumber and joiner, moved the family to Reading at the start of the Troubles. Brannagh can’t say exactly when he lost the vowels, but, a city lad transplanted to the English suburbs, his accent had gone a bit “estuary” by the time he reached the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
“There was a ‘received pronunciation’ exam,” he remembers. “There was no desire to knock out our accents. But we needed to be able to speak that way if required.”
A message came from the BBC. They offered me £540 pounds for this play. That was more than I could have dreamt of earning
We hear a lot about how the English theatre is now less egalitarian than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Branagh arrived at a time when the state still provided for the further education of working-class kids such as himself.
“I got to drama school with my fees and maintenance paid by the council,” he says. “So my parents’ tax money allowed that to happen. It would be very difficult under other circumstances.”
That was just the first big step. Many were the contemporaries who, after graduation from drama school, struggled, despaired and ended up doing something less theatrical with their lives. Like many actors, his ambitions were, at first, confined to staying in reasonably regular employment. He remembers failing his first three Shakespeare auditions. “I couldn’t get arrested,” he sighs.
He didn’t have to wait too long for the break. Branagh laughs as he describes the day he found himself getting good news in an old red phone box round the corner from Rada.
“A message came from the BBC saying: ‘Phone the booker,’” he says. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even have an agent. They offered me £540 pounds for this play. That was more than I could have dreamt of earning. I breathlessly said: ‘Yes’. And they were giving me expenses! I couldn’t believe it. I felt like the richest man in Goodge Street. This is the life of an actor: strange men phone you and offer to give you money. Ha ha!”
The job was the title role in the first of Graham Reid’s Billy Plays. Detailing the everyday life of a Protestant family, the trilogy is fondly remembered for setting Branagh against the much-missed James Ellis as his uncompromising father. He argues that the plays had important messages when only one version of Northern Ireland was being represented on TV.
“So much drama and so much documentary was focused on the Troubles itself and the startling accents of the Paisleys and the Devlins,” he says. “To hear and see people with normal concerns – working class families with Belfast accents – was revelatory for much of the rest of the country. And it was good for people at home to have it confirmed that not everybody was getting up in the morning and making a bomb.”
The Billy Plays sent Branagh on his way. He won a Society of West End Theatre Award as best newcomer for the role in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country that, in the film version, helped establish Colin Firth. In 1984, Branagh played a famously strong Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Still a relative stripling, Branagh was not happy as a mere actor. He sought to be an actor-manager of the old school. Established in 1987, his Renaissance Theatre Company, staged successful productions of Hamlet, Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Older actors liked him. They still seem to like him. Decades later, Dame Judi Dench, who made her directing debut with Renaissance, appears as Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, in All Is True. The age gap has been commented upon.
“There was a part of me that took some delight in turning the tables on an age difference that may have gone entirely unnoticed if it involved an older man and a younger woman,” he says. Fair comment.
Over the last decade, he has settled into an absurdly busy rhythm. He has directed Cinderella for Disney and Thor for Marvel. His adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl will be with us in August. He is now president of Rada. But that legendary period in the late 1980s and early 1990s still colours the biography. The marriage to Thompson. The subsequent relationship with Helena Bonham Carter. Never mind the Brit Pop, baby.
“There was a larger cultural moment that was happening,” he says. “All that had its own momentum. It led to an overexposure and there was a price to pay. If you are lucky enough to have been blessed with youthful good-fortune that happens. If I were advising a young actor these days I’d say: be a bit more careful.”
“But nobody died. There were a few bruises along the way. But I have no complaints.”
Kenneth Branagh’s five best films as director
Henry V (1989) Branagh tackles a play famously filmed by Oliver and delivers something dirtier and more violent. His best Shakespeare adaptation.
Hamlet (1996) It’s too long. Clocking in at 242 minutes, it included bits of the play barely seen since the 17th century. But the cast – Heston, Depardieu, Winslet, Lemmon – is to die for.
Thor (2011) Some Marvel purists reject the Thor films because they are not serious or something. In fact, they’re the best ones.
All is True (2019) Based on a Ben Elton script, the story of Shakespeare’s later years feels a bit like a doodle. But it’s a lovely one.