FROM 'HENRY V' TO HOLLYWOOD Actor-director Kenneth Branagh tries his hand at a classic thriller


Washington -- Kenneth Branagh, the man who would be king, knows that the best way to become a king is to kill one.

That's exactly what the young British actor-director has been doing. Two years ago the then-28-year-old's first movie, Shakespeare's "Henry V," went head to head with the great Laurence Olivier's 1944 classic, scoring -- in the opinion of many critics -- a clear victory.

Now Branagh has set out after both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock in his second movie, "Dead Again," which opens this Friday. This film is a brilliant homage to "Citizen Kane" that alludes to many of that movie's most famous scenes -- only to redo them in witty and brilliant fashion. And Branagh also takes on the Hitchcock of "Dial M for Murder," "Vertigo" and "Rebecca."

Is there no limit to the ambition of Branagh, who -- at 30 -- is less than 10 years out of drama school?

"I'm happy to think that I'm in the traditions they [Olivier, Welles and Hitchcock] represent and like to think that we all steal and borrow from those we admire," he says. "I love them and I'm a traditionalist. I felt I was missing something I love in the movies I see nowadays. That's why I made 'Dead Again.' "

"Dead Again" is a dazzling thriller about reincarnation and gender transformation that is set partly in the late 1940s and partly in present-day Los Angeles.

"It's a whodunit and a whydunit," says Branagh, who plays two roles: a private detective named Mike Church (in the color film that takes place in the present) and a brilliant German-refugee conductor-composer named Roman Strauss (in the black-and-white 1940s segment). The classy cast includes Branagh's wife, Emma Thompson (who also plays two roles), Andy Garcia and Robin Williams, Hanna Schygulla and Derek Jacobi. It is a roller coaster of a movie that keeps the viewer guessing at every turn and never permits him to catch his breath until a logically inevitable -- in retrospect -- finale.

Whether or not the movie is a financial success, it likely will be the most talked-about and debated film since "Thelma & Louise" and it should make Branagh's stock, high since his nomination for several Academy Awards for "Henry V," higher than ever.

The Belfast-born Branagh has been on a collision course with destiny since he was the star student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in the late '70s and early '80s. After graduation he became, at the tender age of 23, the youngest person ever selected by the Royal Shakespeare Company to star in "Henry V" and he went on to star in a highly acclaimed "Hamlet."

But Branagh wasn't satisfied with merely being a star in the English-speaking world's most important repertory company. The next year he founded the Renaissance Theater Company into which he shanghied friends like Jacobi, Paul Scofield and Dame Judi Dench. Branagh had so much chutzpah that he asked Prince Charles -- whom he had interviewed earlier while researching the role of Henry V -- to become the patron of the company. Charles, one of Branagh's biggest fans, accepted.

Branagh soon became so successful that he was asked at the age of 27(!) to write his autobiography. The book became a best seller in Britain and has sold well in this country. He has used all of the profits to benefit the theater troupe.

The critical reaction to Branagh's aggressive courtship of success in his native country has been swift and terrible.

One prominent critic described his film version of "Henry V" as "meglomania on a grand scale"; another called Branagh "the most over-rated, over-celebrated English actor to reach leading-man status in over two decades."

"Kenneth is very hot -- especially in your country," says Thompson. "But where we're from, making it [to the top] so quickly and so apparently flashily is not quite cricket. They say that Kenneth is full of hubris, that he's a self-promoter and that he can't act. The last part of that certainly isn't true, but Kenneth -- while perhaps not as much as he once was -- is certainly driven."

Branagh's life did not start out as a royal picnic. He was born in a Belfast slum where Protestant-Catholic strife made murders an everyday occurrence. When he was 11, his father was able to move the family to Reading, England. The talented child won a scholarship to a private school, where the other boys made fun of his almost undecipherable brogue.

"I managed to become English at school and stay Irish at home," he says. "It was my first acting challenge."

Face to face, the sandy-haired Branagh, bigger and handsomer than he appears on the screen, responds to questions with an often dazzling smile and with thoughtful and courteous answers. But it's still easy to see in him the scrappy, hard-nosed Irish kid who became captain of his school's soccer and rugby teams, the 13-year-old who became a regular columnist for the Reading newspaper by persuading the editor that "it was time to have stories by kids for kids."

In fact, if there's any actor Branagh resembles -- in person and certainly in the "Dead Again" character Mike Church -- it's not the princely, British Olivier but the square-jawed, two-fisted, American James Cagney.

One would never guess from Branagh's portrayal that he was English. He says he began to create Mike Church's Irish-American accent by listening to tapes.

"But that was just the beginning," he says. "Fortunately, I had a lot of time in L.A. because I was there performing 'King Lear' and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Any time I noticed two guys on the street who reminded me of what Mike Church might be like, I'd walk behind them for blocks, eavesdropping and watching their gestures.

"But Mike Church is such an amiable guy that I also borrowed -- believe it or not -- from Woody Allen, who I think is one of the most likable characters in movies. If you watch Woody Allen movies, you will notice that when he walks with a woman, he uses large gestures in his conversational style. I tried to make the gestures slightly less large and less New York-Jewish, but I couldn't have created Mike Church without them."

When Branagh was growing up did he ever think he would someday be playing the part of an Irish-American detective with overtones of a Jewish-American stand-up comic?

"It would have made perfect sense to me," he says. "Mine was a childhood spent in the movies. I worshiped Burt Lancaster in 'The Birdman of Alcatraz' before I even knew who Laurence Olivier was. Before I started 'Dead Again,' I screened 'Dial M for Murder,' 'Spellbound,' 'Vertigo,' 'Citizen Kane' -- all the movies I had adored when I was a kid. I wanted the qualities those movies have -- operatic qualities of simultaneously involving and detaching the viewer, of excitement and emotion -- and I was amazed at how much I remembered, at how much those movies are part of what I am.

" 'Dead Again' is about reincarnation, but it's also about the reincarnation of the movies I love," Branagh says with a smile. "I'd like to think that somewhere out there Olivier, Welles and Hitchcock are glad."

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