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Kenneth Branagh persuasive on and off screen


Kenneth Branagh is one of those actors who is able to transform himself on the screen. He looms large on screen, he's almost handsome and he's certainly persuasive.

Branagh is equally persuasive in person, but he is not that tall and looks almost ordinary. You might never assume he is an actor.

He is, however, direct and honest in person. He wouldn't know how to dissemble, but then he is only 30 years old.

"Yes," he says, "I was only 29, a mere slip of a boy when I was nominated for the best actor Academy Award for 'Henry V.'

"I have a huge cannon of work," he adds, explaining that he's done only four films.

His newest film is "Dead Again," a deliberate attempt to imitate Alfred Hitchcock, up to the outrageous finish. It opens here on Friday.

"The film is never grittily realistic," Branagh says. "It demands a kind of flourish in execution. That was essential to the film, one that can be taken as lightly or as seriously as one chooses."

He plays two roles in the film. When he first appears, he is a composer sentenced to death for the murder of his wife. Forty years later, he is a private detective who is hired to determine the identity of a woman who doesn't know who she is but does know she is having nightmares in which she is someone else, a murder victim.

"I suppose it was flamboyant of me to do both roles, but I think it was necessary to tease the audience, and I think it was best for the audience to be with one couple throughout the running of the film," Branagh says.

As the detective, he speaks with a flawless American accent. "It helped to live in Los Angeles for a while," he explains. "They speak more loosely there. They have a more tired accent."

He was in Los Angeles doing "King Lear" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" when he was offered the script for "Dead Again."

"That was after 'Henry V,' and I got a lot of scripts about Vietnam, all of them with a lot of rain," he says, a reference to the rainy battles scenes in "Henry V."

Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia and an unbilled superstar appear in "Dead Again." Off the screen, Thompson is Mrs. Branagh. She and her husband have worked together before.

"We have a mutual respect for each other," he says. "It's a nice thing to have with other actors. It creates an atmosphere of trust."

And how did he get Garcia, one of the hotter new actors, to play a supporting role in the film?

"Garcia doesn't want to be a star," Branagh says. "He's more interested in doing interesting roles, and he loved the character."

And the superstar?

"He enjoyed doing the role, which is certainly not a star turn," says Branagh. "I do hope that those who see the film will keep his identity a secret.

Branagh not only stars in the new film, he also did the direction. He says this posed no problems, that as an actor-director he could predict some of the things actors worry about.

"You're in the trenches with them," he explains.

Though "Dead Again" is about murder and such, the film is refreshingly non-violent, non-violent in the Hitchcockian sense, and that was what Branagh wanted.

"I've been sent a lot of violent scripts, but I'm not interested in doing endless close-ups of steel gashing into people," he says. "On one terrible level, you become bored and inured to it. It blurs our sense of reality and has a dangerous effect. We are all less outraged than we should be."

Branagh, who was born in Ireland and moved to England when he was 9 years old, says his Irish heritage had an enormous influence on him.

"I go back to Ireland a lot," he says. "It's important to do so, and I am always welcome there. There was a certain confusion when I moved to England. That lasted about 10 years. As an Irishman in England, I heard some name-calling when the troubles were at their height, but there wasn't that much, and now, I have a new awareness of my Irish past. I feel more comfortable with myself."

He's writing his autobiography. At 30?

"Well, yes," he says. "People said that I have done so much in so short a time and that others would be glad to know how I did it. The Irish also say that you may not be around tomorrow, so do it now."

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