For an ambassador, he is surprisingly casual, in a black sport shirt and nondescript gray pants. No stiff upper lip, no stiff collar, no rigid and pretentious carriage to him. In fact, what you see is a regular bloke flopped on a couch, a bit puffy of face, under a thatch of reddish hair, attended the body over by the faintest sheathing of pudge.
But Kenneth Branagh, at 32, is an ambassador: He's the sole representative of the Republic of Shakespeare, in whose love he has labored and not lost on behalf of the great dead white European male who towers over us all, like it or not. To do Shakespeare, or not to do Shakespeare: That is not the question. How to get money to do Shakespeare: That is the question. Branagh has answered it by becoming a movie star, renting out his elfin charm and knowingness to lesser movies (like "Swing Kids"), doing the talk-show circuit, chatting up mere reporters. He has become the most famous Shakespearean actor in the world.
That happened four years ago, when he broke upon the world scene with an astonishingly assured screen version of "Henry V" with himself in the lead and trumping Sir Lawrence Olivier's much revered 1944 version. And it happens again Friday, when Branagh's version of the comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" opens, directed by himself, starring himself and his wife, recent Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, as the proto-Tracy-Hepburn couple, Benedick and Beatrice, and filmed in a lovely, sun-dappled Tuscan villa. But the piece isn't one of those embalmed-in-aspic relics of an ancient past, full of British zombies from the Old Vic. Rather, it's conceived as a bawdy, lusty sex farce, and it's just as full of bumptious Americans as it is stage-trained Englishmen.
"I wanted a mix of accents, which is in and of itself much more natural to Shakespeare's day," Branagh said in a recent interview in New York. "The American accents are much closer to Elizabethan than what is now spoken in Britain. Shakespeare would recognize your hard R's but not our rolling S's."
Branagh is blunt about his ambitions. "I'm trying to free Shakespeare of 400 years of stigma. You know, stuffy Brits talking through their noses" -- here he does a swift and merciless portrait of the great Shakespearean actor Sir Percy Pshaw-Thistlewaithe, reducing the Bard to a series of nasal blasts and sinus buzzes. Then, returning to his own personality, he continues, "This play in particular lent itself to a naturalistic, realistic style, the opposite of the contained, reserved distance between lines, as if Shakespeare's delivered in a small glass bottle."
That's Branagh, down-home, unpretentious, smart, wildly funny and something of a con man, a charlatan, pulling off the greatest con of all: Shakespeare for the masses. And with not a little bravado. After all, to get the Bard to the screen, he's had to do what every hack in Hollywood did: Rewrite him.
"Yes, of course. Well, you can't put all three hours of it up there, can you?" he says, sighing. (The movie is barely an hour and a half long.) "You have to go through it with a view of what 400-year-old gags work, and imagine removing the things that you believe Shakespeare himself would have removed. We did transpose some scenes, where stage conventions ran into movie conventions. We also addressed inconsistencies in Shakespeare's time schemes -- he plays fast and loose with time, I'm afraid. And, I suppose I moved a lot of commas, more than in 'Henry V,' to make people less aware of the commas and more of his talent."
A riveting couple
But his single most important achievement may have been in hiring his wife as the fiery Beatrice, Benedick's implacable opponent and secret love object. Tan and lusty, Thompson cuts a wondrous swath through the picture, throwing off darts of wit to deflate puffed-up male egos as easily as a duck flicks water off its back.
"It's a wonderful relationship," Branagh says of Shakespeare's second most famous couple. "The two characters are riveting, ever-attractive. Beatrice has intelligence, wit and fire. As for Benedick, I think Shakespeare must have liked him. He's a bit farty -- human and fallible, and for all his absolute belief in staying apart, they fell in love with abandon. Because they are marvelously written, any actress will bring something to the part. We both wanted very much to do it. She was the natural choice -- fire and brains -- but we didn't think it reflected on our relationship. What helped was our rapport as people."
He acknowledges that the problem in the play is that Shakespeare clearly loves Beatrice and Benedick too much and the other characters too little; the other plot involves younger lovers Hero and Claudio (Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard) who become innocent victims of a conspiracy concocted by Don John (Keanu Reeves) against his half-brother, the Prince of Arragon (Denzel Washington).
"It's true the other plot exposes less good writing by Shakespeare. But in the film, you have certain advantages over the theater. You can bring the camera in closer, to appreciate the callowness of the lovers. Or you can select a beautiful little smile between them, something that would be invisible in a stage setting. Or you can move the camera, so the audience doesn't think, 'Oh, here's a speech coming.' "
Yet for all his passion and success, he got into this life with amazing casualness.
"I'm the only actor in my family. It happened so incidentally. A school play when I was 16 and thinking, 'Christ, imagine doing this for a living.' I've never thought of this as going to a job. People say to me, 'Where do you get your energy?' Energy! Put me in a mine or on an assembly line and see how much energy got then."
But it's not as if Branagh has totally surrendered his life to Shakespeare. He has adroitly managed a balancing act, setting one film in the Bard's world and another one or two in this one, having followed up "Henry V" with noir pastiche "Dead Again" and then the comedy "Peter's Friends."
"The variety's very important to me because my interests are wide-ranging. I did 'Dead Again' because film noir made such a big impression on me when I grew up. We went to the pictures, not to the theater. I was attracted to the drama of it. I'm just not a westerns kind of guy. I like shadows, sharp suits, curvaceous women.
"And what I learn on modern films helps enormously when I return to Shakespeare. Everything helps the next thing. Because Shakespeare was meant to be popular, and you have to be aware of what works in popular film."
In fact, his wide-ranging career, his success as both an actor and a director, his extreme youth, his love of Shakespeare have LTC called up another ghost, not out of "Hamlet" but out of movie history: He's often compared with Orson Welles, the American genius-failure who made some great films in the 1940s but burned out young and ended up living a kind of hustler's existence, supporting his directorial indulgences with mainstream movie acting of the most banal sort.
Branagh admits a fascination with Welles.
"I look carefully at him to figure out where he went wrong. One thing you have to say is that he lived in a completely different world. So any comparison between him and me is bound to break down on that level. He had a deal at RKO [where he made his first and greatest film, 'Citizen Kane'] unlike any deal in
history. But at the same time, he did seem to have a strange, self-destructive thing in him. It did seem as if there was some subconscious desire not to have these massive expectations on him."
But Welles, for all his involvements with Shakespeare (he did a "Henry V" version called "Chimes at Midnight," a "Macbeth" and an "Othello") never dared the one thing that fascinates and lures all Shakespeareans: "Hamlet."
Can it be coincidence that Branagh had just finished doing the Dane on the boards in London, a full five-act, five-hour marathon session?
"Well, I don't know what I'll direct next," he says. "As an actor I'm going to appear in 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,' to be produced by Francis Coppola."
Still, the melancholy young prince struggling with fate and angst must be an enormous temptation.
"It is. After all, I'm not getting any younger. I definitely would not want to be a 50-year-old Hamlet. My Hamlet would be epic, dark and Elizabethan. It would last four hours. I don't know if anyone would see it, but it's what I'd want to do."