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Kenneth Branagh - Biography

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Kenneth Branagh

Personal details

Name: Kenneth Branagh
Born: 10 December 1960 (Age: 54)
Where: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Height: 5' 9"
Awards: 2 BAFTAs, 1 Emmy, 4 Oscar and 1 Golden Globe nominations

All about this star

Biography:

Surely the heaviest mantle for a young actor to bear is that of "the new Olivier". Expectations are so high, bitter schadenfreude always so close, the pressure must be near intolerable. Yet Kenneth Branagh, hyped as the great new thespian hope since his early twenties, has somehow managed to pull it off. Not only did he carry all before him at Stratford, he then took Shakespeare to the masses with a string of successful movie adaptations. He is a star, a director, a producer, and not simply limited to the Bard's work. He also built a power-base that allowed him to direct and star alongside such weighty Hollywood types as Robert De Niro. When his name appears on the credits, you KNOW a production is likely to be of the highest quality.

He was born Kenneth Charles Branagh on the 10th of December, 1960, in Belfast. His father, William, was a carpenter, running a company that specialised in fitting partitions and suspended ceilings. His mother, Frances, raised Kenneth, brother William Jr, born five years earlier, and sister Joyce, born ten years later. Kenneth's early life was spent in relative poverty, his working class Protestant family living in the shadow of a tobacco factory. With The Troubles ever brewing, life was never comfortable. "The Sectarian thing was never far beneath the surface," he once recalled "all this thing of being stopped by kids in the park and asked 'Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?' and it was always a trick question so that they could beat you up".

The Branaghs lived with this till the barriers went up at the end of their road. Now it was all too close and, with Kenneth aged 9, William took the family across the Irish Sea to live in Reading. Here the transplanted Kenneth would suffer something of an identity crisis, wanting to fit in but his accent being a red rag to an English bull. At home he'd use his usual thick accent, while at school he cultivated a thoroughly convincing middle-English front. "I feel more Irish than English", he once said. "I feel freer than British, more visceral, with a love of language, shot through with fire in some way. That's why I resist being appropriated as the current repository of Shakespeare on the planet. That would mean I'm part of the English cultural elite, and I am utterly ill-fitted to be".

Kenneth wasn't much of a student. More of a sporty type, he captained both the rugby and football teams. But possessed of that Irish love of language, he did like to read and, smart and ambitious, scored himself a job reviewing children's books for a local paper, a position he'd hold up until his O-levels.

The actor in him quickly sprang to the fore. He remembers being particularly taken by Burt Lancaster in The Birdman Of Alcatraz. He was moved by the performance, thrilled by the movie's message. When, at 15, he saw Derek Jacobi play Hamlet onstage, he was hooked. Now he threw himself into school productions and, when his drama teacher told him, after his performance in Oh, What A Lovely War!, that he should consider acting as a profession, he became "intoxicated by the idea". He just couldn't get enough. At 16, he took a tent to Stratford for the RSC season, studying the work of Jonathan Pryce and Michael Pennington.

Even at the age of 18, Branagh was evidently something special, being offered places at both RADA and the Central School of Speech and Drama. He chose RADA. Here, stage-work was thrust upon him as principal Hugh Cruttwell believed that students' work should be on show at the Vanburgh Theatre from their second term. It was vital experience, and Branagh took to it instantly. After three years, he was more than ready for greater things, his final-term Hamlet being the finest in living memory.

Actually, so good was Branagh that he'd moved on to greater things even before graduating from RADA (which he did in 1981, armed with the prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal). Receiving brief releases from his studies, he'd won two TV roles, the first being Too Late To Talk To Billy. This was a BBC Play For Today, written by Graeme Reid, concerning the trials of a Belfast family where the mother has suffered a hard death from cancer. James Ellis played the domineering father, with Kenneth as the tortured son of the title. With The Troubles as a backdrop, it was hard-hitting stuff, and very successful, Branagh reprising his role in two sequels.

Then there was Maybury. Here Patrick "Picard" Stewart played a psychiatric consultant at Maybury General Hospital, with Branagh as one of his patients. It was a storming role for a young man, as Robert Clyde Moffat was a schizophrenic enduring monumental mood-swings. He could be smart, gloomy, vicious, and vulnerable, but for all his appalling behaviour you still understood why Stewart wanted to help him, Kenneth bringing a rare humanity to the role.

Also before leaving RADA, Branagh was hired for his first post-college job. Upon graduation, he stepped straight into Julian Mitchell's staging of Another Country as it moved from Greenwich to the West End. Based on the early lives of Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean, it saw Kenneth as one of two boarding school kids who, horrified by the social injustice around them, lean towards benevolent Marxism and eventually become spies for the Russians. It was a big hit, and a breakthrough for Branagh, who was awarded the Best Newcomer Award by the Society of West End Theatres.

Having spent a short time doing TV work in Australia, Branagh returned to London and immediately revealed the enormity of his ambition. Turning down a place at the Royal Shakespeare Company (the grail for most young stage actors), he instead took the crazy risk of producing and financing his own production of The Madness. Though he already had a hot reputation, this was still a big ask. Based on Tennyson's poem Maud, it was a one-man show for which Branagh must learn 1400 lines of verse.

Naturally, it was another hit and, though his next part, as St Francis of Assisi at Greenwich, was one of his very few failures, the RSC was desperate to get him onboard. Indeed, so desperate were they that they enticed him with an opportunity to make history. At 23, he would be the youngest ever RSC actor to take on the part of Henry V. (It could have been even better. Branagh was picked for the lead in Amadeus, but lost out when it was decided to proceed with an American cast).

This he did with considerable aplomb. Playing Henry not as the usual bloodthirsty boy-scout, urging his bow-men to decimate the French at Agincourt, he brought a welcome sense of fear to the role, a fear absolutely appropriate to a boy-king in his darkest hour. His director at the RSC, Ron Daniels, said he had "amazing instinct, technique, intelligence... as well as being immensely charismatic". The critics went wild, The Times calling him "a great discovery, appearing suddenly out of nowhere, fully matured". Where before he'd been noted, alongside Anthony Sher and Simon Callow, as the cream of the current thespian crop, now he was resolutely "the new Olivier" (Henry V being one of Olivier's signature roles). And so he went on, as Laertes in Hamlet, the King Of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost and Mike in Golden Girls.

But despite this series of triumphs, Branagh would not stick with the RSC. Rehearsing by day, performing at night at Stratford and the Barbican, six days a week for 21 months, he found it wearing, while the internal politics of the company limited his scope. Ambitious and ever-demanding, he wasn't easy to work with, either. He wasn't offered a second contract, nor did he request one.

While still with the RSC, he made progressive moves of his own. Onscreen, he starred as the young DH Lawrence, with Helen Mirren as his wife, in Coming Through (he'd earlier appeared in a TV adaptation of Lawrence's The Boy In The Bush). Onstage, he starred in Tell Me Honestly, a witty musical about the relationship between actors and directors that he wrote, directed AND scored - he'd return to the musical genre on a far grander scale 15 years later.

The next year and a half would be spent in a whirl of TV and film productions - he's not known as The Kenergiser for nothing. There was Ibsen's Ghosts, with Judi Dench and Michael Gambon, and a brief role in Strange Interlude, as Glenda Jackson's fiance, whose disappearance causes her to become a nurse in WW1. Then, in the quiet, thoughtful A Month In The Country, he was a shell-shocked WW1 veteran, looking for the grave of a crusader in a churchyard while fellow vet Colin Firth restored a 500-year-old mural inside. Once again he was a world-weary soldier in The Lady's Not For Burning, demanding to be hung for witchcraft but changing his mind when Cherie Lunghi is sentenced to the same fate. Then came his first cinematic nude scene, in High Season, where he played an inept agent on Rhodes, who thinks he's fallen in love with ex-pat photographer Jacqueline Bisset.

And there was the first really big one, the miniseries Fortunes Of War, again for the BBC and based on the work of Olivia Manning. Here he was Guy Pringle, the new professor of English at Bucharest University in 1939, who turns up, with new wife Emma Thompson, just as Hitler decides to annex Poland. It's a bad move and soon he and all his contemporaries - diplomats, writers, spies and royalty fallen on hard times - are forced to move on to Athens, and then to Cairo. It was a lush 7-hour production that took nine months to film. And, in that time, Branagh became very close to his co-star, comedienne Thompson. He'd appear in her comedy show the next year (1988) and they'd marry a year later, quickly becoming known as the royal couple of the British film industry.

Aside from all this, Branagh had higher plans. Along with David Parfitt, a colleague from his Another Country days, he set up the Renaissance Theatre Company, dedicated to the artistic freedom he felt was lacking at the RSC. 1987 saw the first production, a gangster-style drama called Public Enemy, set in Belfast and staged at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Written and directed by, and starring Ken, it naturally brought accusations of advanced megalomania. Next Branagh would direct John Sessions in his Life Of Napoleon Bonaparte, and Richard Briers in Twelfth Night. 1988 would bring three more Renaissance Shakespeares, Branagh appearing in Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Hamlet, being directed by Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan and his old hero Derek Jacobi, respectively. He'd be directed by Dench once again in '89, in Look Back In Anger, delivering what writer John Osbourne considered the best Jimmy Porter in years.

But 1989 was a landmark year for a different reason, seeing the release of Branagh's first major film production, Henry V. Pulling in his thespian buddies Dench, Jacobi and Paul Schofield, as well as Thompson and (as the first example of his legendarily "risky" casting) Robbie Coltrane as Falstaff, Branagh drew on his initial RSC success and delivered a storming picture - dramatic, gritty and romantic, a kind of high-brow influence for Braveheart. He was Oscar-nominated as actor and director. As Olivier's Henry V had been nominated for Best Actor and Best Film back in 1946, the comparisons could not be avoided, particularly as Olivier died shortly after the release of Branagh's version. "The King is dead", screamed the headlines "Long live the king!" Frustrated beyond reason, Branagh claimed he'd rather be known as "the new Daffy Duck".

Never one to rest on his laurels, the Kenergiser moved directly onwards, directing and starring in stage productions of King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Uncle Vanya for Renaissance. But gradually his film career was taking over. Now he directed and starred in Dead Again, a noir thriller where he played both a fast-talking Los Angeles detective specialising in Missing Persons and, in flashback, a suave German composer who had fled from Hitler (Emma Thompson would play a dual role, too). Just as with his Shakespearian work, he was dealing with the very grandest themes - passion, murder, reincarnation - and, with his direction being smart and inventive, and still being only 29, he was compared to an earlier filmic wunderkind, Orson Welles.

Back in the UK, he directed Peter's Friends, a kind of British Big Chill where a group of old Cambridge buddies reunite 10 years later at the country estate of Stephen Fry, Branagh appearing as the long-suffering partner of an aggressively insecure TV star (played by Rita Rudner, who co-wrote the script). There'd also be a film of Chekov's Swan Song, starring John Gielgud, which would be Oscar-nominated as best short. Then he went back to Shakespeare with Much Ado About Nothing, where he and Thompson played verbal sparring partners gradually accepting their love for one another. This was a sprightly comedy featuring Branagh favourites like Richard Briers and Brian Blessed, but also far more ambitious castings like Michael Keaton as a Beetlejuice-style oaf and Keanu Reeves as a surly prince.

Briefly stepping back onto the stage, breaking box office records as Hamlet for the RSC, Kenneth moved on to his most ambitious project yet, as $44 million adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Directing once more, he also starred as Baron Victor (Cherie Lunghi now appearing as his mum!) who builds a creature (De Niro), then rejects it, leading to all manner of vengeful havoc. It was deeply considered stuff, true to Shelley's novel - Branagh would ban the word "monster" from the set - but also truly spectacular and gory, the decapitation of Helena Bonham Carter being especially unsettling.

Unfortunately, that same year (1994) saw the break-up of his marriage to Thompson. A heavy work-load had separated them too often and they would divorce the next year. Thompson immediately went on to massive success of her own, adapting and starring in Sense And Sensibility and winning an Oscar for her penwomanship. Branagh, meanwhile, would become ensconced with Bonham Carter. The couple swore their relationship had not begun till after Branagh's marriage was over.

Now came yet more Shakespeare. First he directed In The Bleak Midwinter, a comedy about an amateur performance of Hamlet, starring Briers and John Collins, then he stepped out of the director's chair to play the malevolent Iago, inflaming the green-eyed monster in Laurence Fishburne's Othello. And then he stepped back into it for a big-budget version of Hamlet, one of the event pictures of 1996, pulling together a quite extraordinary cast. Not only were Dench, Jacobi, John Gielgud and Richard Attenborough onboard, but also Hollywood heavyweights like Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon and Julie Christie. Then there was more wild casting, with Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and, above all, Ken Dodd. As Ophelia he cast Kate Winslet, who'd been Oscar-nominated for Thompson's Sense And Sensibility, and impressed him when auditioning for Frankenstein. While filming, she was informed that she's won the lead in Titanic. For himself, Branagh would be Oscar-nominated once more, this time for his screenplay - a blow for those who hoped he'd outdo Olivier once more, Olivier having won Best Actor for his film version.

1998 saw Branagh in a succession of movies, most of them Hollywood-based. Directed by Robert Altman in John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man, he was a lawyer who, obsessed with Embeth Davidtz, is hired by her to have her "crazy" dad Robert Duvall committed. Woe betide everyone when Duvall gets out and the upsetting truth is revealed. Next came The Proposition, where Ken was a troubled priest consulted by childless couple William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe when they decide to hire a young stud to get Stowe pregnant. Ken's even more troubled when the stud winds up murdered.

On he went to Woody Allen's Celebrity, more or less playing Allen himself as he and ex-wife Judy Davis both try to inveigle their way into the world of film. Then he was back with Bonham Carter for the black comedy The Theory Of Flight, where he played a dreamer who, while on community service, is required to care for a girl (Helena) dying of motor neuron disease. She wants to be deflowered before her inevitable death, and though he won't do it himself, he tries to arrange things for her.

Now came more huge projects. First he narrated the ambitious documentary miniseries Cold War, once more following in the footsteps of Olivier, who'd provided the stirring voiceover for the classic World At War. Then he narrated another huge hit in Walking With Dinosaurs. His voice would also be used to great effect when, in the animated adventure The Road To El Dorado, he and Kevin Kline played hustlers on a treasure-hunt.

His movies were big, too, but not quite as successful. In Wild Wild West, he played Dr Arliss Loveless, the insane Confederate inventor, crashing through the desert in his terrifying gothic machines and pursued by agents Will Smith and, again, Kevin Kline. And then came that return to musicals, with the absurdly ambitious Love's Labour's Lost. Here four couples are haphazardly getting together, all the while breaking into '30's numbers by the likes of Cole Porter, Gershwin and Irving Berlin. It was a spectacular piece, stylish and funny, but way beyond a mass audience. Nevertheless, it was a statement of intent, being the first production from Branagh's Shakespeare Film Company, created to "formalize a passionate commitment to producing Shakespeare on film". It was hoped that a budget of $16 million would be made available to all future projects, one of which might see Macbeth as a Wall Street broker, and another might set As You Like It in a Japanese tea-garden.

For a while, Branagh stepped back into smaller productions. In the comedy drama How To Kill Your Neighbour's Dog, he played an insomniac LA playwright struggling for success and his sanity while wife Robin Wright Penn demands to have his children. Then came Conspiracy, a high-class TV drama concerning the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis' "final solution to the Jewish problem" was worked out, Branagh winning an Emmy for his efforts as SS general Heydrich. After this, he was back in hero mode, taking the lead role in Shackleton, about the 1914 expedition where Ernest Shackleton's Endurance was crushed by the ice of Antarctica and he had to perform incredible feats to save his men.

Having enjoyed a hit while directing the Morecambe and Wise homage, The Play What I Wrote, in Liverpool, London and on Broadway, 2002 would see him back in full force. For a start he returned to the stage for the first time in a decade, playing Richard III (ANOTHER of Olivier's signature roles) at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre. Then came Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence, concerning the Australian government's 1930's policy of taking aborigine kids from their homes and training them as domestics in detention camps, all the better to "integrate" into white society. Here three aborigine children break out and try to find their way home across 1500 miles of outback, Branagh playing a camp leader in hot pursuit.

And then there was Potter. Both Alan Cumming and Hugh Grant had been considered for the role of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, extraordinary narcissist and new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets. But really, considering the movie was to be peopled by such stage gods as Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman, it was only correct that Branagh should step in and ham it up to the rafters, stealing scenes from all comers. 2002 would also see a screening of the short Alien Love Triangle, from the Trainspotting duo, director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge. Originally scheduled for release back in 1997, this was intended to be one third of a sci fi/ horror/ comedy feature, but the other segments had been blown up into the full-length Mimic and Imposter. Alien Love Triangle would have Kenneth as a brilliant physicist who invents a teleporter then discovers wife Courteney Cox is in fact an alien and newcomer Heather Graham has arrived to take her home.

Yet his life was far from being all about movies. In 2003 he'd appear onstage in London for the first time in ten years when starring in David Mamet's controversial Edmond at the Olivier. Playing a New York businessman who, over the course of a single night, descends into debauchery, madness and murder, he was once more Olivier-nominated. The same year would see him score a festival hit with the short Listening, a beautiful piece musing on love and communication, featuring fine turns by Frances Barber and Paul McGann.

And he'd marry again, to Lindsay Brunnock. He'd actually been introduced to her by Helena Bonham Carter back in 1997, when Lindsay was assistant art director on Carter's Keep The Aspidistra Flying. Though Branagh and Carter had split up two years later, he didn't start seeing Brunnock till 2002, when they were both working on Shackleton. Now, on the 24th of May, 2003, they'd marry.

Branagh was still busy, but sadly several of his projects were suffering hold-ups. 2004 saw him appear only in E. Nesbit's Five Children And It, playing the dotty uncle who looks after some London evacuee kids during WWI. He gives them strict instructions as to where they can go and what they can do, nevertheless they still wind up charmed by Eddie Izzard's wish-dispensing sand fairy. This would be followed (eventually) by Warm Springs, where he'd rise to the heights of playing US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the TV movie concerning his early years as he succeeded in the New York state senate, lost a presidential election as VP then was struck dowen with polio at the age of 39. His wife, Eleanor, was played by Sex And The City's Cynthia Nixon. It could only raise his profile with American audiences.

From there, it was all about new adventures. Plans were afoot to direct and star in a big screen adaptation of Mozart's Magic Flute. And there would be a return to blockbusting villainy when he signed on to be beastly to Tom Cruise in the third of the Mission Impossible series. Unfortunately, problems in finding locations meant that the movie was shelved while Cruise worked on Spielberg's War Of The Worlds.

It would be worth waiting for. Branagh was, after all, the greatest British thesp of his generation, deserving to be in such company and performing before such a mega-audience. And the Kenergiser is far from finished yet.

Dominic Wills

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