Personal detailsName: Kenneth Branagh
Born: 10 December 1960 (Age: 53)
Where: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Height: 5' 9"
Awards: 2 BAFTAs, 1 Emmy, 4 Oscar and 1 Golden Globe nominations
All about this star
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.