Kenneth Branagh wants it known that he is tired of being called the new Laurence Olivier. Sure, he has the young Olivier’s presence and promise, and, yes, they both directed and starred in popular film versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V—Olivier in 1944, Branagh just last year. Still, says Branagh, “the comparison is ludicrous to me—so much puff. I find it extraordinary that people can compare a man who produced a lifetime’s work with someone still under 30.”
In other words, we haven’t seen anything yet For 29-year-old Branagh is intent on greatness. In addition to his triumph with Henry V, which is still playing across the U.S., he has already forsaken Royal Shakespeare Company stardom to form his own successful acting troupe. He has written an autobiography. His current project—directing and acting in productions of King Lear and A Midsummer Nights Dream at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum—caused so much excitement that advanced ticket sales set a record. And Branagh is still planning ahead. “Think of the surprises I might be laying on people in the next threescore and 10,” says Branagh, who will first take the plays on a world tour. “If they wait long enough, I’ll play the dark parts. I’ll do the cripple. I’ll do the detective and the sports star. A lifetime seems such a short time in which to do it all.”
Such confidence—combined with success—tends to set one up for criticism. And indeed the British press, which invoked the name of Olivier in the first place, has recently taken to Branagh bashing, upbraiding him for cockiness and wooden acting. Branagh takes it in stride. Now “they can go off and build somebody else up,” he says. “And I can get on with my work.”
Born in Belfast to a carpenter and his wife, Branagh was uprooted at 9, when the family moved to a London suburb to escape the turmoil in Northern Ireland. When Kenneth’s new schoolmates jeered at his thick brogue, he retreated into reading, “which was very unusual in our family,” he said. He liked theater magazines best, and by high school he was skipping afternoon sports to see the latest London shows. At 18, he was accepted by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
His talent was quickly apparent. Actor Patrick Stewart, who now appears on Star Trek: The Next Generation, remembers seeing Branagh at a TV audition in 1978. “I had never seen anyone transform himself in an instant from a charming, rather modest individual into this highly strung, nervous person—he was auditioning to play an epileptic,” Stewart says. “I thought, ‘He’s a phenomenon. We’ll be hearing a great deal from him.’ ”
But Branagh wanted to do more than just act. After two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he decided to strike out on his own. At 26, he formed his Renaissance Theatre Company, he says, because “I wanted to do things for a mass audience that would also make people think. I’m anti these barriers of high and low culture. I tend not to underestimate an audience.”
Branagh brashly enlisted the sponsorship of Prince Charles for the new troupe, which pays all its actors the same salary—about $650 a week. Its sold-out tours—of plays including Hamlet and As You Like It—proved Branagh’s instincts were right, as has the box office success of Henry V. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker declared him “an intensely likable performer, with a straightforwardness that drives the whole film ahead.” A savvy entrepreneur as well, he raised the necessary funds himself, then completed shooting on time and under budget.
Branagh met his wife, actress Emma Thompson, 30, when they co-starred in the BBC miniseries Fortunes of War. She was not immediately smitten. “Acting is all about attractivity,” she says, “so you have to be wary of thinking you’re in love when you’re not. It’s a work hazard, in the same way falling down a mine shaft is.” But fall she did. After Henry V—in which Thompson plays Henry’s betrothed—she and Branagh were married.
Today, they make their home in an unpretentious London flat. “Money’s not a big thing with us,” says Branagh, “although we do like to eat, drink and be merry, have a nice bottle of wine.” To relax, they repair to their cottage in Scotland and “watch the mice run around,” says Emma. It’s a far cry from L.A., where the couple is living for the Mark Taper run. (Thompson plays the Fool in Lear.) “I can’t believe I drive to work past the Hollywood sign,” Branagh says. “If you’re born in a terraced house in Belfast, you think, ‘I’m in the movies now!’ ”
You also know better than to lose your head about it. “Things are coming my way now,” Branagh says. “But it’s all about heat in this business, and I’m working on that principle. In that two minutes of heat, before I become tepid—force that hand down onto the dotted line.”
—Kim Hubbard, Lois Armstrong in L.A.