BWW Interview: Kenneth Branagh Talks Playing Shakespeare in ALL IS TRUE
Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as William Shakespeare in ALL IS TRUE, a film that uncovers the man behind the bard and speculates on the final years of his life. The film also stars Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.
Branagh is a celebrated actor, director, and writer, and is perhaps best known for his passionate screen adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.
Branagh took some time to talk to BroadwayWorld about what it was like to portray the most famous writer in the English language.
You've spent so much of your career adapting Shakespeare and directing Shakespeare and performing Shakespeare, so performing AS Shakespeare feels like the logical next step. What inspired you to tell this story?
It was wanting to give an impression that I've built up over the years from doing the work you mentioned of Shakespeare the man, not Shakespeare the genius. I think I've always wanted to share an enthusiasm for Shakespeare, and I think helping people find a way to Shakespeare is in revealing the man himself. The goal was to try and find the man and take him into a domestic setting where people could recognize some of the family dynamics we experience, that we live through.
Where did you first encounter Shakespeare? Was it love at first sight?
It was not love at first sight. It was perplexity at first hearing. Standing up in a school classroom and being asked to read aloud from The Merchant of Venice and finding it makes no sense at all. So, that was good, because I realized, okay. Well, this is sometimes, and maybe often, what it's like for other people. And here it is for me. And then, not long after that, I was taken by the school to a riotous production of Romeo & Juliet. A thousand thirteen-year-olds all watching a fight start at the beginning of the play. Sparks fly off the blades. And in the case of myself, a very beautiful young lady walks on as Juliet and that did it for me. The rest of the afternoon was just a riot of the audience responding to everything they saw. These thirteen-year-olds have no other agenda, but are they interested? Is their attention caught? And ours very much was, by the passion, and the violence, and the sex. Better to watch it or hear it or feel it than necessarily merely to read it.
The cast is unreal-can you talk about the process of assembling this legendary group of actors?
Well, Judi Dench I've had the pleasure of working with for over 35 years now, and she spent so many years at Stratford-upon-Avon playing parts at the Royal Shakespeare Company, knowing the place-the town. All of the places Anne Hathaway would have lived. Judi herself got very protective towards a character who could not read or write. She wanted to give her a voice, so she was a natural. She's older than me, and indeed Anne Hathaway was older than William Shakespeare, and that dynamic seemed to work. But she's a Shakespearean master. She makes complicated language feel simple and conversational. She has enormous heart, enormous emotional intelligence. And she's matched as a master by Ian McKellen, who, like me, with 25 years in between, had hitchhiked to Stratford as a seventeen-year-old to pitch a tent and go visit those same houses and walk those streets, and also go to the theatre and watch those plays. So way beyond professionalism in doing plays, there was I think a shared understanding of the place itself and a reverence for a man and a kind of familiarity with the material that meant that when they began performing, there was the least amount of acting and the most amount of character. People inspired by Shakespeare but not intimidated by him.
I really appreciated the scene between you and Sir Ian [McKellen]-I feel like a lot of biographies of Shakespeare omit the evidence that he could have been attracted to men. Why was it important to you to include that in this film?
The material of the sonnets-the poems themselves are so passionate, and so personal, so romantic, so raw. It's easy to imagine they were not just formal poetic exercises to show off your skill with language, but they were real declarations of affection or passion or love for another human being, and we know that they were sometimes directed at a fair youth, and sometimes at a dark lady. And the poems are also extravagantly dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, way more intensely than was even the pattern for the time. Artists did sort of write about potential patrons in order to be supported and sponsored, but it seems much more personal like that in Shakespeare. So the idea that [screenwriter] Ben Elton had of bringing Southampton back in to sort of cause a disruption in the Shakespeare household, the temptation that anybody might understand about visitation of a lost love, whether they're male or female, wherever your romantic leanings may lie, in either or both direction. But it could be something that unsettles, but it also provides one sort of last possibility of a different kind of happiness, of a time in his life when here he is reflecting in a melancholy fashion about where his life is. He comes back as a famous celebrity, but he's not acknowledged in that way, particularly by his family. I think he has to sort of re-find what is important to him, whether it's in the sense of his work, and whether he loves to do it anymore, and in the sense of his own heart. So having Ian come in and be able to do that sonnet so brilliantly all seemed to have a kind of tenderness and a sort of complexity to it that was really a joy to play.
In the film, Shakespeare talks about finding all of his plays within himself. Where does your best work come from?
This is a very personal film, and I'm proud of it. It certainly comes from a sort of very personal passion for William Shakespeare's work, and also a deep sense of gratitude for what his work has done for me-not just in terms of giving me work opportunities, but also a chance to be provoked and stimulated by his characters and the situations they find themselves in, and in his philosophy, which is subject to very personal interpretation. I describe him as a humanist, a man I think of large soul and compassion, and the wisdom in his work I think has been an enormous inspiration to me in my life. And so in coming back to this story, which I'm proud of. It's hard for me to judge my best work, but it certainly has a very particular quality because it comes from really deep, deep inside oneself. And it's tied up also in these long creative relationships with people like Judi, and many, many, many of the other people before and behind the camera have worked on material with me before. So that's also usually a constituent element of what I think is the best work, when you can harness those great creative relationships. And even if you don't see it necessarily specifically expressed on the screen, you can feel it. You can intuit that sort of personal richness and import that it has. Shakespeare's usually brought the best out of me.
Your career is so expansive, and you've achieved so much as an actor, director, writer, and so much more. When people stop you on the street, what do they ask you about?
It's a range of things, actually. I'm pleased to say I get stopped a lot for being Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which the younger generations continue to enjoy. But a lot of times, it's actually students who have seen the Shakespeare films that I've made, who've watched them in school and to whom it may have been helpful way to either enjoy Shakespeare or just in dealing with what they're being taught. But I always find that very pleasing, because they often look surprised. They certainly look very grateful. And appreciate it. So I'm super happy that work that's gone on over a few decades is still being viewed by new generations. For me that's really rewarding. And just lately, quite a number of people asked me about Hercule Poirot [from Murder on the Orient Express and its upcoming sequel, Death on the Nile] and his enormous mustache, and whether it will return. And yes, it will.