Kenneth Branagh: From the Bard to Thor

Kenneth Branagh is a talented actor, a respected director, and a fascinating interview, as our Martha Teichner can attest:


Look out: Thor, the Norse god of thunder - and his mighty hammer - are hurtling toward a theater near you this week, in 3-D, with Natalie Portman and a hunky new star, Chris Hemsworth.

The surprise is who directed this $150 million Marvel Comic come to life.

Kenneth Branagh, better known for Hamlet than hammers.

As an actor, he's proudest of his "Hamlet." It's one of six Shakespeare films he's starred in or directed, hoping to make the bard popular entertainment. Shakespeare earned him 3 of his four Oscar nominations.

Photos: Kenneth Branagh's Films: From the Bard to "Thor"

"Was there something of your Shakespearean background that was needed and wanted for 'Thor'?" Teichner asked Branagh.

"The story of the prince who needs to earn the right to become king is a sort of a theme that Shakespeare explores numerously in his plays," he said.

Here it's Thor. He's cast out of the heavens by his father, the very Shakespearean Anthony Hopkins.

Thor loses his powers, and has to learn his lessons the hard way - on Earth.

"A message came from one of my representatives in America saying, 'Would you ever be interested in directing a film of 'Thor'?'" Branagh said. "[It] seemed to carry the implication that that was perhaps a silly idea, or absurd. And I, one word, went back, which was 'Yes.' I knew the Thor character, and I knew the Thor comic. It was truly one of the only in my youth, particularly in Belfast, that popped out colorwise."

Above: On the set of "Thor" Branagh directs Jaimie Alexander as Sief. (Paramount Pictures)

Kenneth Branagh was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1960. But because of the Troubles - violence between Catholics and Protestants - his working class Protestant parents moved the family to England in 1970.

His first acting job was acting English.

"I literally couldn't be understood at school," he said, "so you start to acquire a sort of English accent in order to allow that to be the case. You feel a little guilt-ridden, 'cause you're somehow checking your roots in at the house, and that creates a sort of tension at home."

"Can you still do the Belfast accent?" Teichner asked.

"Still do the Belfast accent - comes and goes away, but I have to try very hard when I go home," he replied.

The one place he felt at home was on the stage.

"I internally thought, actually, this is sort of what I'm meant to do," he said. "One of the things that was so clear when I was 16, on a stage doing what I felt I was due to do, was a total sense of feeling at home."

Branagh became instantly famous, right out of drama school. Acting, directing plays and films in his twenties, he could do no wrong.

Preparing to play Henry V, he contacted Prince Charles, hoping for inspiration.

"I think what that says is, the sort of pure blind, tunnel-visioned passion of the actor," he said.

"I'm amazed that you, a) dared to write to Prince Charles, and b) he responded," said Teichner.

"Maybe, it's just, ignorance is bliss!" he said.

The golden boy of British theater, he married its golden girl, Emma Thompson. They starred together in movies he directed, such as "Dead Again."

Then things started to go wrong. He and Emma Thompson divorced.

In 1994, Branagh directed and starred in a version of "Frankenstein," with Robert De Niro as the monster.

It ended up on some critics' years' worst lists.

"It is true to say that the misses are often much more valuable than the hits," Branagh said. "You learn. You're forced to learn, sometimes."

He's never stopped acting to considerable acclaim - his roles, incredibly varied.

From the scruffy, troubled but brilliant Swedish detective he plays in the PBS series, 'Wallander" ...

... to Harry Potter's pompous Professor at Hogwarts.

"He's a man who is deeply, deeply, deeply in love, and it is, of course, with himself," Branagh said of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart. "His relationship to the mirror, I think, is the most important in his life!

"It was a sort of champagne part to play," he said of his role in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." "It was just like drinking champagne on a beautiful summer's day, was absolutely delicious."

He uses the same word to describe his marriage eight years ago to Lindsay Brunnock, an art director who worked with him on a TV mini-series.

"The delicious road of marriage is a beautifully bumpy one," Branagh said. "I just try and sort of be there and feel grateful."

Branagh sees his life that way these days, now that he's 50 and way past his wunderkind phase.

"I think life gets a little simpler, and that's nice," he said. "Basically, you're happier in yourself, I think. You worry far less about what people say or think about you."

Which is why he's not obsessing over the fact that "Thor" has been described as make-or-break for his directing career.

"I feel like I've had the blessings of about 15 lifetimes as an actor," Branagh said. "And so, for me, almost everything I do from this point is a complete and utter bonus - directing, acting, or whatever."

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