Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Kenneth Branagh

In the Company of Ken

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Thirteen years after his audacious, passionate Henry V, which caused writers all over the world to call him the "next Olivier," Kenneth Branagh now has his very first blockbuster under his belt.

Sure, he's made successful movies before, but this is the first time that children of all ages have stopped him on the street to meet him.

We're talking Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In that film, which has already grossed more than $150 million, Branagh plays the egotistical, cowardly Gilderoy Lockhart, a successful author who has made a career out of publishing lies and embellishments. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry hires him for a year of teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts and he winds up deeper into trouble than he could have imagined.

"I think there's a kind of instant understanding that this guy is an idiot," Branagh says during a recent phone conversation from London. "Only an idiot could have that much confidence and that much lack of awareness. He's in his own impregnable bubble of delicious narcissism."

Branagh says he worked on the film on and off for about 9 and a half months, with a break in-between to perform a new version of Richard III for the stage.

The actor spent a good deal of this time filming the many book covers for Lockhart's books -- in the Harry Potter world, photographs can move around -- and working with invisible creatures, such as a cage full of pixies, that wouldn't exist until the finished film. It's the first time Branagh has acted with computer-generated images.

"Chris Columbus is so skilled at this. He tells you, 'This one's going to come from 90 degrees and it swoops around to 45 degrees, now it's at your head and now your stomach." Branagh saw the finished film at its London premiere. "It's such a relief to see that there are pixies."

Branagh also shared a few scenes with real-life actors, notably Alan Rickman, who plays Professor Snape, and Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint who play Harry and Ron. On such a big special effects film, actors spend a lot of time waiting around. And so Branagh passed the time talking with Rickman. "I'm a huge fan of his. Just the sitting and chewing the cud stuff was really exciting. He's so smart and he has a million stories. We had great fun."

Of course Branagh loved the kids as well, calling them "really special kids" and "good company."

It's hard not to compare Lockhart with the real-life Branagh, who wrote an audacious autobiography called Beginning at age 28 for the sole purpose of raising money for Henry V.

"Several people mentioned that I was really sending myself up. There's an implicit assumption that I'm an egomaniac," he says. "I think the hubris of [the book] annoyed the bejeezus out of people. At 28, you're not clever enough to hide things, so it's all there warts and all. I'll be honest: I'm glad I wrote it. Now I would be embellishing and re-remembering."

Like mostly everyone else on the planet, Branagh had previously read the Harry Potter books when his sister gave them to him as a recent Christmas gift.

He met Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling at the film's premiere and was dying to ask her if Gilderoy Lockhart makes a return appearance in any of the upcoming books. Though he resisted, he enjoyed her compliment for him: "you were loathsome. It was brilliant."

Even with this command performance under his belt, Branagh still has a few more exciting projects coming up. Firstly, Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence opens on Christmas Day, and it could be the best serious Oscar contender out there this year.

Branagh plays kind of villain, a British administrator in charge of separating half-caste Aborigine children from their parents and raising them as white Christians. But the character actually believes he's doing the right thing and truly cannot understand why anyone would disagree with him. "I was pleased to see that Phillip wanted that kind of adherence to a sort of code," Branagh says.

He also hopes to return to Richard III sometime soon. He feels he nearly got it right but didn't have enough time to really play around with it. He hasn't considered a movie version just yet, but says he would be honored to bring the play to San Francisco.

"They're all smart as nuts out there. But a tough crowd -- because they're so smart."

November 26, 2002

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