Kenneth Branagh On Playing Shakespeare In 'All Is True' And If He's Caught Up On The MCU [Interview]

Although he has tackled roles and projects varied in scope, both on the stage and screen, actor/director Kenneth Branagh made his name by bringing the plays of William Shakespeare to the masses (much like his hero, Lawrence Olivier) through a series of films that attracted an array of well-known faces, staged in ways that made the sometimes impenetrable words of the Bard accessible and joyous. Beginning 30 years ago with his triumphant Henry V, Branagh moved through a series of filmed adaptations (both as an actor and director, although not always both) in such works as Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love's Labours Lost, Othello (directed by Oliver Parker), and As You Like It.Of course, he's also acted and directed in non-Shakespeare works as well, most notably behind the camera for films like Dead Again, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Cinderella, and 2017's star-studded Murder on the Orient Express, as well as acting roles in The Gingerbread Man, Wild Wild West, Valkyrie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Dunkirk.It seems only fitting that he would eventually star and direct a work in which he played Shakespeare. But All Is True is not your typical biopic. Commissioning a screenplay by Ben Elton, the movie examines the playwright's later years, after he has retired from writing, as he struggles to blend back in with a wife (Judi Dench) and grown daughters whom he essentially abandoned 20 years earlier for the life of a celebrity. But he struggles with his return to Stratford with memories of a son who died too young and a family who doesn't know what to do with him as he plays the part of a caring father. The film reveals a great deal about how Shakespeare attempted to deal with certain life struggles through his works, and Branagh delivers one of the most engaging, understated, and moving performances of his career. And if you can't get enough of Branagh the director, he's also got a little Disney project called Artemis Fowl on the way, based on the exceedingly popular series of books by Eoin Colfer./Film spoke with Branagh recently to discuss the importance of Shakespeare in his life and career; working with McKellen for the first time; his voice cameo in Avengers: Infinity War and playing detective Hercule Poirot once again in Death on the Nile (which he'll also direct, with a cast that includes Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, and Letitia Wright). All Is True is currently playing in select cities and opens nationwide on Friday, May 17.You shot this between Murder on the Orient Express and Artemis Fowl. What level of palate cleansing was going on in making this, and are you always looking for moments in your schedule where you can make something smaller and more personal?Kenneth: It always has been been complementary—the yin and the yang of scale. I was so happy to do something on a very small scale—a chamber piece is how I pitched it to Ben Elton when talking about the idea of him writing a screenplay. There was a desire to follow the interior life of a very complicated character, who I now had a lifetime of immersion in rehearsing, being inside the mind of many of his characters, enough to get a sense of how much of a factor it was that had maybe the stuff of Shakespeare's life reflected in the plays and back again in to his own life. It was a desire to return to something so small, so internal, so interior, so without special visual effects, so particular. Way before even getting into movies, I had that desire to experience that feeling of switching so that each activity complemented the other. You would go back to the other subject matter, whether it was a new play or classical play, with a fresh perspective. The cleansing of the palate is a clear way of describing it, actually.With All Is True, I was almost tempted to say it was low stakes, but I believe you playing William Shakespeare might be the highest stakes of all. Do you feel like this isn't a role you could have taken on 20 years ago, that you needed to have all of this experience in order to tackle this part?Kenneth: The final nudge for me was being in his play The Winter's Tale with Judi Dench and feeling the preoccupation with the loss of a child in that play, it made me read other plays of his that were also concerned with twins, and the later plays in his career were concerned with difficult relationships with daughters, amongst other things. It brought me back to the idea how personally affected, dare I say haunted, Shakespeare could or might have been by the loss of his son Hamnet at the age of 11 in 1596. It was also being exposed to those last plays where you feel inside the plays an almost desperate desire for reconciliation or closure, so much so that to the surprise of the audience, he uses magic as a device. In The Tempest, Cymbeline, Pericles and The Winter's Tale, statues come to life and fairies fly down from the skies. It's almost as if he longs for the happy ending that he knows has not been possible in his life or anybody's life—it's a bittersweet affair.And it led me back to the man and that period when the Globe Theatre burned down, and I sat down with Ben Elton and said, "What do you think happened? What do we know did happen?" And we started looking at the facts and built a fiction around them, and the fiction came from our understanding of the preoccupations in the plays. So one bled into the other, and it became a personal preoccupation that was relatively free of too many concerns about whether I was playing it or not playing it. It's a film that just wanted to happen.Most films about historical figures focus on their peak years, and this is an interesting look at what happened when Shakespeare was essentially playing the role of a retired person who is attempting to reconnect with this family that he abandoned 20 years earlier. Did you see him as struggling with his return because his family thought he'd given up on them?Kenneth: It's an interesting thing you say there about playing the part. A Shakespearean preoccupation is the interest in theater and make-believe and what actors do and what is real. Actors perform convincingly and suddenly you start crying, even though you know that what they're performing is unreal, a fiction. He was always aware of that duality. When he comes home, there is some sense that he is performing. And he was across the 20 years of his success a producer, an actor, a writer, but he is acting the role of the returning hero but not greeted as such. He's attempting to do something with a creativity, which up until that point has been prolific and focused, and now its struggles to find itself in an area of his interest but not expertise—his garden—which really reveals itself to be something more of a personal cry to create a memorial garden for that son who he continues to mourn and is literally haunted by. In a way, the first parts of the film are what you're articulating, where [wife] Anne Hathaway and [daughter] Judith both see. They don't know what their parts are; it's quiet and they don't know what to say. Where do you start? How do you begin to rebuild these relationships? In fact, they can't in a phony way, and instead it reveals itself because things fall away and it falls away to the matters that are most pertinent—potential betrayal with the Lord of Southhampton, what happened to Hamnet, the secrets and lies that may be involved—and suddenly that protective shell around the family that is civility and manners and pretending to be some happy retiree falls away and an explosive reality of what lies beneath is at play, with most of the explosives hurled by Judith.I want to talk about the scene you have with Ian McKellen. It was because of that scene that I became utterly convinced you had shot it lit just by candlelight. It look so good. This is your first time as a director shooting digitally, so you could get those moment much easier. Talk about staging that sequence and what you and he talked about beforehand, especially in terms of how deceptively simple that moment is but how much is conveyed.Kenneth: We were both excited to read it. When the scene came up in Ben's screenplay, it was already a genius idea of his to have this unrequited love affair discussed and explored in this scene whilst also providing a sort of hand grenade in the household for the women of the house to deal with. That indignity is explored when the great man leaves. I got to rehearse the scene in rather intimidating fashion by visiting Ian at his workplace, which was with The Duke of York's Theatre in the West End, where he was about to play King Lear that very evening. I must say, I was rather sheepishly nervous in his dressing room thinking "Christ, you've got bigger things on your mind tonight than doing this." [laughs]And you two have never worked together, right?Kenneth: Correct. When I asked him to be in Henry V years ago, he wasn't able to do that. He's since complained that Derek Jacobi has stolen all of his parts ever since. So he was happy to do this and was the quickest Yes I've ever had from an actor, probably two hours after the script arrived. He was a complete pro from start to finish, including this rehearsal where it became clear as we were rehearing that the performance of it became simpler and simpler and stiller and stiller. I remember, the light was just falling in his dressing room, which helped introduce the idea of using candlelight. I told him this, that we really would only be lit by candles, and what happened on the day, in so doing, the cameras disappeared—you couldn't see anything. It was so dark and so hypnotic and preternaturally still. Also, Ian is a dazzling, charismatic figure—I saw him that evening in King Lear and he was quite magnificent—and when he came onto the set, he was the same way.We made the decision, which I shared with him, that we would shoot with two cameras, and the whole thing would be about the interplay between us. It would not be about getting his performance and then getting mine; it was always about getting both performances at the same time so that any hesitation, an improvisation would be picked up and usable. In fact, every take became an act of theater. We did it from start to finish each time, never a word was dropped, from a man who just played King Lear, and he was about to be 80, and he was in tip-top form, as I knew he would be. He's a guy who talks about acting at the highest level, as something that needs discipline, and with Shakespeare you need that and a lot of technique and preparation. But you also want the things to fly. At it's best, which he is, you also have a jazz that can follow, and he shows that in the way that he bats back the sonnet that I put to him, doing it in a completely different way with a completely different meaning, with absolute confidence.Performing the scene with him was a bit like time travel. I was riveted by him; he's an amazing performer. So was Shakespeare on Southhampton—that was part of our understanding that Shakespeare could be dazzled and distracted by the possibility of this last hurrah of this great "might-have-been" in life, however painful it was for his wife that this was happening in the very same house. But the parallel that and being in a candlelit room with Ian McKellen and playing Shakespeare had an electricity that is rare in my experience as a performer. He's a great, great hero of mine, and to perform the scene with him was one of the most memorable things I've evert had the chance to do in my whole career.I believe this is the 67 film in a row you've made with Judi Dench, and there's a wonderful moment at the end of this where you start quoting A Midsummer Night's Dream and you mention Tatania. I have just recently seen the 1968 film version of that in which she played that role, and you even say something to her like "Well, you probably know the rest." Was that a reference to that performance?Kenneth: Good catch. Actually "You probably know the rest" was because I had messed up the line. [laughs] I had paraphrased slightly, and Judi's eyes in that scene reveal that she caught me red handed. She was highly amused that I was committing to celluloid permanence my ineptitude. So I knew she was desperate to put it right. It wasn't planned, but I said that and then she gave the line "And there the snake throws her enameled skin / Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in," and it stayed in the movie. I was highly tickled.The last time we spoke was in 2012, and it was a few months after Thor was released but before the first Avengers movie, and I asked if you would keep up with these characters that you help launch into the cinematic world. I wanted to ask you if you were still keeping up, and I believe you had a voice cameo in the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War as the distress call coming from the Asgardian ship. Are you caught up?Kenneth: I'm not caught up. I'll tell you what, the first weekend of Avengers: Endgame, I sat in my house and went online with six local cinemas to try and get a seat, but I swear to God, I couldn't get in. I could not get in, absolutely. It was staggering.You're doing films with Disney now. Were you just around, and they asked you to put in that voice in Infinity War?Kenneth: Louis D'Esposito, who is co-chairman at Marvel Studios, just rang me. It's a very collegiate with those guys, and I feel like I'm part of the family. It was as simple as that; he just rang me up and said, "We'd love you to do this. Can I put you on the phone with the Russo brothers?," which I did the next day. And they are quite charming and terrific guys, and I was happy to do it. I was very chuffed to still be in their thoughts. With those movies, everything means something, and people are looking for Easter eggs, and I hope that one gave some people pleasure.Next up for you is Death on the Nile.Kenneth: It is. We start shooting in the late summer, and I'm excited.That's unique: a franchise film where all the characters change except for you.Kenneth: Well, we might have some surprises, actually. I can't tell you anymore, else I'd have to kill you.Of course. Thank you so much. Great talking to you again, and best of luck with this.Kenneth: I really appreciate that. Thank you very much.