Irish actor Kenneth Branagh just cannot leave well enough alone. Not only is he an actor of note (he’s been dubbed the heir apparent to Laurence Olivier), he’s also a director.
And he’s not just any director content with scripts of peril or romance. No, he likes to fool with Shakespeare.
When he directed “Hamlet,” he set the tragedy in 19th century rococo splendor; his Hamlet, an energetic, militaristic blond. He transformed “Love’s Labour’s Lost” into a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical. And now with “As You Like It,” he turns to late 19th century Japan and the arrival of avaricious Western traders. The lavish results premiere on HBO Aug. 21.
All this bravado comes from a kid from the blue-collar class whose mother worked in a tobacco factory and whose dad was a carpenter.
“There were tangible moments in my childhood when I knew they were having a tough time,” he says. “I was brought up in a council house (affordable housing supplied by the local government.) My parents early in married life ran into a bit of trouble - I don’t quite know the details - but I know some money went missing which should’ve been paying mortgage payments. They lost their house.”
When he was 9 the family moved from his native Belfast to Reading, England. That proved to be an unexpected crucible for Branagh. “For a while I was extremely happy and then extremely thrown by a short and not terribly traumatic incident of bullying, but one that I took tremendously personally. I would run away from school and that kind of thing,” he says in a quiet hotel room here.
Branagh feels that incident motivated him to be an actor. “I think one becomes more adept and adroit in a kind of social survivalism to do with the assumption of masks,” he says.
“Being funny was one mask, but sometimes you just kept your head down. I was good at sports. That was also a way of earning your way. That was also a blending in, becoming invisible so you wouldn’t draw the attention of other people who might bully you.”
Branagh forsook invisibility when he became a hot, young thespian in TV’s “Fortunes of War”; costarred with his wife, Emma Thompson, in “Dead Again”; and directed “Henry V” at 29. Though his marriage collapsed, he managed to keep his cool among the deafening kudos.
“Then it was very, very hard to connect what was being said about me with one’s own personal interior sense of oneself,” he says.
“It was connected to where one came from, one’s age and the work one had done. It was obviously very flattering, but I was smart enough to know it was part of what can happen. Whatever the confluence of timing or a particular piece of work ... or the fact that there’s a gap for lauding some kind of new, young individual, I’d seen others. Derek Jacobi was the new Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins was the new Laurence Olivier, so it was kind of a national sport.
“In one way it was helpful because my determination not to dwell on other people’s expectations made me very busy and active and prolific in terms of the work I did,” he says.
“It was being so busy you couldn’t get wrapped up in that because when you did, it was pretty alarming and you knew it had such a short shelf-life as a story and would probably result in a moment when that particular bubble burst. You’re very much NOT the next Laurence Olivier.”
He thinks his background also contributed to his equilibrium. “I also felt the tortured psychology of the northern Irish Protestant Puritan,” he says.
“It probably doesn’t allow you to have a crazy breakdown; to have the fit - it won’t let you do it,” he says.
“That was part of my childhood, whether it was clearing your plate - something I’ve never been able NOT to do. `Clear your plate because somebody in Africa would be glad of that.’ There was a sense that you had to somehow always be remembering that.
“It also came from having had a number of opportunities that were extraordinary and a great privilege. So you could talk yourself off the ledge pretty quickly.”
Happily married to Lindsay Brunnock, Branagh worries that he has no hobbies except work and reading. He spends time in his garden and dabbles in cooking, but it’s clear acting has been his fixation since he was a teen.
“There was a sense - I did plays at 16, 17 - that I was at home,” he recalls. “It gave me such pleasure. And I was not in the middle of a culture that said, `This will make me famous. I HAVE to be famous.’ It was doing something that gave me pleasure that you would do for free.
“I knew it didn’t matter to what level (I rose.) If I could be in plays and be an actor - no matter where I went or how I started or how long it took to establish myself as an actor acting regularly. That was the extent of my ambition. It was a sense of a light going on - a certainty - at 16, 17 there was this gift of certainty. Not about being successful or where you would end up, but about what you were put here to do.”
The gang from Disney’s supercaliflagilistic “High School Musical” will be back Friday with “High School Musical 2,” airing on the Disney Channel. One of the show’s teen stars must have polished up his rabbit foot because Zac Efron hit it big in both the big screen “Hair Spray” and the TV musical.
Unfortunately, says Efron, real high school was never like this. “I WISH! I’m having a blast right now. This is a dream come true. We’re all in a great place and having fun working, having fun promoting these movies,” he says.
The cast had less than three weeks’ rehearsal for 10 production numbers in the piece. “I designed these numbers knowing who I had doing them,” says choreographer Kenny Ortega. “This cast is indescribable in terms of their passion, their commitment, their capability. They are extraordinary. And they raised the bar on this project and on me and everybody that worked on it. And that we were able to accomplish what we accomplished in less than 30 days with less than three weeks of rehearsal, no one has done that. You can’t do that, and it’s never been done. It doesn’t exist in television history. Look for it. You won’t find it.”
Three generations of Van Dykes land on television Saturday when Dick Van Dyke is joined by his son, Barry, and his grandson, Shane, in another of the “Murder 101” series, “If Wishes Were Horses” airing on the Hallmark Channel. “I found that one way to see my children is to give them work,” says the elder Van Dyke, who is also great-grandfather to three. The family gets together mostly on holidays, he says. “But they have very busy lives, these young people.”
Though he says he retired eight years ago, Van Dyke, who’s 81, just keeps on trucking. He’s managed to survive years of physical comedy and says the secret is learning to fall correctly. “Which Chevy Chase never learned and he’s got back trouble. I tried to tell him. He never tucked and rolled. He would just throw himself down. Well, I exercise every day. I either swim or go to the gym or the treadmill or something every day.”
NBC’s superhero hit of last season, “Heroes,” arrives on DVD on Aug. 28, just in time for non-believers to catch up on what they missed before the new season begins on Sept. 24. One of its stars is Masi Oka, who plays the animated Hiro. Creator Tim Kring says that character wasn’t in the original script.
“When I read the first draft of the script - and the character actually didn’t exist - it was sort of a preponderance of characters who felt that these powers were an affliction. And the accumulative effect of it - at the end of reading this first draft - was that it was kind of a downer. Nobody seemed to have any fun with it. And so the character was really created to lighten up the initial script. Now you have to understand, it wasn’t a pilot at the time. It hadn’t been green-lit to be made as a pilot. So it’s still trying to sell the script. And that’s kind of where it came from. I felt I needed one character who embraced it in a very enthusiastic way.”