Kenneth Branagh (‘All Is True’): ‘I was excited more than daunted’ to play William Shakespeare [Complete Interview Transcript]

Sir Kenneth Branagh just released his latest directorial effort, “All Is True,” in which he plays a character very familiar to him, William Shakespeare. Branagh has a history of earning acclaim for his Shakespeare adaptations, earning two Oscar nominations for directing and starring in “Henry V” (1989) and another for adapting “Hamlet” (1996).

Branagh recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about his fascination with Shakespeare, working with legends like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, and the experience of being knighted. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Sir Kenneth Branagh, I just saw your new movie “All Is True” last week and it’s a wonderful new accomplishment for you as a director and the lead actor in it. Tell me, though, you have starred in Shakespeare plays and movies for years and years and years, but now you play William Shakespeare himself. How daunting was that?

Kenneth Branagh: When I was 16 I hitchhiked from my home in Redding, which is just outside London, to Stratford-upon-Avon, so I took the route that Shakespeare would have taken when he was going home from London to Stratford where he was born. Back in 1613 it would have taken him about three days and he used to go back once a year, we think. When I went to Stratford, it was to see the plays of the Royal Shakespeare Theater and it was also to visit the places where Shakespeare the man had lived, the house that he was born in, the house that he bought when he was wealthy and retired and a great celebrity come from having a triumphant life in London, and Anne Hathaway’s cottage, his wife’s old house. It was back then when I was 16, really, that for me, the journey I didn’t realize I was starting on was trying to make a connection between the man and this great icon, so I could walk around Stratford and I could see teacups with his face on it and I could see decals and I knew that the world had written about him and discussed whether he was a man or a woman or a committee of people or an aristocrat or a working class person, but I was walking around in the place that at least the man we know to be William Shakespeare lived, seeing the work that he produced in that theater. Little did I know I was about to spend the rest of my life trying to get closer to him, in an effort to understand. This film, “All Is True,” is the latest part of that exploration and not so much daunting, because so many people have tried every variation of interpreting Shakespeare but exciting. I was excited more than daunted.

GD: What do you recall about your first encounter with him as a child?

KB: It was partly that the word was associated with being a cultural medicine, if you like. I come from a working-class background. My parents didn’t go to the theater, didn’t know who Shakespeare was, and I think there was a degree of intimidation. The first maybe encounter was on television when I was a child growing up in Belfast. I would’ve been eight, nine years old, and that was to see Richard Chamberlain on television, a popular actor who had a great television success as Dr. Kildare. He was quite the heartthrob and he played Hamlet on television, on mainstream U.K. television and that drew you to it. Even then I began to understand, “Oh, man from television series hit plays in Shakespeare.” That draws people in. That was the beginnings of it, and then really the turning point was seeing a production of “Romeo and Juliet” in a theater where the crowd, 1,100 kids my age were going crazy about a play that was about violence and gangs and teenage love and everybody getting wildly caught up in it and screaming with the fights, wolf-whistling the boys and the girls. That was my first visceral encounter with it and thinking, “God, when this works, you really lean forward.” So from intimidation to appreciation was where I went.

GD: What was the first play you did of his?

KB: The first one I was in was Shakespeare’s “Othello.” I was 16 and I played the role of Cassio and later on it was a great pleasure to be in a film of “Othello” directed by Oliver Parker in which I played Iago, the most villainous of Shakespeare’s villains, opposite the great Laurence Fishburne as Othello. It was already the process of understanding, “This is a lifetime’s work.” It’s like if you’re interested in music, you listen to music, whatever that music is, you can deepen your appreciation as time passes. So when it came to “Othello,” I thought by the time I got to play it on film I really carried some of that early experience, going to see lots of productions of it, performances of it, and I realized that with Shakespeare it’s like a great piece of music or poetry or a fine wine as you might say. You go back to it and it feels richer and it tastes more beautiful and my experience continued to be better each time I went to a play.

GD: This film focuses on the very last years of his life. It starts with the fire that burns down his theater which is his lifelong passion and one of his biggest sources of income, and then he goes back home to visit and stay with his family. Tell us about why you wanted to focus on that portion of his life, because I had not really seen that onscreen before?

KB: Neither had I, and that was one reason. Also to place him a situation that maybe as you rightly say, as would be the case with anybody who faced the loss of their capacity to earn money and their place of work, so tied up with that, in this case literally the place where they collected the money, the theater, which would have 3,000 people per afternoon, all evidence suggests that he was very traumatized by this. It’s also at the end of a 20-year period of success in which he’d averaged a couple of plays a year and so to make a decision when you’re 49 years old to return to your own small hometown and I guess use the money that you have to take a break from all that is a decision that I think for anyone, parents and children, they understand when that kind of thing happens, when that dynamic in the family, the breadwinner in the household suddenly decides they’re stopping, they’re retiring, in Shakespeare’s case, that retirement was peppered by some incidents that were extraordinary. Both daughters were involved in sexual scandals, there were questions about the nature of his will, he was involved in some unfortunate land dealings, which was subject to much discussion.

He was in a very gossipy society, very litigious society, lots of people who sued each other for minor and major matters, going back to a place where his own father had been disgraced, had a great personal financial collapse and crisis, all of those things felt very human, very human-scale. “Man loses job and has to find new purpose in life with family he doesn’t know very well.” That felt like a rich place to start and it was very different from the idea of Shakespeare the incredible artist, where everything about what he produced would be overwhelming if you tried to take on the whole thing. Take on this domestic corner of his life but a very important one, a place from which you could understand how his life potentially provided the laboratory material for the plays, for the human beings he wrote about, because all those late plays he wrote had complicated relationships between fathers and daughters. They were often about the reunification of families and they were often crucially and movingly about lost children. So this period of his retirement seemed the place to understand how his life intersected with his art.

GD: For somebody that wrote some of the greatest projects, greatest plays of all time, I would’ve thought he would have been more verbal. The way you play him, he’s so quiet in this portion of his life. Do you think he was like that because these events changed him or was he like that most of his life?

KB: It’s an interesting question. The word that is used to describe him by fellow colleagues and writers, Ben Jonson, who we meet at the end of the film, [John] Heminges and [Henry] Condell who prepared his place, the word they used regularly was “gentle,” that he was a gentle man. I take that to read not weak but an observational person, someone who, to absorb all of that studied behavior in the great and the not so great, appears as though it’s someone who had a kind of personality that would allow him to be accepted by various groups. There were 170 royal performances that his theater group made. That’s a lot of time to watch the court. That’s a lot of time to see the great and the good at work, kings and queens, but he came from the country. He came from working people. He also had a lot of time to absorb those, and nature itself. He wrote very well about nature. I think he was strongly an observer and a man almost bewildered by his own talent. I think he didn’t necessarily understand how it all came together, but he refers to it as a God-given gift. He does respond to it as best he can but I think his quietness, his introspection is legitimately born out of a man who, in his creative life, expressed as much as you possibly could about a human being. He had people confess their innermost thoughts. This film is partly about his relationship with his son, Hamnet. Take one consonant away and you get “Hamlet,” one of his most famous plays. There’s a discussion of the human condition which is verbal to a degree and maybe if you produced that in your life, the likelihood is perhaps that you may be a quieter, or as they said about him, more gentle individual.

GD: I’m glad you mentioned that portion of the story because you have been known in your career, I think you love mysteries as much as you love Shakespeare because you had “Murder on the Orient Express” last year, one of my favorites ever was “Dead Again.” You like mysteries and this movie has a bit of a mystery to solve as well.

KB: Yes. I enjoyed that Shakespeare became detective of his own life in the end. Everything that we can put into the movie that is factual is in there. Hamnet Shakespeare died in 1596. There was no cause of death recorded. There were a very, very, very small number of people, five children died that summer in Stratford and way below the figures you would expect if plague had struck, and yet plague is unquestionably what is associated with his death. Shakespeare writes about children who die of broken hearts. He writes a play called “Hamlet” where someone commits suicide as a result of drowning. The ways in which his consideration of death breathe through those plays also has an impact on how he considers what might have happened to Hamnet. Once he gets the suspicion that he has not been told everything, then he’s on it like a bloodhound, as you might imagine. He has a sort of Sherlock Holmes streak to him. Of course, be careful what you wish for and what you look to find out because particularly in families, secrets can be buried very deep and for a reason. That mystery part of it is I think both an intellectual puzzle and then quite an emotional blow.

GD: You reunite with Judi Dench in this movie. You worked with her several times over the years on stage as well as “Murder on the Orient Express.” She just had a birthday this past week. We did a photo gallery ranking all of the movies in her career. What would you guess would be number one? What would be your favorite movie in her career?

KB: Ooh.

GD: I’ll tell you what we chose while you think about it for a second. We didn’t go “Shakespeare in Love.” It’s an Oscar-winning performance obviously but it’s very short. We went with “Notes on a Scandal.” I think that’s a wonderful movie of hers.

KB: I agree that that’s a very, very strong candidate because Judi loves the kind of character you wouldn’t necessarily associate with her. She’s often associated with the steely, sexy, commanding qualities of an M, in the James Bond films, or with the soft, compassionate, witty nature of the character in the Marigold Hotel films. I know that Judi loved playing in “Notes on a Scandal.” Great relationship with Cate Blanchett and a terrific edge. For a woman who creates a lot of emotional responses in audiences, Judi herself when it comes to acting is very unsentimental. She likes not to manipulate the audience. She’s tough and of course that character in “Notes on a Scandal” was both a manipulator but also a terrifically tough individual by the end, a deadly individual, and you wouldn’t describe her exactly as a villain, but certainly a part with some dark materials and Judi, like most actors, loves to play that. I’d second that vote.

GD: Oh, good. We made the right choice. Now, Ian McKellen is in this movie and it’s one particularly long scene but just one scene. The two of you really get at it almost like a play, and as I’m watching it I’m thinking, “Wow, these two men must be having a fantastic time doing this,” and it’s almost like a master acting class. He is so subtle but so good in this movie.

KB: The chance to work with him was my first time. It was something that I wanted to do all through my career. I asked Ian to be in “Henry V” many years ago and it didn’t work out. He’s been teasing me about not having worked with me since and Derek Jacobi getting all the parts instead. It was a great honor to work with him on this occasion. Ben Elton, our screenwriter produced a terrific scene for us, ending with this usually but very beguiling notion of a sonnet being felt and spoken by Shakespeare as if it were a sort of love letter to this man. That in itself is an unusual thing to happen in this movie, which has been 40 minutes of family drama with a heterosexual relationship at the center of it and then the movie goes sideways as you suddenly understand that there may be more to Shakespeare’s romantic life than that. In comes Southhampton and Ian brings with him the glamor and the sophistication and also a very particular kind of love, a love that is unusual and that Shakespeare really values, someone who so deeply appreciates his work, someone who has a sensitivity for it. It then spirals downward into something more universal, that although Southhampton may love Shakespeare’s work, he doesn’t love Shakespeare the man in that way and suddenly the miscommunication, love for the work, is misinterpreted for love for the person. He offers his own vulnerable shot at declaring his love for Southhampton who knocks it back not only because he doesn’t feel that way but also because Shakespeare’s not of sufficient social class.

It’s a very brutal thing, as you say, done with great subtlety by Ian, who then has this final dazzling departure which is to repeat that sonnet back to him but completely in his own way, so that it’s a completely different thing and yet in some strange, subtle way in the doublespeak of it all, that very same man who just rejected him so savagely is saying, “But by the way, I remember our song, too. I have it learnt by heart but it means something different to me.” I think that that was a very interesting thing in the writing and it was a real joy to play with Ian. It has an electric quality in the film. It was the one time in the movie where I used two cameras on the actors at the same time. Everywhere else we usually locked down a single camera and played in quite long takes with lots of actors in the take at the same time. This one was all about catching those little subtle nuances at the same time.

GD: As we wrap up, I had a question for you about being knighted a few years ago, five years ago. How do they reach out? How does that process even work? Is it a phone call? Is it a letter? How do you find out?

KB: As far as I understand, in my case, it was a letter about six or seven weeks out from the announcement informing you in very formal language that “Her Majesty is minded,” I think that’s the phrase, “to confer upon you the title of Knight Bachelor. Please indicate in the enclosed envelope whether you would be prepared to accept such an honor.” You’re required to send that reply and then you don’t hear anything again. So actually, you’re not quite sure that having said yes they’ve in fact accepted you or whether you might suddenly have the honors of that particular year announced and not be there. It’s a very formal missive out of the blue, which is very clear, to which you reply simply and then you wait and see and six weeks later, suddenly you switch on the news and there you are. And in this case, about four months after that, I was lucky enough to go to Buckingham Palace and to be knighted in person by Her Majesty the Queen.

GD: I didn’t know specifics but certain people have decided not to do it. I wondered if they had been reached out to like you were. They don’t want a public denial so I guess they wanna know yes or no weeks ahead and then if you don’t, they don’t announce you and there’s no public humility for either side.

KB: It’s all a very discrete thing and some people don’t agree with the honor system and some people do and some people have issues with it and some people don’t. I think they try and come up with a system that respects all of those differing points of view.

GD: Has it changed your life at all?

KB: Not in any sort of outward way, but I was very moved by it and I think that these things mean very, very little and in some ways they mean a lot. What you cannot underestimate is how moving it is to actually be doing a job where you even have the possibility of what you do be acknowledged in this way. I know a lot of people who do amazing work in all sorts of fields who don’t have this opportunity and whose work just isn’t seen in the same way or isn’t appreciated. It isn’t a case of not being valued. I’m certainly aware of how lucky we are as people in the performing arts. Your work gets a chance to be seen regularly enough, loudly enough to allow the possibility for a public thank you to happen, so when it does, it’s touching. You’re very grateful when people appreciate what you do. You’re very aware that not everyone gets the chance to be appreciated and has it changed my life? Well, it’s changed my life in as much as every day I say thank you for the opportunity to have one’s work acknowledged, to be grateful for the gratitude and to be humbled by it. In that sense, it does change you. It makes you more aware of your very, very good fortune, but it does not make me walk around daily in a suit of armor. That’s the one thing it doesn’t do.

GD: I hope it leads to a lot of people seeing “All Is True” in theaters over the next few weeks and it’s a nice Christmas present for all of us. Thank you so much. It’s always nice to talk to you.

KB: Thanks a lot, Chris. Good to see you. All the best.

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