Healthy, Wealthy And Wise?
With Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh and his motley collection of British sitcom actors and Hollywood superstars spent the summer in Tuscany drinking Chianti, eating pasta and - rather irritatingly - emerging with yet another triumphant Shakespeare adaptation. Jeff Dawson takes a little light lunch with the A-team...
"The downstairs loo," says Emma Thompson. "I keep it in the downstairs loo. I was a bit frightened about having it in the kitchen because there's lots of windows and I thought someone might nick it, so I put it in the loo because everybody ends up going there and then they can do whatever they want with it in front of the mirror."
Though the Academy almost certainly never intended their little keepsake to be something you posed with after you've washed your hands, an eccentric Brit can, of course, do as he or she damn well pleases, and Emma Thompson, 1992's Best Actress for her sterling performance in Howards End and proud owner of said Oscar, is merely exercising her perogative. And here at the exclusive La Poule D'Or (er, The Golden Chicken) restaurant in Cannes she's doing a bit of tubthumping for Blighty on behalf of hubby Kenneth Branagh's latest flick - a skilful adaptation of William Shakespeare's ripping yarn of love, trust and treachery that is Much Ado About Nothing. Already a hit in the US due to its masterly mix of solid British thesps (Branagh, Thompson), stellar Yanks (Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton), that all-important period setting (sun-drenched 18th Century Tuscany) and, of course, a copper-bottomed story penned by the master himself, it is Shakespeare at his sexiest - and most fun. The French may have their cuisine, the French may have their wine, the French may have their foul-smelling cigarettes, but we British will always have "The Bard". Oh yes, William Shakespeare was a visionary - not least because he penned 36 film scripts 300 years before the invention of cinema. But there is art and there is food, and for Thompson, dressed in elegant Miyake jacket, but exuding the customary aura of Cannes fatigue -"I haven't had any sleep, I look like shit and I am literally starving" - the langoustine takes priority.
"I have a very strong and ambivalent relationship with Shakespeare," declares a blazered Kenneth Branagh, plonking his esteemed posterior down at the table, spurning the lobster in favour of a spot of hearty banter. "Much as his work inspires me and has given me great satisfaction, I have often been bored shitless by bad productions. You get caught up in an intimidation factor to do with this genius who can often seem rather stuffy and museum-like. The film medium, with its naturalism and realism, seemed to me to serve pretty well a playwright who, when he is done truthfully, does seem utterly real."
Though the most famous screen adaptations remain Olivier's Henry V (1945) and Hamlet (1948), Branagh, with his own audacious directorial debut Henry V (1989), made at the tender age of 28 and released to great critical acclaim, is edging into the same spotlight. And luckily Shakespeare is still great currency (Hamlet, Prospero's Books and Edward II have been released in the last three years alone) and what better way to cut a pound of flesh, as Branagh has discovered - it's already on its way to a $20 million take in the US, a huge figure for an arthouse hit - than to stick some hot actors in some frilly frocks, have them all get a suntan ("I got mine out of a bottle. Basically an Irish boy," quips Branagh), open with a galumphing horseback imitation of The Magnificent Seven and frolic around in the breathtaking scenery of Tuscany?
Hey, as they say, nonny nonny.
"This play is youthful," explains Branagh of his decision to film the whole thing al fresco, a far cry from his set-bound $45 million Frankenstein epic that goes before the cameras this autumn with Robert De Niro as the monster. "There's a lot of sex in it, a lot of sex in the language, a lot of sexual imagery, and I just felt it needed to be outside. I felt it should be surrounded by nature and ripeness and grapes and sweat and horses and just that kind of lusty, bawdy thing."
And what a place to do that lusty, bawdy thing, spending most of summer 1992 at the 14th Century Villa Vignamaggio near Greve (the very epicentre of the Chianti wine region), once the home of the Geradini family who, with nothing better to do one afternoon in 1503, called up local artist Leonardo and bunged him a few lira to do a painting on the balcony of their daughter Lisa (married name La Gioconda), a portrait that now hangs on the wall in The Louvre, safely protected behind several layers of Japanese tourists.
"It was important in this thing because it established a kind of company feel for the movie," elaborates Branagh of the decision to move everyone to the one locale and camp out for the summer. "By the time we'd all fallen off horses together, learnt the song at the end, done all this stuff that you would do in the theatre - within a day, we were a company."
And, of course, it does help if you can count on a bit of good homely support.
"It's been great because she knows her lines and turns up on time," says Mr. Branagh of 'er indoors, the pair of them serving up the film's engaging sub-plot in the form of the verbal sparring between the world-weary Benedick and Beatrice, double-crossed into an amusing game of denying their affections for each other.
"All these things sound really boring," he continues, "but, fuck me, it makes a difference. Every day going to work on any film I've made, I've felt physically sick and I don't think that'll change. I had a wonderful walk to work on Much Ado, going through a vineyard and an olive grove every morning and I'd still feel sick in the stomach. The best part of the day, though, is finishing and that first beer. I don't think I'm a natural at it, you know, and so much of it is to do with people management. To keep the actors happy, to keep the crew happy, I need to create an atmosphere that is harmonious and to try and stop trouble before it happens and it's just exhausting."
But having an Oscar-winning other half sure does help...
"I tell you, when you know that you've got somebody there who leads the team, who leads by example without being prissy about it, but just gets on with it, it makes a huge, huge difference. "
Even if it means that the two of you end up playing second fiddle to the real romantic leads, Robert Sean Leonard's Claudio and Kate Beckinsale's Hero?
"I am, as people have end-lessly pointed out to me, not your Michelle Pfeiffer, " chimes in Thompson, tucking into the fresh fruit salad and explaining why the Branaghs let those parts pass up. "Not gorgeous to look at in that way, and a bit sort of English-looking perhaps, sort of lantern-jawed and a bit hefty, so I can't really play the ingénue."
But surely, after the Oscar, Ms. Thompson can do what the hell she wants?
"I think maybe the world should have a rest from us, but it was like Beatrice and Benedick really suited us."
So does that mean life hasn't changed since Oscar?
"The only difference is that when people come to the house and go to the loo, they take longer now," says Branagh reassuringly. "They really do..."
"There's a man on a roof and he's trying to photograph the city, this beautiful skyline picture," declares Robert Sean Leonard, dedicating his joke to Kenneth Branagh. "And he falls over the edge, for 40 storeys, and he hits an overhanging canopy-type thing and bounces about 200 feet in the air. A mattress truck is driving by. He lands on the mattress truck, bounces out and lands on the sidewalk, and this man says to him, 'By God, you're the luckiest man in the world.' And he says, 'No, Robert Sean Leonard is the luckiest man in the world!' My friend Jean made that up. Now it's our favourite joke..."
Though it is standard practice to speak favourably of your director, this - for sooth's sake - is way beyond the pale.
"You know, I went out there and whored myself, shamelessly campaigned and got the role," he gushes, grappling with a sliver of beef, regaling how he bent the ear of Herr Branagh on the Prague set of Swing Kids to land the part of the dashing Claudio, the silly billy who ends up dumping poor old Hero on their wedding day.
"Claudio does a terrible thing, humiliating her like that," chips in the sweet little Kate Beckinsale - 19-year-old daughter of the late Richard Beckinsale ("Noight Fletch") - the jilted lover sighing (and chain-smoking) like a furnace, who managed not only to pull off her part without making it too drippy-girly but also to cram in the filming during her summer break from studying Russian and French at New College, Oxford. "The men then just had no experience of women... a bit like Oxford, really."
"Robert and Kate really look as though they haven't quite entered life yet," adds Branagh. "They just have that innocent thing about them, so you can believe that Claudio can be as irrational as he is and that he can fall in love with that instant kind of abandon and he can also behave appallingly over that wedding scene. Youth explains some of the silliness of the behaviour. I wanted to cast some non-Brits and would have done regardless of having them turn out to be terrific actors."
Indeed, the mix of redoubtable British thesps and some of Hollywood's top names was, it seems, a blast for the boy from Belfast.
"You know, it was just fascinating," he explains. "You put Michael Keaton and Richard Briers in a scene together - I find that both bizarre and rather moving. I remember Keaton saying to me afterwards, 'This guy knows about timing. This guy is funny. This is a funny guy.' And I said, 'Darling, he's been funny in our country for about the last 30 years, you know, he's a kind of national institution.' Hahahahaha. "
And how exactly does one get the likes of Denzel Washington and major heart-throb Keanu Reeves, not to mention Batman himself, to star in your strange little adaptation of not-exactly Shakespeare's most famous play?
"All these guys have made interesting career choices," says Branagh. "They're not conventional movie stars. I thought maybe they would do it, so I asked them. And they did."
Despite Branagh's keenness that the Yanks keep a "kind of unstuffiness about their accents", Keanu Reeves, for one, is intent on talking "British" here today.
"Can I hold the lantern please," he declares in his best Dick Van Dyke, standing up, striking a pose in his baggy brown suit and braces and reminding us that he was, in a previous incarnation, not-terribly-convincing-Englishman Jonathan Harker in Francis Coppola's Brain Stoker's Dracula.
"I mean, it wasn't bad, right?" he asks, seeking reassurance about his somewhat useless accent. (It's a testament to Branagh's skills that in Much Ado his Brit intonation is near perfect.) "They toned it down for Dracula. I really laid it on thick, but Francis felt it was a little, er, over the top."
Softly spoken, well-mannered and extremely punctual, Keanu Reeves is nothing like his public airhead image - an image that, despite previous serious roles in such films as River's Edge and Dangerous Liaisons, he has been stuck with for years and is something he hopes his turn as bearded baddie Don John in Much Ado will help to correct.
"It's more typecasting of personality than acting," he says. "The most that I've ever felt this, I guess, is through Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, because I got opportunistically preyed upon. You know, I'm not the most eloquent man, so sometimes my acting and my life get conveniently put together by the media. You find yourself being packaged. I certainly don't want to be pigeonholed as, I don't know about a heart-throb, but if people go, 'Wow I didn't know you could do that,' or if they respond to it in a positive way and that brings about other opportunities, then ... cool."
If ever there was a truly tragic word, it was "cool", but, tush tush, at least Keanu will be able to add some quality prose to the stuff he spouted in the Prince Hal bit from 1991's My Own Private Idaho. And it was all such fun, too ...
"The sun was shining, we'd be sitting together waiting for our horses to drink before another go against the road and we'd be hearing stories," he recalls. "I mean, there were extraordinary personalities, you know, like Brian Blessed."
The thought of Keanu Reeves, one of Hollywood's hippest and hottest young things, hanging out with the booming-voiced bloke who used to be in Z Cars has still not yet sunk in when, suddenly, it happens.
"Woooah ... Mr. Washington," yells Reeves as Denzel Washington struts through the door. "Hey, I was going into a riff!"
Reeves and Washington embrace enthusiastically - you half expect them to end with a quick burst of air guitar - but then the moment's gone. The riff is over ...
"Mr." Washington (Reeves calls everyone Mr.), the dashing Don Pedro, Prince Of Aragon, is no stranger to Shakespeare, having performed Richard III and Coriolanus on the New York stage to critical acclaim.
"I hadn't done anything after Malcolm X," grins Denzel, fiddling with his "sensible" pullover and emitting a wicked gurgle of a laugh. "I didn't want to do anything, I didn't have the energy to, do anything, so this was perfect because this was nothing, hahahahaha. I mean, how many opportunities are there to do Shakespeare and get two months in Tuscany? It was a nice small part, it was gonna be fun and I didn't have to carry the film by any stretch of the imagination. It was great just to dress up, it was like being a kid, you know, put some leather pants on. It was a vacation for me. I didn't do anything, I just learned the lines. The Chianti and the pasta was very good, too. "
Washington was unhappy, however, with one aspect of the production.
"I don't think I like working with actor-directors," he says. "I don't like it because they can't be there, they have to go directing, not to knock the two people because I love them both (Spike Lee and Branagh), but it doesn't work for me."
So how does a tough nut American, portrayer of radical black American leader Malcolm X find working with a bunch of sissy limeys?
"A bunch of wankers, right?" grins Denzel in his finest Queen And Country cockney. "They take the piss out of each other all the time, just constantly swearing and, what's the guy's name, Brian Blessed? Oh man, he's great. He's a madman, but he's great."
Denzel, too, must have been a big Z Cars fan ...
"You know, the feeling I came back with from Much Ado About Nothing was like Les Enfants Du Paradis, it was like that," soliloquises Keanu Reeves, heading off in the general direction of Planet Gibberish. "We had a place to eat, a place to sleep, and a place to play as humans. We get to frolic in our joys and passions and everyone's humour was brought out with open hearts... "
"And the colours too, right," he adds. "Like butterflies... madrigal butterflies."
"Naaah. It was a party," chuckles Denzel Washington. "It's just that somebody was sober enough to turn the camera on. I don't know who it was, but while the rest of us were partying, somebody turned the camera on..."