The journey from working class, staunchly unionist suburb of Tigers Bay in Belfast to the Oscars in Hollywood is not exactly a well-worn path but (Sir) Kenneth Branagh, 59, has taken it
This week he returns with All Is True, a new film in which he stars as the world-famous Elizabethan playwright who helped shape his career and his inner life like no other, William Shakespeare.
It's a role that he's spent over half a lifetime preparing for, the greatest playwright in English literature (and Branagh would argue world literature).
It's an unlikely path for the youthful-looking man who grew up in the working class, staunchly loyalist neighborhood of Tigers Bay in Belfast, where the plays of Shakespeare were mostly unheard of or treated with suspicion when they were.
But as a teenager, Branagh fell under the spell of the Bard, even hitchhiking to his home town of Stratford on Avon to camp out and see where the playwright had once lived.
“I absolutely identify Shakespeare with the first big moment of independence in my own life,” Branagh tells the Irish Voice. “I was 16 and I decided to hitchhike to Stratford Upon Avon (Shakespeare's home town). Very unlike me. And it was quite a big thing to ask my parents to allow me to do it at the age of 16.”
They were fearful of his interest in becoming an actor he says, which to them looked like a life filled with economic uncertainty and worse. “I went on this kind of pilgrimage to Stratford with a desire to know more about who Shakespeare was and did he really exist in our country? I mean I can taste those moments across those three or four days when I went there as if it was yesterday.”
For Branagh, that trip is associated with stepping into adulthood. “It happened in two ways,” he says. “One was to queue every day for tickets to go see his plays in the theater. And the second one was to go around the famous Shakespeare sites and Ann Hathaway's cottage.”
Since Branagh has spent over half his life performing the great Shakespearean roles and continually thinking about the man who wrote them, he clearly has his own ideas about who the Bard is and he gives life to them all in All Is True (alongside screen veterans Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellan and screenwriter Ben Elton - talk about a festival of Dames and Sirs, by the way).
The new film opens after the disastrous real-life burning of The Globe theatre in 1613, Shakespeare's artistic home for over a decade and a half and the place where he debuted his most famous plays.
That calamity leads to his decision to return to the little town of Stratford Upon Avon ostensibly to retire, having amassed a large fortune after two decades of wildly successful playwriting.
Branagh shows us a man who has clearly reached a turning point and history shows us that Shakespeare never wrote another line after the fire. After creating the greatest run of plays in English literature he just stepped away from all the glory and from London and returned home, as the film suggests, to retire - or die.
“He was a person from so-called lowly origins who had a trajectory that took him such an extraordinary distance,” says Branagh about Shakespeare, but he could easily be talking about himself. “God knows I wish I could've played football well, but I wasn't a footballer and I wasn't a fighter or any of those other options that were in front of me. I discovered I had this talent for performing and for acting and so Shakespeare was an inspiration to me then and now.”
Not long after he made his pilgrimage to Stratford Upon Avon Branagh told his parents that he wanted to be an actor. “They didn't know anybody who did it and they said actors are out of work all the time, they take drugs, and so on. I couldn't really explain to them why I was so fascinated by his work. Around that time I was given copies of his plays by an amateur dramatics company and one of the people there said to me, “You look like you might appreciate this.”
He did. In fact, Branagh has been called the foremost Shakespearean actor of his age, so appreciate might be an understatement. “It was when I discovered that people like the actor Sir Michael Gambon had started as a spear holder in Laurence Olivier's Othello that I could see that perhaps it was a possibility for me too. I was a football playing comprehensive schoolboy and that and Shakespeare shouldn't have gone together, but that's what happened.”
In All Is True Branagh makes his Shakespeare a recognizably human, even modern man. He is socially conscious but never a snob. For a man of his era, he makes little distinction between men and women, and he can't abide hypocrisy wherever he encounters it.
It comes, he says, from a democratizing impulse to make Shakespeare approachable that in turn is inspired by his own Northern Irish background. “There is a kind of innate sort of modesty in Shakespeare that I find myself picking up on because in the plays he punctures other people's pomposity left right and center,” he says.
Knowing what kind of man Shakespeare likely has always helped him, Branagh says. “Where I grew up Shakespeare was considered fancy pants and exclusive and it required some additional educational qualifications to understand. It was no longer connected to the general population and perhaps hadn't been for 100 years. I felt I was on a crusade about wanting to pass on the enthusiasm of experiencing it as real and meaningful and available not something that needed a qualification to understand.”
When he returns to Ireland, as Shakespeare returns home in the film, does he feel a connection to his earlier life and the place that made him? Does that echo for him the way it does for his character in the film?
“Oh, it does. You know it's extraordinary. Next year I'm going to be 60. I can't quite get my head around that. I was back in Ireland to film Artemis Fowl (the new Disney produced fantasy series by Irish author Eoin O'Colfer) last year and that brought me to Portrush and other places I remember from growing up and I definitely had a sense of a return to old haunts."
"I also think it's produced so many extraordinary actors like Stephen Rea and Adrian Dunbar and Liam Neeson and I feel connected to their stories too,” he says. “You can leave but it never leaves you. Shakespeare would have understood that.”
All Is True opens May 10.
Do you have a favorite Kenneth Branagh movie? Will you be watching All is True? Let us know in the comments section below.