Best known for directing and starring in numerous film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays, including Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Othello (1995), Hamlet (1996) (for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006).
Sir Kenneth Charles Branagh, the middle of three children, was born on December 10, 1960 and raised in Belfast, the son of working-class Protestant parents Frances (née Harper) and William Branagh, a plumber and joiner who ran a company that specialized in fitting partitions and suspended ceilings. At the age of nine, he relocated with his family to Reading, Berkshire, to escape the Troubles. He was educated at Grove Primary School, Whiteknights Primary School, then Meadway School, Tilehurst, where he appeared in school productions such as Toad of Toad Hall and Oh, What a Lovely War!. At school, he acquired an English accent to avoid bullying. He attributes his “love of words” to his Irish heritage. He is known to have attended the (amateur) Reading Cine & Video Society as a member and was a keen member of Progress Theatre for whom he is now the patron. Branagh went on to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Branagh achieved some early success in his native Northern Ireland for his role as Billy, the title character in the BBC’s Play for Today trilogy known as the Billy Plays (1982–84), written by Graham Reid and set in Belfast.
He won acclaim in the UK for his stage performances, first winning the 1982 SWET Award for Best Newcomer, for his role as Judd in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country. Branagh was part of the ‘new wave’ of actors to emerge from the Academy. Others included Jonathan Pryce, Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Anton Lesser, Bruce Payne and Fiona Shaw. In 1984 he appeared in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry V, directed by Adrian Noble. The production played to full houses, especially at the Barbican in London. It was this production that he adapted for the film version of the play in 1989. He and David Parfitt founded the Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987, following success with several productions on the London ‘Fringe’, including Branagh’s full-scale production of Romeo and Juliet at the Lyric Studio, co-starring with Samantha Bond. The first major Renaissance production was Branagh’s Christmas 1987 staging of Twelfth Night at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, starring Richard Briers as Malvolio and Frances Barber as Viola, and with an original score by actor, musician and composer Patrick Doyle, who two years later was to compose the music for Branagh’s film adaptation of Henry V.
Branagh became a major presence in the media and on the British stage when Renaissance collaborated with Birmingham Rep for a 1988 touring season of three Shakespeare plays. It featured directorial debuts for Judi Dench with Much Ado About Nothing (starring Branagh and Samantha Bond as Benedick and Beatrice), Geraldine McEwan with As You Like It, and Derek Jacobi directing Branagh in the title role in Hamlet, with Sophie Thompson as Ophelia.
A year later in 1989 Branagh co-starred with Emma Thompson in the Renaissance revival of Look Back in Anger. Judi Dench directed both the theatre and television productions, presented first in Belfast then at the London Coliseum and Lyric Theatre.
In 2002, Branagh starred at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield as Richard III. In 2003 he starred in the Royal National Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s Edmond. Branagh directed The Play What I Wrote in England in 2001 and directed a Broadway production in 2003. From September to November 2008, Branagh appeared at Wyndham’s Theatre as the title character in the Donmar West End revival of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov in a new version by Tom Stoppard. His performance was lauded as the “performance of the year” by several critics. It won him the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best Male Performance.
In July 2013 he co-directed Macbeth at Manchester International Festival with Rob Ashford. With Branagh in the title role, Alex Kingston played Lady Macbeth and Ray Fearon was featured as Macduff. He repeated his performance and directorial duties opposite Ashford and Kingston when the production moved to New York City’s Park Avenue Armory in June 2014. The production marked his New York stage debut.
Branagh is known for his film adaptations of William Shakespeare, beginning with Henry V (1989), followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006). He was rumored to have been under consideration for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
Notable non-Shakespeare films in which Branagh has appeared include Dead Again (1991) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), both of which he also directed, Wild Wild West (1999), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Valkyrie (2008). He starred as Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). He also played the Minister, Dormandy (a parody of PMG Tony Benn), in the film The Boat That Rocked (2009).
From 1989 to 1996, Branagh mostly directed his own films, including Peter’s Friends with an outstanding cast including former schoolmates Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Stephen Fry, as well as Imelda Staunton and Rita Rudner; but the commercial and critical failure of Love’s Labour’s Lost ended his directorial career for a time. In 2006, the same year that Branagh’s film version of As You Like It was released, he also directed a film version of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, which has yet to be released in the U.S., where it has not even been shown on cable television or released on a Region 1 DVD. Branagh has also directed the thriller Sleuth (2007), a remake of the 1972 film. At a film promotion for Valkyrie in 2008, Branagh confirmed that he would be directing Thor, a film based on the Marvel superhero. Thor, Branagh’s return to big-budget directing, was released on 6 May 2011. In 2011, Branagh portrayed Sir Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. Branagh directed Disney’s live-action version of Cinderella (2015). He is to star in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 action-thriller Dunkirk based on the British military evacuation of the French city of Dunkirk in 1940 during World War II. He will appear alongside Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Harry Styles.
Branagh has also been involved in several made-for-TV films. Among his most acclaimed portrayals is that of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the film Warm Springs (2005), for which he received an Emmy Award nomination. Though the film received 16 Emmy nominations and captured five (including Best Made-For-Television Film), Branagh did not win the award for his portrayal. He did, though, receive an Emmy for his portrayal of SS leader Reinhard Heydrich in the TV film Conspiracy (2001), a depiction of the Wannsee Conference, where Nazi officials formally decided on the Final Solution. In 2002 Branagh starred in the two-part television movie Shackleton, a dramatization of the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition’s battle for survival, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA award and an Emmy. In 1998 he narrated the twenty-four episode documentary series Cold War. Branagh also narrated the BBC documentaries Walking with Dinosaurs, World War 1 in Colour, Walking with Beasts and Walking with Monsters, and the BBC miniseries Great Composers.
From 1989 to 1995, Branagh was married to actress Emma Thompson, with whom he starred in Fortunes of War among other projects. During their marriage, and while directing and co-starring with Helena Bonham Carter in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he began an affair with her. After Thompson divorced him, he and Bonham-Carter were in a well-publicized relationship for several years. In 2003, he married film art director Lindsay Brunnock, whom he met during the shooting of Shackleton.
Branagh has been nominated for five Academy Awards, the first man to be nominated for five different categories. His first two nominations were for Henry V (one each for directing and acting). He also received similar BAFTA Award nominations for his film work, winning one for his direction. His first BAFTA TV award came in April 2009, for Best Drama Series (Wallander). Branagh’s two other Academy Award nominations were for the 1992 film short subject Swan Song and for his work on the screenplay of Hamlet in 1996. His most recent is for his portrayal of Lord Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn.
In 1994, Branagh declined an appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
Alongside Roberto Benigni, he is one of only two non-American actors to be nominated for Oscars for acting, writing, and directing, and one of eight actors to have achieved this honor. The other six are Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, George Clooney, John Huston and John Cassavetes.
He was appointed a knight bachelor in the 2012 Birthday Honours for services to drama and to the community in Northern Ireland. He received the accolade at Buckingham Palace on 9 November 2012; afterwards, Branagh told a BBC reporter that he was “humble, elated, and incredibly lucky” to be knighted.
Kenneth Branagh’s directing credits include…
|1992||Swan Song (Short)|
|1993||Much Ado About Nothing|
|1994||Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein|
|1995||A Midwinter’s Tale|
|2000||Love’s Labour’s Lost|
|2006||As You Like It|
|2006||The Magic Flute|
|2013||National Theatre Live: Macbeth (TV Movie)|
|2014||Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit|
|2017||Murder on the Orient Express|
“I feel more Irish than English. I feel freer than British, more visceral, with a love of language. Shot through with fire in some way. That’s why I resist being appropriated as the current repository of Shakespeare on the planet. That would mean I’m part of the English cultural elite, and I am utterly ill-fitted to be.”
“My definition of success is control.”
“I think the best actors are the most generous, the kindest, the greatest people and at their worst they are vain, greedy and insecure.”
“Friendship is one of the most tangible things in a world which offers fewer and fewer supports.”
“It’s very strange that the people you love are often the people you’re most cruel with.”
“People often ask me, “Why do you keep doing Shakespeare?” Well, because it’s meaningful to me. That to do it well — or even just to work on it — I find very life-enhancing. I don’t have any kind of conventional religious belief and I find Shakespeare’s a tremendous source of inspiration, because there’s no situation that I’ve come up against that somehow hasn’t been described in those plays.”
He was originally cast as the lead in Amadeus (1984) before the production company decided on casting American actors in the leading roles.
He grew up in poverty in the shadow of a tobacco factory in Belfast.
He claims that Derek Jacobi is the reason he got into acting, and thus Jacobi became a frequent collaborator with him in most of his movies.
He was considered for the role of Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
He can speak Italian.
He can play guitar, piano and tap.