Kenneth Branagh Talks Returning to Shakespeare in 'All Is True': "We've Had to Earn Our Right to Be Heard"

The actor-director discusses his new semi-biographical film, why he continues to reinterpret the playwright's works and how he came to terms with the writer's treatment of his family: "There's no denying the specifics of the age and the patriarchy in full flight there."

Kenneth Branagh has embellished some of the facts of William Shakespeare's life for his latest film, in part because he feels that the playwright would have approved. The title of the British actor-director's newest effort, All Is True, released today, refers to the alternative, tongue-in-cheek title for Shakespeare's semi-biographical Henry VIII. That work gleefully took liberties with the story of its historical subjects, as did many of Shakespeare's works — Henry IV parts one and two, King John, Henry V and Richard III. (Was King Henry IV really so eloquent on the eve of battle as to deliver the St. Crispin's Day Speech? Unlikely). 

The idea that a film about Shakespeare's twilight years should channel this playful, improvisatory spirit solidified when Branagh traveled to London's National Portrait Gallery to see the writer's "Chandos" portrait and gazed into the painting's eyes, which he felt they were "cheeky" and "teasing." He was inspired, Branagh says on a recent weekday: "I felt like, somehow, way before anybody like me got involved, he was in on the joke himself."

If audiences were to give anyone license to mess with Shakespeare, it would likely be Branagh. The performer has interpreted Shakespeare's works with astonishing frequency — 10 times on screen, more in stage productions; he has lately earned a university exhibit dedicated to his Shakespearean works — but this is the first time he's adapted the playwright's life (not to mention played him). Little is known about the writer's life, and Branagh wanted to fill in the gaps of a particularly mysterious period, when the Bard returned home to Stratford, to his wife Anne Hathaway and daughters Susanna and Judith, after his Globe Theater burned down following a cannon misfire on a performance of Henry VIII.

To realize his vision for All Is True, Branagh approached writer Ben Elton, behind the Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow. Elton and Branagh's finished film, which the latter directs and stars in, follows Shakespeare's return home to Stratford, where the writer sparks the small town's gossip machine, faces the poor way he has treated the women in his life — his wife, Anne, raised the children by herself and is haunted by rumors that Shakespeare is infatuated with the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley — and finally confronts the trauma of losing his son, Hamnet, the twin of Judith, many years earlier. All Is True thus strays far away "from this world of romp," as Branagh quaintly puts it, that Shakespeare In Love and other semi-biographical films (Bill, Miguel and William and Will Shakespeare) tended to cross into; nor does it question Shakespeare's authorship of the works attributed to him, like 2011's Anonymous. Instead, it's a Shakespeare film for the #MeToo age, both honoring and questioning a "great man" who enjoyed some invisible, majority-female work to be placed on a pedestal by British royals, critics and, later, the academy.

Prior to All Is True's release, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Branagh about hitchhiking to Stratford at 16, the challenge of playing a relatively quiet "genius" character and why he returns to Shakespeare again and again.

After having adapted Shakespeare's words so many times, what was the intimidation factor in playing the man himself?

I find it exciting, rather than intimidating, because I personally have always enjoyed reading about the lives of geniuses. I did a film of Mozart's The Magic Flute, and one of the joys of that was researching the extraordinary correspondence he had with his wife and daughter: He was scatologically funny and potty-mouthed as well as producing the music of the spheres. One of the things that I think has frustrated people about Shakespeare, in contrast to that rather spectacular personality [Mozart's], is that we know less about him, and what we do know makes some people rather disappointed in his ordinariness. He was not able to, or chose not to lead the life of the classical artist that Romantic period established, such as [Lord] Byron, who was described as being mad, bad and dangerous. Shakespeare's interested in his mortgage, he's interested in things that ordinary people are interested in — it doesn't quite tick the "genius" box for some people.

One of the things I most enjoyed about playing him was the material in the front of the film, when he's quiet; he's surprisingly non-verbal for a master of words. When I looked at the "Chandos" portrait of him that's in the National Portrait Gallery in London, the eyes, which are by far the most lively and brilliant part of that painting, they're cheeky, they're teasing. You imagine they're reaching down through the centuries, somehow saying, "You can't quite work out who I am, can you?" And so I was inspired by that, rather than intimidated by that. I felt like, somehow, way before anybody like me got involved, he was in on the joke himself.

Though we know some things about Shakespeare himself, a good deal else is shrouded in mystery. Where did you and Ben Elton feel comfortable improvising on Shakespeare's life, and where did you draw the line?

Well, I don’t know if we did draw many lines, really. But we improvised certainly around the things that seemed to preoccupy him or literally haunt him, like the death of his son — that seemed to be key. That experience of being in The Winter's Tale was to really witness the real unrelenting obsession with the loss of the child. It's done elsewhere very directly in King John, for example, where there's that famous passage, very painful passage: "Grief fills the room up with my absent child," it begins. It's a very open, raw mission of unquantifiable grief. Twins are separated constantly in Shakespeare's plays, comically and tragically, so [there was] that possibility of a single event having haunted him, which was as much a reason to return home as the loss of income that the burnt theater might have produced. That was the biggest departure: How did Hamnet die? Why did Hamnet die? We liked the idea that the name was similar to perhaps his most famous play, Hamlet, and to turn the idea in that play where a father haunts a son on its head and have a son haunt his father. And also introduce, as that very same famous play does, the idea of what was a disputed suicide through drowning. That was somehow a liberty, but also from Shakespeare's own workshop.

By the same token, the other big leap was to suggest that the private publication of the sonnets could have, through rumor, presented itself to Anne Hathaway and could have enraged and wounded, while still not preventing the arrival of the Earl of Southampton. He didn't go [to visit Shakespeare in Stratford], but many great people did in those three years did. The evidence leads toward the idea that Ben Johnson, his colleague, did go there, and this famous merry meeting that we present in the movie did lead to his collapse. Basically, he got so drunk that it headed Shakespeare into a decline. It's with the potential relationship with Southampton and the fate of Hamnet that we took the greatest departures. I wouldn't say liberties, because I think we were doing exactly what Shakespeare does throughout — including right at the start, with this title, [which refers to] Shakespeare's outrageous suggestion that what he writes in his play The Life of Henry VIII could be described by the title All Is True.

Several reviews have noted that certain characters, such as Anne Hathaway and Henry Wriothesley, aren't necessarily played by actors whose ages correspond to the characters', but they're also veteran Shakespeare actors. How did you go about casting these parts?

Judi was always first choice to play Anne Hathaway. We'd been in a production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale just a few years previously and she'd played Paulina, often cited by actresses as their favorite Shakespeare character — she is remorseless in speaking truth to power. Anne Hathaway's voice we were going to unleash, really, for the first time in this film; it was important for her to be embodied by somebody who could have that fire in her belly. Judi was just someone who had every kind of Shakespearean knowledge, not just with the plays, but she'd worked [in Stratford] so often. And when it came to the age difference, it was meaningless because she's ageless, and we can't start getting worried 120 years into cinema or whatever, when suddenly there's a woman who's much older than the [man], meanwhile we spent 100 years with the bloke being three times the age of the woman. We're allowed that disparity.

Similarly, with Ian McKellan, I discovered that we shared the same experience of hitchhiking to Stratford when we were 16. He said, "Where did you pitch the tent?" And I told him, and he said, "That's exactly where mine was, as well." We were both drawn because we just wanted to see where he lived, what were the houses that he occupied and we wanted to see the temple of his work, the Shakespeare Memorial Theater. For me, it was like landing in a version of heaven. And it was the beginning of trying to put these things together — the place, the work, the man; how did that all go together? And this film really was the latest slice of that conversation.

In its treatment of the women in Shakespeare's life, All Is True seems particularly suited to the #MeToo era. What were the influences behind that?

Ben Elton has twins, and he has always been politically engaged and always has given voice to those who may not be appropriately represented. Here, he was initially very, very drawn by [how,] in a town of 2,500 people back then, and [Shakespeare is] the returning celebrity, it had a tremendous impact: He found that arresting and nicely complicated, and he enjoyed the idea of letting Anne Hathaway, a woman who could not read or write, and Judith, speak. And he felt also that [though] he's a very successful man, his kids are indifferent to his success: Neither literacy nor conspicuous worldly success were going to impede those women from having a say. And we also knew, because we had practiced, that we had some terrific actors. Kathryn Wilder, who plays Judith, was also in that production in The Winter's Tale. It was good that she knew Judi and had got past the intimidation factor so she could act with abandon. And Lydia Wilson, who played Susannah, was similarly ready to speak up for those girls.

Have you had your own coming-to-terms moment with the way Shakespeare treated his family, and particularly the women in his family, over the years?

There's no denying the specifics of the age and the patriarchy in full flight there. For me, I'm drawn to what I would say is the humane and complex nature of his analysis of the human condition. But it never avoids the unsavory. You could talk about how that applies in a play like The Merchant of Venice — is it anti-Semitic? Or The Taming of the Shrew — does that enshrine, record or promote misogyny? But with Shakespeare, across all of the plays, there is this elusive quality: He can't be nailed down. You can take a single play like Julius Caesar and it could be interpreted, depending on how it's directed, as about fascism, Communism or libertarianism, and I think the emphasis on that which one can draw or infer from the plays as being "Shakespearian," it's hard to quantify. So I acknowledge those gaps and those issues at the same time as being unquestionably drawn to like the largest part of what that canon of work represents.

Do you think you could have made this film five or 10 years previously, or did its timeliness play a role? Would it have resonated the same way?

That's a really interesting question, and I think possibly not. And yet, it was not even something that Ben Elton and I discussed — so in that sense, you might say that's fantastic progress, but in the other sense, you might say, that's who Ben Elton is as a writer and maybe how we attempt to approach that which we do. On one level, there's been an acceleration, but I would like to think that we would have maybe done it the same way [years ago], but I'm glad that somehow a fresh air blowing around this kind of treatment was available to us as well.

Why do you keep on being drawn to Shakespeare again and again?

The words have always moved me, from the moment when I was 17 and went to see King Lear. The quote on the program was, "When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools." I found that a chilling remark and also very moving. I didn't really understand at 17 why that moved me so much. I didn't really understand when I was 18 and I saw The Winter's Tale why that moved me so much, but it did. And so I was drawn by the emotional impact, but also by the conundrum of it: There was so much in it that I couldn't understand. Also, I was really compelled by the idea that though I was moved by such things, the world was often indifferent, resistant or condemnatory. And if you've been through the education system, you'd be sometimes in a minority of people who might enjoy Shakespeare, [like many students might respond] to opera or classical music or modern dance or art that is challenging. So I've loved working on something where you really have to justify and prove that it still can matter. I think that's good as an artist, and I also think it's Shakespearean. He lived by the box office. He was supremely alert to the commercial realities — producer, director, writer, actor and plays on and off at the drop of a hat; popularity gone at the drop of a hat. The fickleness of fortune and the fickleness of fame were regular themes in his works, so he had to be very fleet of foot to keep up with those vagaries. And I feel as though, across my time with Shakespeare, we've had to earn our right to be heard. And that's healthy for an artist.

Do you plan to continue adapting work by Shakespeare — will you ever be finished?

I don't know is the answer. This is a business and a world right now in which you can't plan too much. In our business, it's such a changing landscape. But if I could, I would.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.