Kenneth Branagh looks like a man in a big hurry.
At 29, he has already adapted, directed and starred in Shakespeare's ``Henry V' (which earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Director); co-founded a theater and film company (which he is shepherding on a seven-month round-the-world tour); written two plays and his autobiography; won plum parts on British television and the London stage; and married one of his leading ladies.On this night, he is in a hurry to finish his second interview of the evening before downing a small pizza and changing out of his dressing gown into his costume for a supporting role in his company's production of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,' which he directed.
No doubt about it, Kenneth Branagh is hot - especially in America. (In Britain, where making it quite so flashily, quite so quickly is not the done thing, his critics have been given to conjecturing about hubris, self-publicity, a man for the mood of the moment.)
But for the time being, Branagh is cautious, concentrating on the acting company he has been absorbed in for the past three years and pushing aside questions of big-time movie deals and Oscars.
``Actually it's very nice to know that I can't do anything until after August,' he says. ``My head can't be turned by what most of me believes are pretty spurious offers - being Hollywoodized, as someone described it.'
How has this man from a working-class family in Belfast learned Hollywood ways so quickly?
Face to face, the 5-foot-9 1/2-inch, sandy-haired Branagh does not project the larger-than-life persona that could be expected from the young actor who became a principal with the Royal Shakespeare Company at 23 and has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Courteous, less arrogant, more physical, better looking in person than on screen, he answers questions thoughtfully - a man not even a decade out of drama school, still in the process of creating his adult self.
The project that brought Branagh to international attention is, of course, his ``Henry V,' a role he initially worked through under the direction of Adrian Noble at the RSC, and a production that is often described as ``post-Falklands,' ``anti-war.' Branagh sees it with more complexity.
``For me it's a wonderful, ambiguous debate about war where Shakespeare forces people to think about the infuriating contradictions of an activity that at this end of the millennium we've come to despise - an activity that is attractive to the male ego and instinct throughout history and which has been proven time and time again to result in a so-called glory, and often so-called political gain that is spurious.'
Branagh's often-stated goal is to create Shakespeare that is traditional and contemporary.
``If you do Shakespeare, for me it has to live, and it has to be in our world; it has to be worth doing now,' he continues in an accent that has banished the Belfast brogue and been dubbed ``suburban.'
``It can't become sacred ground. People cannot be reverential about it. Otherwise it starts to kill things like Laurence Olivier's 'Henry Five.' Our 'Henry Five' has made Laurence Olivier's film live again and be enjoyed by thousands and thousands of people - which it deserves to be.'
He has the same goal for the project he's working on these days: the Renaissance Theatre Company.
Started by Branagh and his actor friend David Parfitt, Renaissance is everything Branagh felt the Royal Shakespeare Company was not: actor-run, flexible, anti-elite, anti-institutional, a pool of actors coming and going in repertory.
To get to ``the wider audience' Branagh wants to reach, the company stylistically takes a kind of classy-but-populist approach. His ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,' for example, is not fashionable and Freudian, but ``magical and funny, a wonderful discourse on love, a very young play.'
His ``King Lear' is not political, but rather ``a very simple story about fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, a story that I want to tell simply but powerfully.
``I want to do things that my parents can see,' Branagh explains. ``They don't have to like it, but it doesn't mean I tone down anything that I do.'
He also expects a lot of the actors in his company, 90 percent of whom appeared in his film.
``Technically I require precision, and emotionally I require commitment. I insist that people must speak well and must work on their voices and work on their movement and all the rest of it. But I also insist that they bring rawness and emotional fearlessness and a kind of passion to their work as well.'
Branagh's company is a collegial group of actors for whom he has scheduled breaks, rented rented apartments and hired cars. (``If you take people to the other side of the world, you've got to look after them as well,' he explains.) But it doesn't have a set schedule or a set number of plays to do each year.
``We wanted to keep to our philosophy to avoid any kind of smugness,' he says. ``So we've resisted a cyclical pattern in the way that we work. We've actually resisted putting too many roots in. We're pretty nomadic basically. I still don't have an ongoing salary from this company.'
Money, it turns out, does not appear to have been much of a driving force in his life. Indeed, Branagh, like every actor on the tour, is being paid about $600 a week.
His autobiography, ``Beginning,' was written to foot the bill for offices for Renaissance. Nor do Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson, who plays the Princess of France in ``Henry V,' live grandly. Their home in London is what he describes as ``a wee flat in West Hampstead.'
Their real home for the next few months is the company, and the interrelatedness of their lives smacks of the closely linked family life in Northern Ireland that Branagh writes about in ``Beginning' and says he is still drawn to.
The actor's journey from subsidized housing in a mostly Protestant section of North Belfast started when his family left Northern Ireland for England, when Branagh was 9. Sectarian strife was a worry, particularly as his mother was pregnant with her third child and his carpenter father could afford to come home only once every third weekend.
Although the family re-established itself in a more comfortable house in a suburb of Reading, life had been deeply disrupted.
The young Kenneth, who struggled to deal with being Irish and yet blending into life in England, took refuge in books, movies and rugby. Then at 16, to his parents' dismay, Branagh's unexpected success in a school play led him to reject the normal employment avenues in town and head off to study, courtesy of the British government, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London - the only drama student award made that year.
For all that he has achieved, and perhaps because of it, Branagh has frequently been criticized for being too hungry, too ambitious. Is he?
``People have to be ambitious,' he responds, fairly exploding at the negative implications of the question. ``It's in all of our makeup. You're ambitious for your family. You want to do well. You want to be warm, to eat. You want to do good work.
``Well, isn't that awful, isn't that dreadful,' he says, in a tone that mocks the imagined middle-class, middlebrow response. ``What was Laurence Olivier then? What was Orson Welles? What were the great painters, the great musicians? They were ambitious because they wrote a lot of wonderful music,' he says. ``How dare they?' he asks rhetorically. ``It's nonsense, just nonsense.'
He comes to a dead stop, shakes his head and flashes a dazzling smile.
``Maybe at some stage if I manage to hang in, I'll be able to be revered, and then people will talk to me, as if no one ever said a bad word about me ever.
``And I hope I will laugh long and loud.'