Aside from the poet himself, nobody does Shakespeare quite like Kenneth Branagh. For his latest Bard-based project, the Emmy-winning native of Ireland directs Shakespeare's As You Like It (premiering on HBO Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 9pm/ET) and sets it in 19th-century Japan. The former Royal Shakespeare Company member spoke to us from the set of his new movie Valkyrie, in Berlin, about his modern take on the 16th-century text.
TV Guide: You've done a lot of Shakespeare before, so why adapt this particular play?
Branagh: It's funny and romantic and rather magical. I had been in it in the theater myself, and I'd seen it many times. Although some critics dismiss it as being a little frivolous, a little frothy, I found it to be very beautiful and very life-affirming. I [also] wanted to return to a Shakespearean comedy.
TV Guide: And you chose to set it in Japan based on your own experiences.
Branagh: Yes, the play is so much about the impact that nature has on the characters. They, as it were, all go off into the woods, and I found myself responding to the time when that happened to me, spectacularly, which was in a stone garden in Kyoto. It was quite magical [and] I felt as though I was in a painting... where man and nature sort of met.
TV Guide: Do you think the film's Asian setting will appeal to people?
Branagh: I hope so, and I think one of the exciting things about being on HBO is that suddenly, there's a different audience. It's more available, and I think it's going to be very interesting to see if it does appeal.
TV Guide: What Shakespeare character do you relate to most?
Branagh: There are so many, [but] I find myself very empathetic with [Rosalind from As You Like It]. I certainly admire her capacity to love life. I love the characters in Shakespeare who just teach you a little bit about how to live.
TV Guide: So you've no ties to Hamlet then?
Branagh: [Laughs] Big ties to Hamlet! But he's so vast as a character. That's always been my sort of ongoing, underlying kind of obsession with Shakespeare.
TV Guide: You've been compared to Kevin Kline before, who stars in As You Like It. Do you two have any similarities?
Branagh: He's a very, very good friend, and I'm a huge admirer of him as an actor. I think [we] share a genuine love for both mediums, for theater and film, and a determination to try to work in both.
TV Guide: You've done both film acting and directing. What's better?
Branagh: I enjoy it all, I must say. There's a tremendous amount of satisfaction to be had from something like the work on As You Like It. That long journey, which overall was sort of like 15 years, is profoundly satisfying. I don't know in the end whether I prefer doing it... but it does mean when you do that, that you come into something like [the feature film Valkyrie feeling] so excited not to have that other responsibility.
TV Guide: You play opposite Tom Cruise in Valkyrie, a film about an assassination plot against Hitler. That's quite a change from As You Like It.
Branagh: Yeah, it's a nice change. History is a great and fascinating subject for me, so [I find it] very fun. And it's a terrific group of actors.
TV Guide: Speaking of actors, was Shakespeare onto something: Is all the world really just a stage?
Branagh: It's a very interesting question. I love it that we've made a film of [the] play that contains those famous lines. The great thing about Shakespeare is that he knows that it's a very good question to ask, and I guess I'm going to keep on trying to answer it.
Get the scoop on the new season of NCIS in the Aug. 20 issue of TV Guide. Try four risk-free issues now!
Send your comments on this Q&A to email@example.com.