Perhaps the best-known Shakespeare interpreter of the late 20th century, Kenneth Branagh began his career in a golden haze of critical exultation. First a star pupil at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (one of Britain's most prestigious drama schools), then a promising newcomer on the London stage, then hailed as "the next Olivier" for his 1989 screen adaptation of Henry V, Branagh could, for a long time, do no wrong. Unfortunately, a string of bad luck, catalyzed by his disastrous Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1994, began to tarnish the halo that had hovered above the actor/director's head. His lavish, four-hour Hamlet in 1996, however, did much to further his status as a man who knew his Bard, helping to alleviate some of the disappointments that both preceded and came after it.
Although his accent suggests otherwise, Branagh originally hails from Northern Ireland, not England. Born in Belfast December 10, 1960, to a working-class family, he was raised in the strife-ridden section of the country until he was nine. Leaving Belfast to escape its troubles, his family relocated to Reading, England, where Branagh spent the remainder of his childhood and adolescence. By turns bookish and athletic -- and assuming an English accent at school while remaining Irish at home -- Branagh became interested in acting at the age of 15, after seeing Derek Jacobi perform Hamlet (the two would later collaborate numerous times both in film and on the stage). Immersing himself in all things theatrical, Branagh was accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London when he was 18.