We have won our independence from Britain, but when it comes to playing our presidents, they rule. Anthony Hopkins was a dead ringer for the chief executive in Nixon, and popped up as John Quincy Adams in Amistad, which also featured Nigel Hawthorne as Martin Van Buren. Now Kenneth Branagh gets his chance as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in HBO’s Warm Springs. In the 1920s-set drama (premiering April 30), the polio-stricken future prez fights to save his faltering marriage to Eleanor (Cynthia Nixon).
Was this a lifelong dream, playing FDR?
No, no. [The part] was attractive because it seemed out of left field. Another reason was that I absolutely adore The West Wing. I’m a complete devotee of that program and of the dynamics of the presidential world.
Did the scarcity of 1920s photos or recordings of FDR free you as an actor?
I think it did. I mean, in the initial stages [of his illness], he went missing — he went through the depression, the anger, the apathy, and people like Eleanor didn’t see him. It wasn’t a question of ”Is my political life over?” It was ”Is my life over?” He didn’t want people to see him.
So can we compare him to a Shakespearean character?
Timon of Athens, maybe, who’s hugely successful and suffers an enormous fall. There’s a Shakespearean or even a Greek quality to what some would call the hubris of his life before, that he was in some ways defying the gods and needed to be struck down, then was left with the invitation to consider starting anew and appreciating his privileges.
Do you expect people to be shocked by Cynthia Nixon’s appearance here? I mean, this is not a Sex and the City character. . .
Who knows, who knows?
Perhaps Eleanor would have been okay on radio dramas.
Yeah, that’s the kind of thing where they say she had a great face for radio. But I found Eleanor very sexy in the younger pictures.