Riding High in Dead Again

updated 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHAT SHE KNOWS ABOUT REINCARNATION, says actress Emma Thompson, began with a visit to a psychic years ago, before her debut as a screen star. "Those who believe in reincarnation say that you meet people again and again," she says. "The psychic said that in a past life I'd been married to my mother and that my father and sister were our children." This of course leads Thompson to think of her husband. "Why," she says wryly, "Kenneth could have been my son, my servant, my Egyptian boy toy—or my pet turtle."

Possibly. But in this lifetime, Kenneth Branagh is her costar and director as well as her next of kin. In the gripping, Hitchcockian mystery Dead Again, the two play lovers who may—or may not—share a terrible past.

Offscreen, things are far from terrible for the pair the British press has dubbed the Golden Couple. Last year the Irish-born Branagh, then 29, went on a roll, winning Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Director for his much-praised production of Shakespeare's Henry V. That youthful achievement, as well as his impressive classical stage performances, led critics to compare him with Olivier. Meanwhile, Thompson, a popular British television and theater performer, won her American audience opposite Jeff Goldblum in last year's quirky comedy The Tall Guy. This year she got rave reviews for her part as the flibbertigibbet duchess in director James Lapine's art house comedy Impromptu.

Not that such success has left Branagh and Thompson, 32, sitting sanguine. "We're British actors, and British actors never think they're going to get their next job," she says.

Thompson's pragmatism is second-generation: Mother Phyllida is a longtime stage actress; father Eric directed Alan Ayckbourn's early plays. (Sister Sophie, 29, is also an actress.) Little Emma, who once longed to become a hospital administrator ("One came to our school, and I thought she was rather splendid") eventually did decide to join the family business. As a preteen she and a girlfriend locked themselves in a closet at Camden School for Girls in north London and rehearsed Monty Pythion sketches.

Pretty soon she was living one: During her rebellious phase at Cambridge, Thompson, studying English literature, put on weight, wire rims, dungarees and her father's lumpy fishing jacket. "I looked like a sort of baggy, female Kevin Costner," she says. "My parents just rolled their eyes to heaven." But she also joined the university's Footlights revue, a well-known birthing ground for such comic talent as Monty Python's John Cleese. The initiation was tough. Skits were often played in dimly lit clubs called smokers. Recalls Thompson: "It was ghastly. People in the audience would shout, 'You're CRAP! Get OFF!' We were just students trying to make people laugh."

In 1985 she scored a breakthrough with her 16-month run opposite Robert Lindsay in the West End production of Me and My Girl. But it was her role as the plain Harriet Pringle in the 1986 BBC miniseries Fortunes of War that won her both the British equivalent of an Emmy and (in due course) the heart of her young costar. "I didn't know his work, but I did know he was sort of a young lion in the British theater," says Thompson of Branagh. "It was sort of keen interest at first sight. Our personal relationship grew as slowly as professional relationships do."

Three years later the two wed, and so far the union seems remarkably free of career friction. "Strangely enough, even with all the lighting breaks and delays on the set," says Branagh of their work on Dead Again, "we didn't find that we were in each other's hair all day. What we've always had, which is nice, is a shared sense of humor. One of the things that Em was able to do was make me laugh."

For now, Branagh and Thompson (whose mum lives across the street from their north London home) have no plans to produce an acting heir. But that, says Emma, is temporary. "When I'm 40, Ken will be 38, and I think that's a great age for a man to have children," she says. "Right now he's Mr. Dynamo, and he's not going to want to be changing diapers. We have had a lot of fun," adds Thompson, basking in the glow of being Golden. "But not enough yet."

SUE CARSWELL in New York City

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