It makes sense that Kenneth Branagh idolizes Sir Laurence Olivier. After all, both actors have directed themselves in Shakespeare’s plays on stage and screen, including “Henry V.” In fact, early in his career Branagh won the Laurence Olivier theater award for most promising newcomer, and even wrote to Olivier asking for advice on how to play a 60-year-old man, only to be told that he’d have to work it out for himself.
Now Branagh has earned SAG and Golden Globe nominations for channeling the Master Thespian in “My Week with Marilyn,” which shows Olivier’s frustrations directing volatile movie star Marilyn Monroe in the 1956 film “The Prince and the Showgirl.” In fact, Olivier was so traumatized by the experience that he didn’t direct again for 16 years. Branagh added Shakespeare quotes to his dialogue and adopted heavy make-up as Olivier was wont to do, from a fake lower lip and chin, to arched eyebrows and a severe part in his hair.
Things haven’t changed much between then and now as far as the “temporary insanity” that goes into shooting a movie, said Branagh during a brief swing through Los Angeles. (See my video interview below.) Olivier was enchanted by Monroe, the biggest star in the world, who was his boss and helped to get the movie made, says Branagh. But Olivier was used to being a leader of men, at the head of the theatrical profession. He was “unmanned” by the star’s disregard for him, Branagh says. “He wanted the respect that was his due.”
As for Monroe, Branagh wonders how the actress would have adapted to the modern world, with the constant blare of press attention and viral social media. “Would Marilyn tweet?” he asks.
Branagh is having a good year: he directed “Thor” for Marvel, which went over well with critics and audiences, but didn’t sign on for the sequel because he was committed to a do a play and return to Sweden to produce and star in the second season of the “Wallander” series as the popular existentialist philosopher detective.
What does he want to do next? A movie version of “Wallander” is a distinct possibility, he says. He has no interest in taking over the Royal Shakespeare Company from retiring artistic director Michael Boyd–it’s much too big a job. And Branagh still wants to do a movie version of the Scottish Play–something Olivier never did.