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'My Week With Marilyn' Star Kenneth Branagh On How to Play a Legend

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire March 13, 2012 at 10:21AM

On paper, casting Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier is akin to casting Kate Hudson as Goldie Hawn: It seems too obvious. As it turns out, the coup was no stunt. In "My Week With Marilyn," Branagh turned in one of his most acclaimed performances to date as his icon. It's more than an uncanny impersonation; it gets at the core of what made Olivier tick, mirroring what Michelle Williams did with her portayal of Marilyn Monroe.
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Kenneth Branagh in "My Week With Marilyn"
The Weinstein Company Kenneth Branagh in "My Week With Marilyn"

On paper, casting Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier is akin to casting Kate Hudson as Goldie Hawn: It seems too obvious.

As it turns out, the coup was no stunt. In "My Week With Marilyn," Branagh turned in one of his most acclaimed performances to date as his icon. It's more than an uncanny impersonation; it gets at the core of what made Olivier tick, mirroring what Michelle Williams did with her portayal of Marilyn Monroe.

Indiewire caught up with Branagh the day before the Academy Awards (he lost to Christopher Plummer for "Beginners") to discuss embodying Olivier and working with Williams. ["My Week With Marilyn" comes out on Blu-ray and DVD today. Go HERE for the rest of this week's Small Screens picks.]

You must have been nervous taking on this role on, but it seems to have gladly paid off for you.
 
I was concerned to make sure we did fairly by him. One of the reasons I felt able to do it in the end was because he was so honest about this experience in his own writings.

"The performance was always going to come from a position of love for the guy. I never met him, but you couldn't deny the extraordinary impact he had. The quality and quantity of the work that he produced was really awe-inspiring."

The performance was always going to come from a position of love for the guy. I never met him, but you couldn't deny the extraordinary impact he had. The quality and quantity of the work that he produced was really awe-inspiring. So on one level, I always felt as though the performance was a way of saying thank you for an incredible career that inspired me and hundreds of thousands of other actors.
 
You must have had reservations in taking on this role. Were you wary of it being perceived as merely a stunt?
 
There were concerns. I mean, I'd been compared, as many actors had been, to him in their earlier career if they played any of the parts he had played. You know inevitably, frankly, the comparisons are going to be poor. And I thought, having been compared to him in the past for playing the parts he's played, perhaps it would be a bloody disaster to play the man himself.

So yes, I had concerns about that. But I felt the script -- even more tellingly than in a conventional bio-picture -- allowed the character to reveal himself. We meet at a moment of crisis and we maybe see him truthfully, albeit in a miniature way, through that kind of a lens. And I thought that was a very interesting way to meet someone like Olivier. That both he and Marilyn were going to be seen as people, not as icons.
 
In researching for the role, did you learn anything new about Olivier?
 
I, in reading his own writings about it, had been unaware that he felt quite as vulnerable as he did at this time in his life. Part of that vulnerability was that feeling that somehow he had been perceived by the world as having somehow sort of 'arrived.' That he was minor royalty with himself and Vivien Leigh. That his artistry and his excitement within his work was being replaced by a sense that he was a wonderful dinosaur or that he was in a museum.

It was vulnerable time. He felt a little lost artistically. He felt the sense of time passing. The film reveals it a little in moments of genuine introspection as he looks in the mirror, literally looking at himself to see where he is. And so I felt that kind of thing gave this superficially light-hearted film a kind of surprising sort of tenderness and depth that would be a nice surprise for the audience as well.
 
How did you and Michelle work to not merely impersonate the icons, but get at what made them tick?
 
In think in both cases aside from the outside in, as Olivier might put it. We tried to reproduce everything physically and vocally as accurately as one could. So that involved mechanical observation and repetition of the way they spoke lines in the scenes within the film from the film, "The Prince and the Showgirl." Also I worked to discover as many details as one could glean; in my case through conversations with people who knew Olivier. People like Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi and Colin Firth who had worked with him as a young actor. So I spoke to all of these people.

But I also think their own writings [Olivier and Monroe] were key. Michelle particularly said with Marilyn, her own diary remarks are revealing, not only for their insight and intelligence, but for their wit. What it allowed us to do was play the scene and not the character. That's what had to happen. And try to react in the scene as the character.

I think Michelle particularly had a very clear understanding of how to do that. So I sort of tried to copy her.
 

"My Week With Marilyn"
The Weinstein Company "My Week With Marilyn"
Did you and Michelle try to keep a distance between one another, to mirror the tension between Olivier and Monroe on the set of "The Prince and the Showgirl"?
 
No, I would say that we were a bit more civilized than that. We got on well. It was a quiet and natural rapport. We didn't spend acres of time talking to each other, but we certainly didn't kind of wish to ape or affect an antagonism that wasn't there. In fact, we needed rapport and harmony in order to portray that discord between Laurence and Marilyn. I found the relationship with Michelle to be refreshingly effortless.

Of all of the people I've worked with in the last few years, we just got on. I respect her enormously. And I felt that she respected me. And we kind of just got on with it. We had, I would say, an unspoken trust and an unspoken belief in each other.
 
When she first makes her way onto the set in "My Week With Marilyn," the effect is quite breathtaking. Do you recall the first time that you saw Michelle in full costume and makeup as Marilyn?
 
If I do, it was on our very first day of shooting, right at the beginning of the movie. Judi Dench and I were waiting on set because we had done something ourselves together that preceded this moment. And then it was time for Michelle to arrive and through the corner of the stage came Marilyn Monroe basically. I remember Judi squeezing my arm and going, "Oh my goodness." We both looked at her as she walked over to her mark. And in doing so, she walked away from camera and she kind of shimmied with her back to us and she floated. It did feel like it was Marilyn. That was very breathtaking.
 
Now you're someone accustomed to directing yourself and others. Did you find yourself biting your tongue a lot while making this project?
 
I don't think so. If you have an idea, you tend to say it. And you tend to say it quietly and as much in advance as you possibly can. Because one of the advantages I have as an actor, is that I get to see other directors direct.

Danny Boyle once said to me, "Gosh, I do envy that side of what you do Ken because I don't get to see other directors direct and I'd love to understand and pick up tips and compare and contrast." So I think that that's been a thrill for me. You don't have to decide that there's only one way to direct because you get the evidence of watching other people do it in different ways and it's completely fascinating. So part of it is going along for that ride.
 
With the recognition you've been receiving for this performance, can fans of yours expect to see you acting in more films helmed by people other than yourself?
 
I think so. I've enjoyed it so much and I feel that I'm at a point in my life where the combination of my experience and my appetite meet very strongly in the world of screen acting. I feel as though I understand it a little better, I'm getting a little further and I'm enjoying it a little more.

This article is related to: Interviews, Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn, Small Screens, Academy Awards