For his first feature, British TV and theater vet Simon Curtis faced a daunting challenge: Not only did “My Week With Marilyn” need to turn two memoirs into one authentic look at the life of Marilyn Monroe, he had to present deeply believable portrayals of two legends, Monroe and Laurence Olivier.
However, Curtis had the benefit of casting Michelle Williams as Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier, as well as a frothy script by Adrian Hodges that adapted Colin Clark’s “The Prince, The Showgirl and Me” and “My Week With Marilyn” to offer a candid behind-the-scenes look at the making of Olivier’s “The Prince and the Showgirl.”
Curtis also had the benefit of an impressive theater and TV CV: He’s has directed productions for London’s Royal Court Theater that have toured worldwide. His TV credits include the BAFTA and Emmy-winning miniseries “Cranford” starring “Marilyn” co-star Judi Dench and the TV movie “David Copperfield,” with Maggie Smith and a very young pre-“Potter” Daniel Radcliffe.
The Weinstein Co. has been keeping Curtis busy in hopes that the Academy will notice come Oscar time. We caught up with the director in New York to discuss Williams’ touted turn and what drew him to the risky material.
When did you first come across Colin Clark’s memoirs?
Pretty much when they were published. I didn’t get the rights immediately. I think they were explored by other people. When we got the rights, the notion was to combine them all together.
What was it about the works that really spoke you and made you want to make your debut feature?
It’s a good question. I think it really was the notion of this young man with this hunger to work in the film business, who got the golden ticket to work on this incredibly famous film.
As the previous artistic director of the Royal Court theater, I’m curious: Did you see any parallels between Clark’s journey and your own?
I did see parallels in that I was incredibly lucky when I first went into theater, getting the chance to work closely with people I had long admired. That sort of learning process of being caught in the crossfire, the complexity of professional actors and directors and so on. And the visceral excitement of getting that opportunity.
You’re not the average first-time filmmaker. You come to this film with a load of experience in stage and TV work. But “Marilyn” still marks a hugely ambitious endeavor, given its subject matter and period setting, for a first feature. What gave you the confidence that you could pull this off?
I suppose I was in denial about how big task that was until recently. I have been lucky with the kind of TV work I’d done. I’ve worked with big ensemble casts, with high-caliber actors of all ages. So I’ve been very lucky. It was a good training ground for me.
But it always hinged on could whether we get the actors to take on Marilyn and Olivier. The fact that I was lucky enough that both Michelle and Ken boarded the train, as it were, was the moment that it all became real. Once they were both cast, I felt incredibly secure. I admired and liked them both so much and trust them both so much.
Was Michelle always your top pick?
Yes. I was thrilled when Michelle read it and wanted to meet. I remember sitting on the bus after our first meeting in upstate New York and going back to New York City, just praying that she would say yes. Having met her, I couldn’t imagine not doing it without her.
What was it about her? Was it a particular performance of hers that really struck you?
I don’t know. I mean, I’m familiar with all her work and admire it. I think that she has a rare ability to bring a psychological complexity to her performances. I think that was the most important ingredient for me in terms of how this Marilyn would be portrayed.
How did you pitch it to her? The script’s wonderful, but the role’s no doubt incredibly daunting.
We met after she read the script. I think the story chimed to her. A very important ingredient in it all was that it wasn’t the biopic, it wasn’t telling her whole life story. It was looking at a moment in time. That’s what attracted her and made it possible in a sense.
Once on set, how did you work with Williams to make her feel at ease and confident in the role?
She’s a very, very conscientious and hard working actress. We had a sort of dialogue over a year from the day we met until we started shooting. We would Email, talk, meet, send each other articles. But when she came to London, she started working with a choregrapher on that dance that Marilyn does in the film. That dance was a key for Michelle to find the body language of the character. In the film, there’s this contrast being made of the English theatrical way of working and the American internal psychological way of working. Michelle, like all great actors, came to the party with those two approaches.
The performance is really quite extraordinary. What was it like witnessing an actress of her caliber take on this huge risk and just fly with it?
I can answer that very simply. Watching that performance evolve on the set and on the monitor will always be the highlight of my career.
Wow. And about the rest of the cast. How did you go about casting the other famous figures, especially Kenneth Branagh who’s so perfectly cast?
Ken, because he’s the right age, a brilliant actor, knows so much about being a director having directed himself — it’s crazy how right he is for it. I was so lucky. I didn’t think he was going to be available because he was directing “Thor” at the time. But our dates slightly shifted and he was able to do it while finishing the post production on “Thor.” We spent a morning reading through the script and as soon as I heard that voice, I just again, couldn’t imagine doing it without him.
What’s it like working with an actor who also sidelines as a director?
Well, bliss. He was so helpful, so supportive. He’s so much more experienced than I am, in every way frankly. He just brought so much to the table in every conceivable way.
Since wrapping the film, how have you navigated the sort of expectations that come with a film distributed by The Weinstein Company in awards season?
That is one area that is very new to me. Having said that, it’s been tremendously exciting going on the road with the film. I’m ecstatic that there’s more laughter that I could have dreamt coming from audiences. And then more than that, the fact that people are enjoying it. Also that they seem to get Michelle and Ken’s performances in the way I hoped they would, has been extremely exciting.
What’s next for you?
This definitely gave me a buzz for making films. I very much hope to make another one soon. I’m always attracted to great acting and writing.
With all the events you’ve been attending, what’s been the most memorable one for you on the awards junket?
Seeing the film at the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles with Lang Lang playing on the piano live before it will take some beating. It was the stuff of dreams. That took place about 10 days ago. (Watch it here.)