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The Contenders: Kenneth Branagh on playing Olivier

Kenneth Branagh talks about trying to channel the master actor Laurence Olivier in his role in 'My Week With Marilyn.'

November 17, 2011|By Amy Dawes, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • DAPPER: Right, Kenneth Branagh as Olivier in "My Week With Marilyn."
DAPPER: Right, Kenneth Branagh as Olivier in "My Week With Marilyn." (Matt Sayles / AP / The Weinstein…)

"My Week With Marilyn," from director Simon Curtis, is a memoir of the unlikely relationship between the vulnerable screen legend (played by Michelle Williams) and a smitten young assistant, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), on the London set of the 1956 movie "The Prince and the Showgirl." Kenneth Branagh plays British acting great Laurence Olivier, who directed the picture and starred opposite Monroe. The old master and the insecure young actress prove to be a combustible match-up; Olivier is ready to kill her from the first day. To play the great Shakespearean is a daunting assignment, but Branagh, who like Olivier has directed and starred in many film versions of the Bard's works, is particularly well-matched. We caught up with him by phone on location in Sweden, where he's filming his TV cop drama, "Wallender."

What's it like to take on playing Sir Laurence Olivier? Had you met him?

No, but I once wrote to him, when I was an 18-year-old student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, to ask his advice about playing the old doctor in Chekhov's play "Three Sisters," a role that I was about 40 years too young for. He wrote back, "I've no idea how to advise you. Please have a bash, and hope for the best." I rather felt his message also applied when I had the opportunity to play him.

Did you seek advice from anyone who had known him? And how else did you prepare?

I spoke to Anthony Hopkins, who understudied him, and Derek Jacobi. They told me about his leadership skills, his charm and his ability to deal seamlessly with all the aspects of directing and producing, and encouraged me to embrace that. I also read all his interviews and watched as many of his films as I could, and with renewed admiration. Each morning, I was fitted with a prosthetic chin with a cleft in it, and the hair, and that strong arched brow he had, and while I was in makeup I would listen to him doing a dramatic reading … of the Bible. And when they say "dramatic," boy do they mean it. It was a fire-and-brimstone reading, vocally exotic and daring, but sometimes extraordinarily sensitive. When I opened my eyes, after listening to that for 2 1/2 hours, as far as I could tell it was he who was in the makeup chair, staring back at me.

In the movie, it's said that Olivier cast Marilyn in his movie because he wanted to seduce her, but we see that he very quickly moves on to wanting to strangle her. Can you talk about why she was so upsetting to him?

He was unbelievably frustrated by Marilyn and sort of perplexed by his own inability, as a master of communication, to find a way to talk to her. His own wife, Vivian Leigh, had done the role on the stage, so he had insight but also a perhaps inflexible view of how it should be played. And he had strong views about the mechanics of rehearsal — you had to show up on time. Marilyn seemed to think that you had to wait for the muse to be with you, and you didn't come out of your dressing room until you felt it. So while she was waiting for that to happen, he was waiting for her.

But even he, a great artist who'd worked with the greats, knew that when you watched Marilyn you saw something unique. There was a relationship between the camera and her soul, if you will, such that she could offer real poignancy and surprising depth. By contrast with him, she seemed to be able to live in the part, moment by moment — she had that gift. And, of course, a sexual power combined with a sort of innocence and benign quality that made everybody fall in love with her. I think Olivier was genuinely impressed with that.

What can you say about working with Michelle Williams, and the performance that she gave?

It made me wish, for the sake of her own happiness, that Marilyn could have been gifted with some of the extra level of awareness about the craft that Michelle has, and that she seemed to combine seamlessly with her immersion in the role. They'd call "action," and she was Marilyn Monroe. They'd call "cut," and she was this focused, kind, generous being, Michelle Williams, with a real twinkle in her eyes. She would bounce the ball back to you in an incredible way. It's great to work with people like this — your own worries drop away. You're caught up in the moment. They make you a better actor.

Did you have a favorite among the scenes you played?

I love Olivier in the screening room at the end, watching Marilyn on film and acknowledging that she really is magic. He quotes Prospero from "The Tempest" — "We are such stuff as dreams are made of." And, boy, was Marilyn the stuff dreams were made of.

The movie wasn't a real highlight for either of them, but Marilyn's very next film was "Some Like It Hot," one of her best. How did the experience affect Olivier?

It had a big impact. It was part of what prevented him from directing a film for another 20 years. On the other hand, he wanted to work with Marilyn partly to renew himself, to become less "establishment," more associated with what was new and exciting. And when you look at the film role he did shortly after that, as Archie Rice in "The Entertainer," it's one of the most marvelous Method performances one has ever seen. It's a breakthrough in the evolution of the master. One almost feels like saying, "Well done, Marilyn."

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