Kenneth Branagh "My Week With Marilyn" Interview
Collider.com, 19 December 2011
In the much buzzed about 'My Week with Marilyn' – currently in limited release and opening wide on Christmas Day – 23-year-old, first-time production hand, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), went to work on Laurence Olivier’s (Kenneth Branagh) 'The Prince and the Showgirl'. When American film star Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) experienced emotional difficulties during shooting, Colin came to her aid and romance developed. Unfortunately, one week of fun was just not enough to save the doomed star from her eventual self-destruction.
At a press day for the film, actor Kenneth Branagh talked about creating a character instead of just doing an impersonation of Laurence Olivier, how his admiration for the star only increased while researching him, working with both Michelle Williams and Julia Ormond (who plays Vivien Leigh), and the fact that he never met but did correspond once with Olivier. He also said that he hopes to be directing next, by the Spring, but isn’t sure which of the projects he has in development that he’ll be doing.
Question: How do you separate creating a character from doing an impersonation, when you play a real-life person like Sir Laurence Olivier?
KENNETH BRANAGH: Partly, it was on the page. It was always going to be a guess and an imagined version of what went on. We had the hint, which was Colin Clark’s two books. There he was saying, “I really was at the ringside.” And then, in the second one, he leads us to believe that maybe there was some kind of romantic liaison. I don’t know if that was true. But, it was credible that these two people might confide in this young person, partly because I’ve watched people ignore certain people. They think, “Well, he’s young. He’s barely even listening. He’s not important.” They do suddenly confide things that might seem rather intimate. So, that was there on the page.
The thing that swung the decision to do it was that the movie wouldn’t just therefore be a slavish mimicry of Olivier and [Marilyn] Monroe. It was trying to understand what it was like between them. We know that Olivier said to Monroe, “Why don’t you just be sexy? Isn’t that what you do?” That’s on record. People were there. They heard it. So, our imagination was, “What did that come out of? What was the scene? What were the moments that provided that?” On the way, I think it was a chance to do something quite funny that both Michelle [Williams] and I had some experience with, which is you do a scene, you forget your lines sometimes, and the director says something that sometimes is helpful and sometimes it’s not, and sometimes the director is frustrated. That had some accuracy, in terms of our experience, but the guess about how the rest of the scene went was part of the fun of doing it. It kept you alive. It meant that, every day, you were asking, “How do we make the two things join up?” That, for me, was part of the enjoyment for the whole thing.
How did you and Julia Ormond work on establishing the relationship between Olivier and Vivien Leigh?
BRANAGH: Like so many things in the film, we knew that the chance to talk about that was going to be brief because the film was trying to cover so much, in this little snapshot. But, Julia is a very smart woman. She’d done a lot of homework. We knew that the key thing was suggesting this fragility that Olivier spoke of often, in Vivien Leigh, at that time. It was a very difficult conversation to have with his then-wife, when they were going through a very difficult period, at that point. She was a massive movie star. She was Scarlett O’Hara. She had this considerable talent and a considerable ego, and she was also his wife. We also know that two days before Marilyn [Monroe] arrived in England, it was announced that Vivien Leigh had just had a miscarriage. I think she was 43. As you can imagine, in anybody’s life, that would be a very difficult moment. So that, going into the meeting with Marilyn, threw all sorts of interesting influences over it. Basically, that tension between them was something that Julia understood very well. She understood that fragility. It’s a lovely moment between her and Michelle [Williams], where Marilyn is so fragile and vulnerable, as the two of them meet. The suggestion that Vivien was very concerned about whether Olivier would fall in love with her was very real. We talked about it a lot, we rehearsed it a bit, and I think Julia did a beautiful job.
In playing such a huge film icon, did it diminish your admiration for him, or did it increase it?
BRANAGH: It definitely increased my admiration. I saw films that I confess I hadn’t seen before. I hadn’t seen William Wyler’s film, 'Carrie'. I watched the Otto Preminger film, 'Bunny Lake is Missing'. He’s marvelous in that, in a small part. He’s so real. It’s a little after this movie, in the early ‘60s. So, I caught up with all of those things. I caught up with many of the recordings because I was so interested in how to find the voice. I hadn’t realized that he’d recorded an entire dramatic reading of the Bible, that was presented by his friend, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., which was quite extraordinary. He recorded a lot of short stories.
What I was amazed by was the breadth of what he’d done, and these many careers. He came to Hollywood when he was 24, to try to have a Hollywood career. He lived up at the top of Lookout Mountain, and he couldn’t get arrested. He said he did three or four movies, across 18 months, when movies took two or three weeks to shoot, and none of them worked. You see footage of that time and he had completely changed his accent. He did a couple promotional things for RKO Studios and he started to talk in a mid-Atlantic way, using hard R’s, as he talked about RKO Studios. That was way before Olivier became the classical performer that we’ve come to know and love.
He was a guy that was pounding the streets, and then he went away and became a classical actor on the stage in England, and then he came back and became a big movie star in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was right in the middle of the greatest year in Hollywood history, in 1939, and he was about to be married to Scarlett O’Hara. By the time we get to ‘56 and this movie, you couldn’t help but be impressed by the extraordinary life he’d led and the variety of the work. So, I walked away much more impressed than I was, to begin with, and I was already completely awed.
Was there a moment that you felt really captured Olivier?
BRANAGH: Well, we had a prosthetic chin that gave me the little cleft in the middle of the chin and gave a little fuller lip. And, we plucked the eyebrows and gave me that blue-black hair color that was partly him, at the time, and partly what he maximized for the role of The Duke. Olivier famously said that he liked to prepare from the outside in, and that a key thing for him was shoes. I was actually in the middle of a process where my friend, Terrence Stamp, had said to me, a couple of years ago, “You’re approaching your 50th birthday. You must do something very special for yourself. I recommend that you have a pair of handmade shoes made for you. You’ll find that it’s a wonderful process. There’s a man, named George Cleverley, at the Burlington Arcade in London. He’s from a family of shoemakers, for generations. Go there and tell him I sent you.” So, I duly went, at Mr. Stamp’s behest, and I began the process. It took about a year. He said, “Take your time with it. Have the first fitting and they’ll measure every part of your foot that’s possible and you’ll think it’s ridiculous.”
So, they took every kind of measurement, and then I went back after three months and looked at leathers. Then, I went back after three months and talked about colors. After a year, the shoes were ready. They were a brown pair of Oxford brogues. They were given to me and they felt like a pair of slippers. I said, “Well, I’ve got the shoes, Terrence. It’s cost me a small fortune. Now, I’m so terrified to use them, I don’t know what to do with them.” He said, “Something will come up.” What came up was 'My Week with Marilyn'.
As he was taking me through various things about Olivier and talking about the costumes, our director, Simon Curtis, said, “Of course, he had his shoes made by George Cleverley of the Burlington Arcade.” I said, “You’re joking me!” He said, “No.” I said, “I’ve got a pair of those shoes. I have a pair of George Cleverley shoes, handmade for me.” I went back to George Cleverley’s, and they showed me that they had the actual [model] they put inside everybody’s shoe. There was Laurence Olivier’s, on the shelf. So, I wore my handmade George Cleverley shoes, made by Olivier’s shoemakers, in the movie, and Simon Curtis was so pleased that he gave them a close-up. So, that was working from the outside in, but also, in a strange way, working from the inside out.
Have you ever been frustrated working with some actors because they don’t have the tradition that most British actors have?
BRANAGH: What I’ve noticed is that, unquestionably, there are differences in approaches from actors, but not just in different countries or places in the world. It’s that way, inside of any one scenario. Even if people are all from the same place, there can be very, very different approaches. It’s one of the things I’m fascinated by. It’s why I like directing. I like to see how different people approach trying to be truthful, on camera or in the theater, and whether you can make them match up. Sometimes they don’t.
What surprised me was how rigid they were about their approaches. In practice, Olivier and Monroe were both very free. She may have had a more narrow range, but she was more natural in front of the camera and was a different kind of actor. She was a great movie star. He had more range, but he professed to being very mechanical. He wanted to control things. I don’t necessarily think that’s the right way to do things.
I think you just have to find whatever is the truthful way to get to something. I’ve certainly been in situations where people are what I would call tricksy. I don’t mind how people do it. If they’re playing a scene where they’re out of breath, if they need to say, “Wait, I’m going to go outside of the room and get out of breath. I’m going to do 15 push-ups. Please wait until I come back, and then I really will be genuinely out of breath,” that’s fine by me, even though I might be standing next to an actor saying, “Why is he doing that?,” as sometimes I have. It only needs to happen when you say, “Action!” It’s pretend. In film, we’ll stop and start so many times that he’s going to be exhausted in about 10 minutes time. If you do 50 takes and you’re still doing it, at the end of the day, he’s not going to just be out of breath. He’s going to be in the hospital.
Somehow you need to put those two actors in the same scene, and have them work together. I’m fascinated by how you do that. I’ve learned that differences of approach or bad behavior, as one might put it, is usually, in my experience, down to fear. Usually, people are scared. It’s as simple as that. Sometimes it comes out in what I call tricksy behavior. That’s not always easy to deal with, but it’s fascinating. The key thing is to make sure that somebody’s tricks don’t trip up somebody else. I don’t know that the Brits have the monopoly on being organized, but they do have a way of working, with which I’m familiar. It’s not necessarily the best way, but it’s a way.
Have you gotten any feedback about your performance from Joan Plowright or any of Olivier’s children?
BRANAGH: No, I haven’t heard from anyone in the family. I know that Tony Hopkins has seen the film was very, very kind about it. He knew Olivier very well. He understudied him, in fact, and had gone on for him, in a couple of plays, when Olivier was indisposed. I know that Derek Jacobi has seen it, and he was also very complimentary. For me, those were very scary moments, when those guys saw the piece. Derek is a great friend and he would be kind anyway, so you might take this with a pinch of salt, but he was directed by Olivier and played opposite him as well, and he said that he felt, for a couple of key moments, the performance had the look in the eye. I thought, “Well, I don’t look like him and I don’t sound like him, so there will just have to be moments that will somehow evoke him.” I’m glad that those two fellas both felt that I had passed muster.
Did you ever get to meet Olivier?
BRANAGH: No. It would be flattering to say I had a correspondence with him, but I sent him a letter once and he did reply. I was asking advice about playing a role, for which I was much too young. I found his address in the Who’s Who of the Theater, which actors put their actual, real addresses in. That’s impossible to imagine now, but I sent it there. That, in itself, was exciting. The ritual of writing to a God – which is what it felt like – with an address in central London was exciting. I remember my hand shaking when the envelope came back because, on the back, it said, “Laurence Olivier,” in embossed, raised writing. It was really fancy, blue writing paper.
I put it down and walked around for a bit. I didn’t want to rip it open. And then, I pulled it out and there it was. On an old Underwood typewriter were the words, “I’m afraid I cannot give you any advice, in particular ways, about the way you should approach this role. It’s up to an actor, himself, to come up with these individual things. But, my advice to you is to have a bash and hope for the best, which I certainly wish for you.” I wrote that on a Post-It note and put it on top of my dressing room mirror for this movie. Every day, there were little rituals. Once the chin had gone on, I would listen to him reading the Bible, and then go into the dressing room and have a look at the Post-It note, put on the handmade shoes and get ready to go.
What are you going to be doing next, directing or acting?
BRANAGH: I hope to direct next, but it’s not certain what. There are a couple of pictures that I’ve been developing, for some time, and it hasn’t quite fallen into place yet, but I hope it will be in the Spring. I think I’ll be directing next. But, my next project is the holidays, with an open fire, chestnuts roasting on it, and all of the family together.