Kenneth Branagh On the 'Method' of Playing Olivier and Marvel Movies Fueling England's Film Biz
Has he had his own 'Marilyn' on set?
HitFix, 28 December 2011
If anyone deserves the 2011 comeback of the year award it may just be Kenneth Branagh.
The four-time Oscar nominee burst upon the scene in 1989 with his acclaimed adaptation of "Henry V." It was a remarkable achievement which he both directed and starred in at the ripe old age of 28. Branagh became a creative force and incredibly prolific during the early to mid-90's with more Shakespeare adaptations such as "Much Ado About Nothing" and a four-hour "Hamlet," the underrated thriller "Dead Again," cult comedy favorite "Peter's Friends" and the studio misfire "Frankenstein." His career hit a major bumpy patch after his villainous turn in the disappointing "Wild Wild West" and the critical drubbing of his musical version of "Love's Labour's Lost" in 2000. What followed was almost a decade of supporting roles in films such as "Rabbit-Proof Fence," "Valkyrie" and "Pirate Radio" and little substantial directing work. I remember speaking to Branagh when "Sleuth" screened at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival and he was humbly grateful star and producer Jude Law offered him the chance to helm a movie people were paying attention to. It was a far cry from a decade earlier when he was the toast of Hollywood and "Hamlet" was perceived as a best picture nominee (which didn't happen although it did land four nominations).
But, of course, everything old is new again in Hollywood. Especially when you've got real talent behind you. A few years after "Sleuth," Kevin Feige and Marvel warmed to Branagh's pitch to direct "Thor" and while still in post-production for that massive endeavor he found himself starring as none other than acting legend Sir Laurence Olivier in British indie "My Week with Marilyn." Now, at the end of 2011, Branagh has a global blockbuster to his credit ($449 million worldwide) which received positive reviews from audiences and critics and he's officially out of movie jail. He also finds himself with prestigious Screen Actor's Guild and Golden Globe Awards best supporting actor nominations for his work in "Marilyn." And Oscar is right around the corner.
Branagh took some time last week to chat about his busy year and the difficulty of editing a movie and starring in another at the same time. He also reflected on how exciting it was to be working at a time when "Thor," "X-Men: First Class," "Captain America: The First Avenger," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "My Week with Marilyn" were all shooting in and around London. And happily, He was as charismatic, honest and insightful as ever.
Awards Campaign: What was more stressful for you: worrying how comic fans would react to your vision of their beloved Thor on the big screen or playing a legendary actor such as Laurence Olivier?
Kenneth Branagh: Both equally stressful and both were very useful when it came to process of making this film. Because I was in the middle of post for 'Thor,' but it kind of timed up -- because, as you may know, Marvel was making 'Captain America' in England at Shepperton Studios -- so I used to come sometimes for late night meetings with Kevin Feige at Shepperton and Patrick Doyle, my friend and composer, who is based there. Then sort of coming to work playing stressed director Laurence Olivier, as, in fact, already stressed director Kenneth Branagh, who had just spent several 2:00 in the mornings seeing visual effects shots come down the line from 'Thor.' But, actually, it was an enjoyable level of stress, because it felt as though the movie -- 'My Week With Marilyn' -- was going to catch me in the full thrust of creativity that is making a film. So, the two things sort of blended one into the other. And frankly, each of them distracted me from worrying too obsessively about just the one. So, in the end, it turned out to be, actually, a very nice kind of parallel endeavor.
Awards Campaign: Have you ever worked on two big projects such as these at the same time? Where youíre acting in someone else's film and youíre trying to finish up your own?
Kenneth Branagh: No, I haven't and I felt it kept you very honest. So, the very clear understanding on 'My Week With Marilyn' was there wasn't tons of money around for endless numbers of takes and things. The amount of scenes that we would do in any given day as opposed to what was even possible on a movie like 'Thor' just because of the logistics of it by the time youíve calibrated for 3D and moved tons of green screen around brought prosthetic Ice Giants on to stage and fed and watered everybody, you know, you might do a tenth of the actual screen material in the same amount of time. That sort of dynamic was interesting, but by the same token, some of the techniques that you learned from one could apply to the other and Iíd certainly never done it before. I don't know. I felt as though it made you very honest in the moment. It made you take nothing for granted and it made you not be sort of over-ambitious or under-ambitious. And it kept you incredibly stimulated, incredibly kind of wired in terms of the energy of leadership, just to lead the direction of the ship on the big picture but then bring it to Laurence Olivier in the smaller one. It was a slightly unreal kind of experience and it felt as though you were right in the middle of the entire British film industry, because you'd got to Shepperton and every stage was 'Captain America' and Marvel and bits of 'Thor' and then youíd come back to Pinewood and at that time 'X-Men' was shooting and 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and there was the remake of Laurence Olivierís original film happening in the middle of it as well. It was a very giddy time as well, because some of those corridors weíd do scenes in. Youíd walk past, theyíd say cut, the door would open and then Johnny Depp would walk out across the corridor and go to his dressing room. And that feeling of being in the middle of the film industry was very exciting.
Awards Campaign: Well, speaking of how the film industry reacts to stuff like this, I had the pleasure of catching the film at a SAG non-com screening. And I have to tell you, I know that audiences in general like it and laugh, but there are numerous in-jokes about the industry in it that, as Iím sure you can well imagine, they just went loopy for. And Iím curious, when you read it yourself, was it hard not to laugh at the digs at the acting profession? Do you consider yourself a 'method' actor? How do you describe your acting technique?
Kenneth Branagh: I think an evolving one. I think I try to be inclusive of all approaches. In fact, Iím trying to resist saying this is the way I work. I try and find what is the method to pursue the role in this particular circumstances with this particular part. So, for instance, [playing] Olivier it would be very, very immersive to orally, visually listen to and watch everything that one could of his films and his personal voice recordings. He recorded the Bible. I listened to all of that. Iíve visited places that heíd grown up in, the church that he went to, the house that he lived in at the time of the shooting of the movie. Quite sort of exhaustive but method-y and practical in that regard. But, I enjoyed the way the film, on the page and in the playing of it, took itself quite seriously in terms of the way the business obsesses about itself. Like you, I had a different experience. I watched the movie when I was in Sweden recently doing some work there and our crew for 'Wallander,' which was the show I was making there, watched the movie for the first time and the reaction to the sort of the inside stuff was bonkers, absolutely bonkers. The lines like Colin being asked, 'What do you think an assistant director does?,' and Colin says, 'Well, assist the director.' And the response is,'That's the last fucking thing an assistant director will do. Of course you do whatever I fucking well tell you,' which had a huge cheer from a group of Swedish film technicians and the international language of film craziness is well understood across the board. But I liked the fact that the film is not afraid to [take] the gloves off about quite how obsessive people can get. And we knew that Laurence Olivier wasnít always presented in a sort of effortlessly beautiful light, but it was a realism and authenticity to what he wrote about the experience which was of great frustration with Marilyn and his great skill and talent as an artist. So, there was a reality in there that I hoped that we could convey, not only for people who knew from the inside but also with affection and laughter for people looking from the outside.
Awards Campaign: The final version of 'The Prince and the Showgirl' is considered a mediocre film by many. Do you think that there's any way that if Olivier had gone into the project knowing more about Marilyn's acting style think they could have made a better picture?
Kenneth Branagh: I think it would have been a different picture. I think that the strength and the weakness, perhaps, of Olivierís approach was that he worked on that play in the theater for so long over a year heíd been playing the original. He worked on it with his wife. I think he had a strong view of what worked and when it was funny. And he had set pieces. He had things that he knew would be effective. That made him feel very confident about directing the film and knowing the material. But, of course, once it became a film and once Marilyn was in the mix, it became something different. I think that his weakness then, was that very experience with the original material made him maybe a little rigid and that the style of the film maybe a little more kind of theatrical than he might have chosen otherwise. Although, itís a style in which Marilynís naturalism, in fact, is very, very well served, because she seems the most natural thing in it. There's an artificiality to the atmosphere of the world, because of the nature of the story. It's not a mediocre film. Itís an uneven film. And if he, I [wonder] had he understood what was going to be required whether he actually would have directed it. I think he might have thought, 'No, Iím just going to go act in something else.' As long as he was prepared to listen slavishly and not question anything I think heíd have had a great time and she would [have too].
Awards Campaign: Over your career, without naming names -- unless you want to -- have you ever had a similar experience with an actor where you just could not connect with them? And did it teach you anything?
Kenneth Branagh: I did. I had one minor experience with somebody in a smaller part. I found this particular individual -- I couldn't get them to listen. They were, essentially in their own bubble and I would say almost sort of contemptuous of me. And that's difficult to work with. And I must say, I was rather sort of stymied by that. In the end, I suppose, you do the best you can and then you kind of leave them alone. But what it resulted in was four months [of work] which was very severely defended by the individual involved but just didn't really work with the material. And I was frustrated and disappointed in myself for not being able to find a way to communicate, but I think sometimes you just have to admit defeat, even if you give it your best shot. Itís not very pleasant or comfortable, but sometimes I guess itís like the equivalent of writerís block or something. You get directorís block and maybe that's what Olivier had in this case.
Awards Campaign: Yes and there's only so much you can do in the editing room. Have you lined up anything to direct or star in next year?
Kenneth Branagh: Iím looking forward to a break this very Christmas. I have been busy. Iíve been developing stuff for the last two or three years while the Marvel picture was going ahead and a couple of projects are sort of vying for first position depending on how and when we get the money together and when the casting comes into place. I hope that I will direct something this coming spring, and I won't kind of know for the next few days whether it absolutely falls into place, but I hope that it will. But otherwise, Iíve so enjoyed the process of acting as Olivier. I feel that Iíd be dead happy to do some more acting. I did a play in the autumn in my hometown of Belfast and I may well take that into Londonís West End. I would enjoy doing that. Otherwise, when it comes to directing, Iím patiently waiting for the perfect circumstances, either sort of for the project Iíve been developing or for the great new surprise out of left field. So in the very, very short term, I happen to see some chestnuts resting [sic] on an open fire and have a glass of mulled wine and my feet up on the sofa.
Awards Campaign: Well, enjoy that, sir. Congratulations and hope to talk to you down the road, thank you.
Kenneth Branagh: Bye-bye. Happy holidays.
"My Week with Marilyn" is now playing nationwide.