Kenneth Branagh On Playing Icon Laurence Olivier in ‘My Week with Marilyn’

Living in Cinema, 27 December 2011
By Jackson Truax

After achieving world-wide acclaim in 1989 for his Oscar-winning adaptation of 'Henry V', Kenneth Branagh has spent over twenty years delighting audiences and critics of stage and screen. Branagh has often followed in the footsteps of his hero Laurence Olivier, writing, directing, and acting in world-class adaptations of some of William Shakespeare’s most highly regarded works. Branagh has more recently acted in such diverse films as 'Valkyrie' and 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets', and has the distinction of having earned four Oscar nominations, each in a different category. After directing this summer’s smash-hit 'Thor', Branagh co-starred in Simon Curtis’ 'My Week with Marilyn', in which he plays his hero Olivier opposite Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe. Branagh has already received Critics Choice, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild nominations for his work in the film. I recently had the good fortune to sit down with Branagh, and he generously shared with me the genesis of his admiration for Olivier, a look back on his career, and building the character of Olivier for 'My Week with Marilyn'.

Jackson Truax: What was your first experience with Olivier’s work?

Kenneth Branagh: I was at school. I was about 14-15. We were in English class. There was a [substitute] teacher. He didn’t want to teach us. But he had a television. And he had a videocassette… We were a fairly boisterous class. We started to hear this [score]. It turned out to be the beginnings of Olivier’s film of 'Henry V'. We played it just for about 10-15 minutes… He stopped the TV and said, “Right class. Who’s that?” Nobody knew who it was. He said, “That’s world’s greatest actor. That is [Olivier].” That was the first time I’d ever seen him.

JT: What was your first exposure to Shakespeare?

KB: It was at school… We read 'The Merchant of Venice' aloud. I might as well have been speaking a mysterious, ancient language. Then I was taken to a school production of 'Romeo and Juliet'. It was so exciting. It was a very rowdy atmosphere… [The actors] were fighting, and it was sexy and Juliet was hot. That… really turned things around for me. I remember our English teacher playing a… Diana Ross song “Touch Me In the Morning,” which begins with a lot of noisemaking, a lot of… grunting. And [the teacher] saying, “What does that mean?” We couldn’t believe he was playing this thing in class. We were all a bit embarrassed. He said, “SEX! It’s sex. That’s what the opening to that song is. That’s what’s in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Now open your books and let’s start reading.” So when I understood that sex and violence were part of Shakespeare, I think that’s when I started to get tuned in.

JT: Did a passion for Olivier’s work lead to a passion for Shakespeare? Or was it the other way around? Or some of both?

KB: A bit of both, I think… There was a long-playing record in the English room… that I asked to borrow and take home. It was speeches from Shakespeare, from the films, with William Walton’s music underneath and Olivier’s voice. It was a brilliant way to hear Shakespeare. That was the first time I ever heard 'Hamlet', was him speaking it over this grand music selection from the film. The same with 'Henry V'… For a while, Shakespeare in the world… was [Olivier], and vice versa.

JT: Many actors who’ve graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts have talked about how important that training was to them. What was the work you did when you attended RADA, and what did you take away from it?

KB: At the Royal Academy, the gift was that we worked with so many different directors, that we had completely different approaches across the whole of the training. We worked with people who were completely Method. We worked with people that were completely mechanical. [We] did lots and lots of plays. [We] were exposed to public performances from the second term… much, much earlier than most drama schools. [We] were taught a professional rigor. [We] got clocked in in the morning. If you were late three times, you were out of the Academy. So the approach to discipline was very, very strong. We had a principal who saw the first performance of everything you did and the last performance. He gave you notes after the first one and he expected you to take them. He gave you notes after the last one. Your progress was monitored every step of the way. [We] had a thing called “Stand Up and Entertain,” [we] had to do stand-up for the audience, no matter what your gifts were. We had to sing for the Academy, whether you were tone-deaf or not. They exposed you to every kind of influence. I guess they made you totally battle-hardened for the task ahead.

JT: I know you came onto 'My Week with Marilyn' through producer David Parfitt. At what point in the process was that? What were the initial discussions?

KB: It was late in the process. [Curtis and Parfitt] started working on it in late 2005. I think [Weinstein] was in a few years later… In June or July of last year, [Parfitt] came to see me in Los Angeles. I was working on 'Thor'. He said, “I know you’re going to find this something you maybe don’t want to do, but I’m telling you, you should play Olivier in this film.” I was nervous about it. I thought, “Gosh. I’m going to be compared to him. I’m going to be beaten up. And everything about it’s going to be difficult.” Then I read it, and I found the opposite was true. I thought everything about it was exciting. The idea of trying to capture his voice, his physical appearance, and try to create layers in the character during the course of a short appearance for him in the movie. It’s not about him, but it lays him out in a complicated and complex way… This was about three months before we started shooting, and then my every waking moment that wasn’t 'Thor' was [Olivier].

JT: How did you approach Olivier as a character in the film?

KB: I was trying to approach it from the inside and the outside… I wanted the hair right. I wanted the chin right. Hence, the prosthetic. I wanted the eyebrows right. I wanted the clothes right. I got a pair of handmade shoes that were from the handmade shoes shop that he bought his from. They make a close-up appearance in the movie. But I also wanted to capture the look in his eyes that I saw in various interviews, where there is a sense of tremendous introspection, tremendous stillness, a tremendous sense of, sometimes disappointment, sometimes anger. I saw him pick up an award at the time ['The Prince and the Showgirl'] was made… He began a complicated, eloquent sentence in a very calm and gentle way. He messed up his words twice, and then suddenly [screamed]. It was a very interesting insight into the fury underneath him. I tried… read everything that he wrote about himself and about the process and every interview to be found online, where I could hear and see him speaking as himself.

JT: There’s something that’s both tragic and farcical about Olivier’s function in the story. You play him as someone who’s so put upon by these eclectic characters with these divergent interests as he’s trying to make his movie. How were you able to empathize with him as a result of your experience as a director? How did that add to your performance?

KB: When you direct films… the very limited time you have to make a film, limited time in the day, limited time in the shoot, and the very, very great expense of it, means that you’re constantly under pressure. You’re reactions are extreme, and often ludicrous-seeming. So the frustration and the exasperation come to you very quickly. Because five-minute delays, a one-hour delay, it’s costing thousands and thousands of dollars that you just won’t get back. This hard-won opportunity… is being trickled away while that’s happening. You very quickly get to a place where you are exasperated. So yes, I can understand his pain. I’ve stood [on] sets in the morning, and just yelled at the top of my voice, “Why the fuck can’t people get here on-time? We are pissing money away!” It’s not a particularly reasonable or rational kind of act. But the pressure cooker of movie-making doesn’t always make you behave as well as you would like. So I knew that we would not be being unfair to [Olivier] in presenting his fury and exasperation because he clearly had it. We knew that we would also be presenting some things about him that were very admirable and his passion and his fervor were certainly expressed in lots of different ways.

JT: 'My Week with Marilyn' is such a sincere and touching story, with you in many ways providing the comic relief. As you were playing these scenes, did you give any thought to how farcical you could make them? What was your barometer for that?

KB: I was surprised… I saw the movie play [for] a crowd of people and it plays so funny. It does get lots of laughs. I think the key, as it is with probably most comedies, is that I really wasn’t aware of that [when I was] doing it. I was taking it very seriously, as I think Olivier in the script is. I think he’s funny by accident. But for him, it’s a very serious matter. He had a very acid tongue… For instance, the line, “Teaching Marilyn Monroe how to act is like teaching Urdu to a badger,” is an absolute Olivier line. That’s him. That’s what he said about her… Although driven to distraction and sometimes desperation, it kept him very acid-tongued in ways that were very darkly amusing.

JT: Your career encapsulates such a wide variety of projects on stage and on both sides of the camera on-screen. How would you sum up your journey at this point in your career?

KB: A life led by creative passion. I go to work because I am vocationally driven to do these things that I am excited by… If there’s such a thing as a healthy life/work balance, I’ve probably never had that. But then I don’t really see what I do as work. It just is. What I do is what I do. When I was about sixteen and felt… this gift of clarity about what it was that made me happy… So it’s a… creative life led by that kind of passion. And the passion is to create. The passion is to learn as well. And to surprise. So I guess all the things you describe are borne out of that.

JT: Curtis said he hopes the film will give audiences a new sense of Monroe as an actress and as a person. Through the film and through your portrayal, is there a new understanding or sense of Olivier you hope audiences will take away from the film?

KB: I hope that they’ll see that… what Olivier wanted from the experience of working on the film with [Monroe], was to re-invent himself, be seen not just as a kind of institution, but to be seen as a person. That’s served by ['My Week with Marilyn']. Now as a person, he isn’t always heroic in the film, but I hope that he seems real, not just a… series of clichés, and we haven’t presented him in a kind of saintly way. But we certainly… understand that he’s at various times compassionate and wise about [Monroe]. That he’s savvy and sharp-witted. That he can be sarcastic. And that he’s passionate. And that he has self-knowledge.

JT: You’ve already been nominated for a Critics Choice Award, Golden Globe, and by your peers in the Screen Actors Guild for your work in 'My Week with Marilyn'. What does this recognition mean to you at this point in your career?

KB: There’s a sort of double agenda inevitable when you play iconic characters. So… knowing that people really have an opinion about this stuff, to get the recognition from such disparate groups is very, very satisfying and very pleasing. It’s particularly… meaningful that actors, watching a film about a very famous actor should recognize and endorse the work of a fellow actor doing it. Because I think that’s the toughest crowd to get by with this kind of work. And then from the Hollywood Foreign Press, who everyday… are meeting actors, screen icons… people who before their very eyes are indicating what’s the difference between what you see on-screen and what you see in life. To have their recognition is very meaningful… I feel very relieved and happy that we did well enough for them to be able to see the movie, not just see bits of mimicry.

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