Oscar-Worthy: Kenneth Branagh Channels Sir Laurence Olivier

While Michelle Williams’ portrayal of Marilyn Monroe was always going to be the most immediate draw for Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn, now playing in select theaters, it’s hard not to be impressed by the performance of Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, the veteran stage and screen actor who had taken up directing and decided to collaborate with Monroe on a movie adaptation of the play “The Sleeping Prince” (retitled The Prince and the Showgirl).

The results were somewhat disastrous since the two of them came from such different worlds, and Olivier was frequently getting frustrated with Marilyn’s entourage and fame, which constantly threatened to undermine and overshadow him. At the same time, acting as a liaison between them is the production’s runner, Colin Clark, played by Eddie Redmayne, who acts as the audience’s point of view into this on-set culture clash.

Branagh’s portrayal of Sir Laurence Olivier is far more than mere impression, because he also gets some of the funniest lines in the movie and even has a few poignant moments to boot.

ComingSoon.net previously spoke with Branagh in May about directing Marvel Studios’ Thor (an interview you can read at SuperHeroHype). It really was one of the most pleasant interviews we had this year, though we never really got around to asking him about this movie, maybe because we didn’t realize what a large part he played.

To rectify that, we sat down with Branagh in person for another interview a few weeks back to specifically talk about the making of My Week with Marilyn, a movie that’s very likely to get the actor his fifth Oscar nomination and second for acting. As before, Branagh proved to be a conscientious and gracious interview subject, just a joy to talk to. (You can also watch our interview with Michelle Williams here and read an interview with director Simon Curtis here.)

ComingSoon.net: I’m sure people have mentioned this but you’ve been following in Laurence Olivier’s footstep, whether it’s intentional or not, by directing some of the same movies he made, so how did Simon approach you about playing him because that must have seemed like the next logical step, I’d imagine.
Kenneth Branagh:
But it wasn’t a logical step for me because I thought that although it’s been flattering for there to be comparisons, I’ve never taken the comparisons seriously. I’ve always regarded him as he’s a sort of one-off master whose work is an inspiration, but it’s never anything that I felt that I was competing with or trying to emulate. It’s just that I, like many other people who are actors, I like the classical world, and a play and then a film like “Henry V” for 400 years have been fascinating people. It’s not a surprise that another one was made and there’ll be another one made, etc. etc. But nevertheless, I was aware that his shadow is so long and so dominate over our profession and across some of that work that on the whole, if I could avoid heading that way, I would. Playing him, I just thought, “Well, that’s just asking for trouble.” It was simply an honest response to the screenplay. My dear friend David Parfitt, who I have produced a lot of pictures with, was producer on this and he and Simon both invited me in to say, “Well, look, how could you make this your own? Adrian, the screenwriter, was very open to making sure that it has flesh on the bones and everything.” With that invitation and with the feel that the movie was truly affectionate about the characters, and also that beyond that, it’s this sort of fairytale witnessed by this young man in unusual circumstances, suddenly he’s ringside at the clash of the titans. There’s a very interesting yarn, which underneath is an entertaining movie about different acting styles and how people approach what we do that Olivier and Monroe in that situation are fascinating examples of. In the end, it just turned out that the part and the story contained so much that I was interested in that it ended up being an easy “yes,” even though when I first heard about it I thought, “This is never going to work.”

CS: Had you read the book already or did you know about the stories from that time?
Branagh:
No, I knew it well, and I did know about the stories. I was aware that little episode was a pretty interesting one, and I knew people who knew people who were there. It had the chance to be a sort of backstage story that needn’t be too inside, and that maybe also if someone like Michelle and myself and the other people like Judi Dench in it, especially with Simon’s background both in theater and television and film, we might be able to give it a level of authenticity to the way it was laid out, even though we’re operating seeing it through Colin’s eyes, which may be misted by his obsession with her. So I had been aware of it, and I was very interested in the story itself.

CS: I imagine you must’ve worked at Pinewood at some time in your career. I’m not sure if you’ve directed a movie there…
Branagh:
Do you know, I haven’t, so that in itself was intriguing for me. Shepperton was where I’ve done nearly all of my work. It’s the sister studio, and more or less every other studio in the UK. I mixed a movie at Pinewood once, but no, I hadn’t acted in a movie there, so that in itself was a thrill, and to be on the same soundstage and in these big long corridors. I’d gone for interviews and things there, and it’s like you’d expect a big film studio to be, a strange, English one. The little entrance to Pinewood that we show in the movie is the old entrance to Pinewood. It just looks like a little country cottage, but that’s how it always was. It was so thrilling to drive past it. I always used to look at that little entrance and think, “God, they’ve all gone through here. They’ve all driven through here.” So it was fun to just be driving in and out and being on the lot, yeah.

CS: How did you prepare for the role? Obviously, Olivier had a very specific, almost affected accent…
Branagh:
Well, he’s very much the actor. Everybody who worked with him said that he was very, very conscious of how he spoke, how he looked after himself, that he was very conscious with his then wife Vivien Leigh of their position as sort of English theatrical royalty. They dressed wonderfully. They had handmade shoes, handmade shirts. They were old-fashioned stars in the sense that they were innately glamorous, and they worked at it. So, we worked very carefully on the clothes, wanted him to look terrific. I wanted to get the physical look right. He has a cleft in his chin. I have these spots that have been with me forever that are never going to go, so we had this prosthetic chin piece that gave me a squarer chin. We just shaped the eyebrows; he had a little bit more of an arch to the eyebrows. Obviously, we brilliantined the hair both his off and on is very, very made up as the Duke in the film, but he was very crisply turned out as himself. I would listen to his voice all the way through makeup. He did a dramatic reading of the entire bible. You can listen to him doing all of it, and it’s quite something. I watched every kind of movie and piece of work of his audio and visual around that time, so a real immersion in it was what I did. I found out it was hugely enjoyable because one could see him be often very, very brilliant, so nothing else if the film didn’t get made I felt like I’d gone back to drama school.

CS: Was his voice very affected when he was performing? Did he have a different voice when he wasn’t performing or reading?
Branagh:
Yeah, I think he was an actor who talked about working from the outside in, so vocally it was always very important for him to capture something, so for instance, when he played Othello, he did vocal training that dropped his voice by about an octave. When he was Richard III (raises his voice) he talked up here in that type of head register. (back to normal) Also in life, when charming people (goes into Olivier accent) always calling people “baby” and spoke very quietly and wraps his arms around you with his voice very much (back to normal) like a magician, a maker of spells. He never had the same nose twice, always, always different kind of noses. He did a lot of non-surgical cosmetic work very early on. He had joined-together eyebrows and everything, teeth he got sorted out. He was forever sort of re-imagining himself visually. He loved disguise. He loved being a man of many parts.

CS: Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
Branagh:
He passed away in July of 1989, but I wrote to him when I was a student. I was playing a part that Chekhov played, an old doctor, and he’d played it in a film that he’d directed. The next film he directed after “The Prince and the Showgirl,” it put him off directing for 20 years, but he directed “The Three Sisters” by Chekhov. He plays the doctor. He’s wonderful, but he’s the right age, he’s 60 odd (years). I wrote to him and said, “What advice would you give?” He said, “I don’t have any advice for a young actor except to have a bash and hope for the best.” I have this letter from when I was 20 years old. I’d never met him, but a letter from the great man saying, “Have a bash and hope for the best,” was something going slightly through my mind when the offer of doing this came up. I thought, “You know what? I am. I’m going to have a bash and hope for the best.” I did.

CS: One of the interesting things about the movie is the fact that it is a movie in a movie. You can watch this other movie being made at Pinewood, and you’re also an actor who directs, so how bizarre was that, just getting into that head where you have to direct this other movie while Simon’s directing you in his movie?
Branagh:
And also, while I was very much in post-production on “Thor,” so I was directing a movie at the same time. I remember one night where we had a long day and we finished with a scene that’s at the end of the picture where he’s in the screening room with Colin and he says (goes into Olivier voice) “You know I think directing a movie has to be just about the best job ever invented.” They’re watching the rushes and it’s a terrific day having done a scene with Vivien Leigh and another scene with Marilyn. It was about nine o’clock at night and I drove from Twickenham Studios down to Shepperton Studios where I sat in a screening room with Kevin Feige looking at rushes from “Thor.” So, being a movie director is about the best job in the world ’cause he was down there, they were shooting “Captain America,” and my composer Patrick Doyle was there. We’d often do late night work at Shepperton having knackered just come from Twickenham was where we shot the screening room scenes or Pinewood. Also, “Captain America” shot sometimes at Pinewood, so I literally – the one rule I made was that I wouldn’t come and see them as Olivier, so I wouldn’t come and see Kevin while I was in the Olivier makeup. I did it at the end of the day or the beginning of the day because once it was on, once the suit was on and everything, it was funny… but being a director while being a director on a film was fun. The sort of frustrations with the way moviemaking goes were as keen as ever. I enjoyed being in a movie where I say “action” and “cut.” It was a childish thrill about saying things that you say in quite a lot of the rest of your life as well, but actually playing a part. I liked that element of the film, the sort of weird layers of it like that, I liked that.

CS: At one point, it must have been really weird. I don’t know if you’ve ever been through any of the stuff he went through while making that movie, but there’s gotta be something that’s happening to Olivier that reminded you of your own experiences.
Branagh:
Certainly, yeah, we’ve had some challenges like that and read-throughs where everybody’s around the table and you’ve gotta make a little speech and that kind of thing. Also, just trying to deal with so much of directing if you’re interested in performance and acting is dealing with the other people’s anxieties, other people’s fears and dreads and particular eccentricities and all that’s happening while the clock is always ticking and there’s a producer always saying, “We gotta make the day. We’re going to run out of time. We can’t do overtime.” And it’s like “We’re waiting for her to come out and she’s unhappy today. I don’t know what happened with her.” All of that’s going on. Then, the door opens and you have to go, “Ah, how lovely, have a sit down!” I absolutely sympathized with his challenge there, and also he’s doing all that, and then he’s gotta play the part. He felt and I think the world feels that his performance suffered in “Prince and the Showgirl,” a part that he played for like a year on stage. He had huge practice with it, but that was the strength and the weakness is that he couldn’t quite let go of the theatricality of it. He kind of knew what worked, but it only worked in the theater and it worked with his then wife Vivien Leigh who played Marilyn’s role in the theater, but once Marilyn was there, he didn’t meet the soufflĂ© reality that…

CS: He was still doing his version while she was doing something different.
Branagh:
Yeah, and in the meantime she was quietly acting him into the ground.

CS: One thing that’s interesting is that as a director you’ve kind of gotten away from acting in your own movies. Was that something very conscious that you decided when you’re directing, you’re directing and when you’re acting, you’re acting?
Branagh:
I guess it ended up being a sort of natural development based on wanting to use the time as well as possible and sometimes whether it’s getting made up in the mornings that takes you away from setting up shots and stuff, just there’s a certain kind of double-up. You have to go and review the material when you’ve finished a shot, etc. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it again, because there are wonderful advantages in it. In a strange way, you get very un-vain about things because you have to look at yourself a lot and you suddenly become another actor quite quickly. As a director, you view your own acting quite dispassionately, and that’s helpful. I felt as though in both cases I had a vast amount to learn, and so it’s very nice to be learning at the feet of a director or learning from actors, so for the time being, it’s been one or the other.

CS: One thing I liked about this movie is the amazing cast Simon assembled. I’m assuming you’ve worked with a lot of them before, but just having you and Toby and Judi and Dominic. I feel like this entire cast could go from this to another movie, which is very much an old school Hollywood idea.
Branagh:
Because Pinewood has such an old-fashioned traditionalist feel, it feels as though it ought to be the home to a cinematic repertory company, that all of these people would’ve belonged, Judi for sure would’ve been. If Judi had lived through the ’20s, ’30s and ’40, either as a young woman or as the beautiful older woman she now is, she’d have been in everything. I just know she could’ve been in everything. Her position, even in this cast as sort of mother of the company, the kindness and compassion that she shows as Dame Sybil Thorndike, who was famously kind and compassionate, is very much Judi. Judi has that quality. She definitely brings that kind of kindness, she does. She’s such a pro and she’s vulnerable, but she doesn’t throw her weight around, but she’s very, very interested and inclusive. It sets an amazing example, so she leads the company, and so did Simon. They led it very well. Yeah, there was a great sense of camaraderie and instant rapport. I knew Dominic’s work, worked with Toby, worked with Judy, Dougray Scott, I knew a little of Julia Ormond’s work, I was very familiar with. It was a very sort of closely connected company, yeah.

CS: I’m sure you’ve already heard there’s been Oscar talk for your performance and it’s something you’ve gone through multiple times in the past but not in a while. What are your feelings about going through all the motions that come with award season especially considering how much it’s changed? Have you kept track of any of that talk?
Branagh:
No, any more than I could keep track of all the stuff that would go on about “Thor,” the experience has definitely told me “No, stay away, just do it.” You hear stuff anyway. You get it anecdotally, better not go looking for it. The key thing with a movie like this that is nice about all of that is that although you don’t look for prizes, you look for an audience, but sometimes when there’s talk of that kind of stuff, it just helps with the audience. With an independent movie where it’s so hard to wave that flag and just say, “Come have a look at this in the movie theater,” everything helps. I certainly feel as though there’s a lot of talk about Michelle’s work, which I can see with some degree of objectivity that I think whatever eventually happens, even if it’s just through people just enjoying it enormously, it will be recognized that she’s done a really phenomenal job here. So, anything else people see the movie is a positive thing, I think. Any further identification with any of that kind of stuff, that way madness lies.

CS: When you watch the movie, the actors reacting to Marilyn’s performance in the movie, it seems very realistic that they are just amazed by how Michelle is playing Marilyn in that part.
Branagh:
Yeah, I think if this movie was a play it’d be by Pirandello; it’d be a weird Italian piece with a funny title. There’s a wonderful Pirandello play that I cannot understand at all, but the title is “You Are If You Think So.” Now, the most famous play is “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” There’s something Pirandellish about this nature of reality and people fascinated by how other people pretend to be other people and whether they really feel those intense feelings that they appear to feel. That, as a theme–not to bang on about something we probably talked about before–which is Shakespeare in relation to the kind of things I do, but that issue of the nature of reality is a Shakespearean theme all the way through. There’s Hamlet for instance. Specifically, with a troop of players that arrive, Hamlet is fascinated by how someone can pretend to be very worked up about something, and in fact, they’re not. This movie explores some of the same kind of things. I think it’s a very interesting subject.

CS: Have you thought at all about what you want to direct next? We haven’t spoken in a few months so have you gotten the relaxation you’ve been hoping for since finishing “Thor”?
Branagh:
Not as much as my wife would like me to. (chuckles) I’m shooting a TV show at the moment called “Wallander,” which is about the Swedish detective, I’m doing that again. I did a play just in the early autumn there in Belfast, in my hometown, so I’ve been very busy acting. I’ve been enjoying that. I’m developing various things. I’m reading a lot and with the things I’m developing, we haven’t quite got to the perfect casting moment, so the answer is, “No, I haven’t,” but I’m eager to do so, but I’m also eager to do it when I’m absolutely certain of key things in place. I’m pleased to say there’s a lot of interest, there’s a lot of stuff around and the things I’ve been developing and things that I’m interested in continue to very much keep me passionate. Now it’s a sort of a timing issue so I’m glad and my wife is glad that I have a little time just after “Wallander” to have a think, but I’d hope to be back in the saddle and directing something sooner rather than later.

CS: It seems like it would be easier to get financing and distribution this time around now with the success of “Thor,” which should help.
Branagh:
Yeah, I would’ve thought so. I mean, I never assume anything about these things, but I would say, listen, you just noticed it in terms of a lot of people are sending things, and that’s great. I’m very, very pleased about that and I want to make sure that I have as good a time as I had on “Thor.” I’m weighing things up carefully, but in the meantime, I’m having a great time learning all over again about screen acting and enjoying it hugely.

CS: You decided not to direct the “Thor” sequel. Are you still going to be involved as producer since you helped created this world?
Branagh:
I think that really it’s over to the guys with that. Timing-wise, it just wasn’t going to work for me, and that’s absolutely been born out by the kind of year I’ve had which has been very busy, but I’m very interested. They’ve made a great choice in Patty Jenkins. I’m very excited about that choice. I’ll be speaking to the guys when I get back. They’re shooting in Shepperton near me, so no doubt, we’ll be hooking up and I’ll be as little or as much of it as they’d like.

CS: Since you’re not directing the movie, maybe you could have an acting role in it.
Branagh:
Why don’t you suggest it to them? (Laughs)

CS: Maybe you can play one of the Gods this time. I think getting Patty to direct the movie is the only more unconventional choice they could have gone with than having you direct the first movie.
Branagh:
But I’m excited by it. It’s a great choice.

My Week with Marilyn is now playing in select cities.

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