Interview: Kenneth Branagh on his 'dangerously obvious' casting in 'My Week with Marilyn'

Posted by · 10:43 pm · December 19th, 2011

Kenneth Branagh embraced what he describes as potentially “dangerously obvious” casting with his portrayal of Sir Laurence Olivier in “My Week with Marilyn.” The actor has, of course, quite notably been compared to Olivier throughout the course of his career. He was given the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1983 for Most Promising Newcomer. Both he and Olivier directed themselves as “Hamlet” and “Henry V” and both men often directed the women that they were involved with and/or married to.

Branagh has been nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Actor and Best Director for “Henry V” in 1990, Best Live Action Short for “Swan Song” in 1992 and Best Adapted Screenplay for “Hamlet” in 1996), but has yet to secure a win. Olivier himself was granted an honorary award in 1979 for the full body of his work. It would be somehow poetic if Branagh were to take home the Best Supporting Actor statue for his depiction of the man that paved the road for much of the trajectory of his own career.

Michelle Williams has long been in the conversation for an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in the film, but as we move further into the precursor season, it looks as if Branagh is also a legitimate contender in the supporting actor field. With Golden Globe, SAG and BFCA nominations under his belt, an Oscar nomination is looking more and more likely. But while it’s certainly exciting, the actor has a fairly balanced take on the role that awards play in the broader context of his work.

“I tell you it”s lovely to be in a film people want to watch, so that”s step one,” he says. “You get recognition as we have this week with the various nominations, step two. Delicious. Anything after that is absolute gravy. The big prize we got this week is attention. That means more people are going to go see this movie. Which means that next time I want to do a sort of obscure piece I can point to this and say, ‘People went to see this.” And I will have to do that bang of the drum.”

As a director, Branagh is clear that he will need to do a similar “banging of the drums” when, and if, the time comes for him to direct another large scale event film like “Thor.”  If there is an unusual choice he would like to make he can go to the studio executives and point to the success of that film. When all is said and done, “what you want is the opportunity to work and an audience,” Branagh says. “Prizes after that are just a great big bonus.”

Though we enter “My Week with Marilyn” through the eyes of the 23-year-old Colin Clark, it is the relationship between Olivier and Monroe that feels the richest. Clark has a line in the film that perfectly captures the nature of the dynamic. He says (essentially): “It”s agony for him (Olivier) because he wants to be a movie star, and it”s agony for you (Monroe) because you want to be taken seriously as an actress. And you”re making a film that isn”t going to achieve either of those goals.”

“The Prince and the Showgirl” was backed by Monroe”s production company and directed by Olivier and, of course, starred the pair opposite one another. The film was a light farce in which the childish and exuberant showgirl Elsie (Monroe) makes guileless attempts to usher the stogy Prince Regent (Olivier) into the modern age. It is a pleasure to watch or re-watch the film after having seen “My Week with Marilyn” and note the gorgeous parallel that exists between the two stars and the characters they are portraying. One, irresponsible and almost unconsciously riveting, the other respected, old-fashioned at an impossible crossroads and momentarily lost in time. There are exchanges in which you would swear that Olivier had adjusted the dialogue to send a passive message to Monroe.

Each is riddled with insecurity and possessed of a palpable presence, each desperate for what the other is incapable of giving. Monroe and Olivier act as positive/negative images of one another. “Ruthlessly, as an artist, she wants to take from him what he can give her, which, I think he has the sense is a disappointment to her,” Branagh says of Monroe. “She came expecting pearls of wisdom from the master, and instead she gets a sort of mechanical fellow who can”t explain why he”s so brilliant. But it was tough for him that she was running the show. It was Marilyn Monroe productions. She was his boss. That was tricky, so that was an interesting thing to sort of have under the surface. I think a bit of male ego was driving its way through the story.”

What Simon Curtis describes as the “agony and ecstasy” of directing comes into play as well in a unique fashion for Olivier when the natural competition between actors enters the equation. “He doesn”t want her to win, but he”s the director so it”s in his best interests-she must win,” Branagh says. “She must be the best that she can be; otherwise he shoots himself in the foot. And yet, he doesn”t want to be seen as less good than her. And also, he”d feel completely different if she fell in love with him. He”d feel completely differently if she loved him. But she”s this terrifying thing of sort of indifferent to him.”

Indifferent to Olivier as a man, and yet achingly aware of him as a respected artist, Monroe sought to elevate her own reputation by association. She was famously enamored of Lee Strasberg”s interpretation of the method and (in the world of the film) almost pathologically reliant on his wife Paula. Whereas Olivier was classically trained and notoriously resistant to the method (particularly following his wife, Vivien Leigh”s, work with director Elia Kazan on “A Streetcar Named Desire”). A portion of the director”s frustration was a result of Marilyn insisting that she needed to “feel” ready to work – which may be three days after her call.

As Branagh explains, “Part of it was that Norma Jean had constructed this major performance in her life of a woman called Marilyn Monroe, who was already, if you like, a wonderful artificial thing. But that”s the person that turns up saying, ‘I”ve got to be real; I want to be real.” And Olivier”s smart enough to say, ‘But you”ve already arrived false, so the reality you”re after is already relative. Do you want to be real Norma Jean as Elsie? Do you want to be real Marilyn, who”s already false, as Elsie?” Not that he necessarily articulated it that way.” They were oppositional forces who, with painful exactitude highlighted one another”s failings and yet were paradoxically covetous of the other”s approval and innate or manufactured skills.

A half century has passed since her death, and yet we still work to articulate the nature of Monroe”s appeal. “I think she had a great natural quality on screen where somehow the audience felt very close, in direct contact with her,” Branagh theorizes. “There was nothing in between the audience and her heart and soul. It”s not like other people hadn”t played innocent characters before. But somehow she met the time, mid-50s, where that kind of wide-eyed, doe-eyed kind of thing was also being presented in a package labeled sex, much more overtly and up front than ever before. And she could somehow play all of those things. But disarmingly natural.” He likens her essence to (one of my favorite films) “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” As if Marilyn “could walk straight off the screen and she”d be exactly the same.” That gift was maddening for Olivier, who was forced to face the full scope of his strength”s and limitations as a performer (at that moment in his career) while in production on “The Prince and the Showgirl.”

“Literally a mirror was being held up for him every single evening,” Branagh explains. “He was there (on set) and then watching the scenes back in daily’s at night and he would see her be more real than him. Or even more irritating, see her be terrible for 15 takes, and then one where she’s much, much better than his 15 excellent takes, none of which were great.”

Despite of, and in addition to the creative angst each of the characters is experiencing in the film, “My Week with Marilyn” ultimately reads as “light” and “easy” for Branagh. “It”s a little quiet corner of England where a little bit of madness between artists is going on,” he says. “But the world is potentially a nicer place if she could just find the right guy and if he could just chill out a bit and if the kid could just find his way. It would be lovely because the fields are green and the Bobbies are on the beat and the pubs are lovely and the phone boxes are red and England is, you know, somehow a beautiful, idealized place. But underneath it all is this, are these endless layers of introspection. All those doubts, insecurities, fears and vulnerabilities that can make the work interesting as a performer, will also be the ones that leave you unsatisfied.”

Each of us can relate in one form or another to the struggle to balance our power against the will of our self-created monsters. It is what every classical hero”s journey is based upon. “I think that”s one of the reasons we get attracted to someone like Marilyn,” Branagh says. “She looks like she will never be happy. But maybe we can fix her. Maybe Colin could fix her.” She becomes a manifested Greek tragedy, the iconic image of a desire beyond our reach and the all too human woman who”s potential is colored by ultimately fatal self-destruction.

“There”s a line of mine I love,” Branagh says, “when Olivier says to Colin, ‘Are you glad you ran away to the circus?” Because there is this sense that doing these projects, small or large, is in some sense uprooting yourself, going to another town, throwing things up, having adventures, dramas, irritating, loving, whatever. And then traumatically pulling it all again and going on to the next one. You can feel that with Marilyn as she leaves this film, although she does so with compassion and kindness for Colin. She sort of left a trail of absolute wreckage, as it were. The field is littered with bodies. That bit of a circus, it is complete now, with life devastated. And Olivier is also like, ‘It was so important, it was so intense… Yeah, bye. Oh diddly dee, an actor”s life for me.””

Branagh can both relate to the intensity of the passions in play on a project like “The Prince and the Showgirl” and illustrate some self-deprecating awareness of the place of entertainment in the grander scheme of life. “They”re the kinds of things the outside world should have been happily entirely indifferent to, because most of their importance is often ludicrous from the outside,” he says. “And again, it”s one of the features of ‘My Week with Marilyn” that I like: It”s affectionate about the fact that they all take it so seriously. “

“My Week with Marilyn” is currently in a limited release and goes wide on December 25th.

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