Kenneth Branagh Relied On Sir Laurence Olivier’s Advice to Play Great Actor
Toronto Star, 23 November 2011
Actor-director Kenneth Branagh once turned to theatre legend Sir Laurence Olivier for advice when he was a teenager at drama school and struggling with a role. He was surprised when Olivier replied to his letter and simply advised him, “to have a bash and hope for the best.”
Today, Branagh feels the advice not only made sense, it helped him better play Olivier as both co- star and director of the 1956 romantic comedy 'The Prince and the Showgirl', starring Marilyn Monroe, in 'My Week With Marilyn', opening Friday.
The film is based on the memoirs of Colin Clark (The Pillars of the Earth’s Eddie Redmayne), who worked as an assistant on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. Olivier starred alongside Monroe, played by Michelle Williams, and also directed the picture. Olivier was often frustrated with Monroe’s lateness, insecurity and devotion to the acting “method.” Plus he was struggling with an attraction to the then-newlywed Hollywood star.
Clark and Monroe had a bittersweet romance of sorts as he helped her explore the simple pleasures of rural British life off the set.
Branagh, who spoke to the Star from Sweden, where he’s shooting the British TV detective series, 'Wallander', said he was “just approaching 50,” the same age Olivier was when he made 'The Prince and the Showgirl', when he shot 'My Week With Marilyn'.
He said he remembered Olivier’s advice to him as a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art as he began shooting.
“I suppose what his simple remark belied was just the feeling one senses in his dealings with Marilyn, that sometimes you just have to do it,” said Branagh. “Don’t talk about it or prepare it. That was one of the problems between them. He believed you show up and give it your best and your best ought to be good enough, and she (Marilyn) believed you didn’t show up until you were going to be superb.”
Still, Branagh did extensive preparations for the role, listening to recordings of Olivier reading each day while he was in the makeup chair, having a prosthetic chin attached to his jaw to give him the actor’s signature deep cleft chin. He watched films and documentaries.
“I visited a lot of places that he knew and frequented at the time of this movie,” he added, including the home Olivier shared with then-wife Vivien Leigh, Notley Abbey, “where they entertained the great and the good.”
Branagh worked to get Olivier’s voice and mannerisms down, including the broadly comic, Balkan-like accent the actor affected to play Grand Duke Charles in The Prince and the Showgirl. He said he was impressed by the devotion Williams had to researching Monroe.
“It’s a very difficult role and one she arrived at having a master-class amount of detail. She was an encyclopedia,” said Branagh. “Michelle is who I went to with all questions on Marilyn. She was the on-set research resource.”
Williams’s attention to detail showed in her performance, Branagh added. “She immersed herself in everything to do with the technical: look, walk sound of the voice. She seems, in any given scene where she was being Marilyn, to make this imaginative leap into her own actor’s estimation of what she thought the real Marilyn was. I admired her very much for how should could do everything people expected of her. She was immersed and very focused.”
And what of the real Marilyn Monroe? Does Branagh think she was a great actress whose talent was overlooked by those who only wanted her to “just be sexy” as Olivier blurts to her in his frustration?
“I think that she had a combination of gifts, which in the roles we saw her were a very light and deft comic touch, a very effortless, carefree and generally charming light comedian skill, which is a rare thing,” said Branagh. “She makes it look easy in 'The Prince and the Showgirl', and combined that with this other sprinkling, or seasoning, of sex and naughtiness.
“She was a great screen presence and she seemed to have the potential to have been a great actress.”