Kenneth Branagh on Sir Laurence Olivier in 'My Week With Marilyn': 'He Was Impatient', 18 November 2011
By Alex Suskind

While waiting for actor Kenneth Branagh to call me last Saturday, I stumbled upon 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.' Specifically, the scene where Professor Gilderoy Lockhart (played by Branagh), flies to safety with Harry, Ron and Ginny; Lockhart screams, "Amazing! This is just like magic!" As I watched, it was hard to imagine Branagh pulling off the types of jobs he's had in his career -- a wizard, a prince, a Confederate scientist, a director on the blockbuster superhero epic, 'Thor' -- without the help of some Hogwarts charm.

In Branagh's upcoming movie, 'My Week with Marilyn' (based on the books by Colin Clark), the actor once again shows off his versatility by playing Sir Laurence Olivier. When you take into account the type of career Olivier had, this is no easy task -- particularly because the Sir Laurence in 'My Week' is not the one viewers are likely familiar with. Here, he is frazzled and bitter, as he attempts to direct and star alongside Marilyn Monroe (played by Michelle Williams, already garnering Oscar buzz) in 'The Prince and the Showgirl.' Things are complicated from the start, as Olivier gets frustrated with the sex symbol's tardiness and acting style.

It's funny, just before you called I was channel surfing and found 'Chamber of Secrets' playing on TV.

Really? Oh ... sigh. It's quite striking actually when you see the early films you see how the central three have changed, they're like babies in the first two.

Moving over to 'My Week With Marilyn,' where do you begin to research an individual with as storied a career as Laurence Olivier?

The good news is you've got plenty of material. I started with the things that I hadn't really looked at before, which were his autobiography, 'Confessions of an Actor,' and then another book he wrote called, 'On Acting.' And then, with the great blessings of the Internet and YouTube, I was able to haunter the online archives and find lots of interview material with him where he spoke directly about the Marilyn experience [on 'The Prince and the Showgirl'], where he was very honest about it.

He was an actor who went on record as saying he liked to play roles starting from the outside in. He was always looking for the look -- the hair, the walk, the gloves -- he's a wonderfully handsome fella, and he had a great square jaw... and I said, "Well, listen, in this part of his life he doesn't have a beard, he doesn't have facial hair -- I don't have much to hide behind to help me sort of transform, so can we get a prosthetic chin piece that would give me that square jaw?"

Also, there is a lot of audio stuff he would do -- short stories on the radio. And what I hadn't known about before is he did an entire reading of the bible, a dramatic reading of the Bible. When I came to be shooting 'My Week,' it used to take a couple of hours per morning to actually get the prosthetic in and begin the process of the makeup. So I listened to Laurence Olivier reading the Bible every morning. So, I not only got to play Laurence Olivier, I became much more religious in the process.

I am surprised to hear that you used a fake chin for the role. I wouldn't have guessed that after watching the movie. It's great watching another side of Olivier in 'My Week' -- he's clearly frustrated.

Well, the chin piece definitely helped [on the look]. Olivier had an imperious quality to him. He was used to playing a leader, he was used to playing kings, he was used to being the boss ... There are pictures of him where he seems stern and possibly authoritarian -- all the things that Marilyn may have been intimidated by.

As portrayed in the film, while shooting 'Prince,' there just seemed to be this impending doom that his career is coming to a close -- compounded by the fact that filming the movie was driving him mad.

He speaks very honestly about that, in terms of what he hoped for from working with Marilyn -- she could make him cool again. He felt that he was incredibly well-respected and revered, but that he was becoming a dinosaur, that he was somehow museum-like, and the mark of his work had always been to be dangerous ... So I think he resisted being too much "Sir Laurence."

It's just interesting because after 'The Prince and the Showgirl' he continued to have such a distinguished career.

He was impatient, I think, and he was also confused by why [Marilyn] didn't fall for him. He hoped that somehow, if not literally, but perhaps literally, that he would seduce her and they'd be able to talk and he would produce the great performance and she'd win an Oscar or something and it would be a marriage made in heaven, professionally. But it just wasn't that. He didn't direct another movie for nearly 20 years, and he said Marilyn was the reason -- it put him off. And he loved directing movies. But I think he felt his own performance suffered as a result of the situation in this movie, and I also think for a while he was quite perplexed at just how good she was even despite him, as he sort of comically says.

What are your thoughts on Marilyn Monroe's influence on society today? How do you see her legacy playing out with younger generations?

I think it's an interesting question. I think this film may be an interesting one whether it sends people back to any of her work and whether there will be an upsurge in rentals for things like 'Some Like it Hot' or 'Gentlemen Prefer Blonds' ... I think for many people, she has an incredibly vivid face, an iconic face that is always part of movie montages. It's a kind of legacy of movie images. But the actual work has been forgotten about.

Getting back to Laurence, I read that Anthony Hopkins encouraged you to play the role...

We certainly talked about it a lot. Hopkins' acting emergence was being an understudy to Laurence Olivier at the National Theater in England in the 1960s, and he was a great favorite of Sir Laurence's. Hopkins just told me a lot about what Olivier was like in the course of any one day, what a great leader he was, what a sharp sense of humor he had, how camp he could be sometimes. Just to be, sort of amusing [and] gossipy, very generous with his actors, very much of a kind of a natural leader.

This could be a completely coincidental but I was curious about the decision to cast Anthony Hopkins as Odin in 'Thor,' since Hopkins was an understudy to Olivier, who ended up playing a similar god, Zeus, in 'Clash of the Titans.'

I think what those guys do understand is if you've been in the National Theater and you've played the classics, and you've spent a lot of time with big robes on and big pieces of armor, and playing either God or the commander or the general, both of them had huge experiences of that. But it's a nice touch to think that the two of them, at various points, [were] ruling the universe.

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