KENNETH BRANAGH: Exclusive 1:1 Talking Olivier, Serendipity and Cheeky Beggars

Living in Cinema, 27 December 2011
By Debbie Lynn Elias

When Kenneth Branagh first appeared on the acting stage some 30 years ago, he was immediately monikered "the new Olivier". Little did he, or the world, know then that Branagh would indeed fulfill that destiny in more ways than one. With a love of Shakespeare which, as I learned during our interview, was inspired by Sir Laurence Olivier, Branagh is one of the foremost, if not the most accomplished and renowned of Shakespearean actors, a title long held by Olivier himself. Their careers are almost mirror images. Both accomplished stage and screen actors. Both directors (although Branagh much more successful and accomplished than Olivier). Both with custom made shoes from George Cleverley’s in London. Both have narrated books. Olivier, The Bible, among others. Branagh, C.S. Lewis. Both played the role of Henry V and Hamlet on film. And now, Branagh plays Olivier in Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn'.

Having just arrived in Santa Monica straight from the Baltic Sea on his way to Germany for filming of the acclaimed television detective drama 'Wallander', one would suspect the man would be suffering from jet lag. Not the case with Branagh. His enthusiasm and pride for the excellence of 'My Week With Marilyn' is more than palpable, as is his emotional energy. Based on the memoirs of Colin Clark and his time working on the 1957 Marilyn Monroe-Laurence Olivier production, 'The Prince and the Showgirl', in 'My Week With Marilyn' (a film within a film) Branagh plays Olivier playing Regent Grand Duke Charles who falls for the delightful American showgirl, Elsie, played by Michelle Williams playing Marilyn Monroe.

A very unassuming and humble man, off screen Branagh’s demeanor is genteel and gracious. And he can be as giddy as a schoolboy! There is an aura about him that glows and he smiles with his eyes and heart, perhaps due in large part to the plethora of accolades currently being bestowed upon him for his performance as Olivier in 'My Week With Marilyn', the most recent of which are Golden Globe and SAG nominations.

I had a chance to sit down with Kenneth Branagh and talk about Olivier, serendipity, and the surprising fact that while I met Laurence Olivier, Branagh never did.

Hi, Kenneth. An extremely big week for you.

Hi. It is a big week, yes!


Thank you very much.

Congratulations on the Golden Globe nom. The SAG nom. You look nice and wide awake and refreshed after your long trip back here.

[laughing] Thank you, thank you.

Back in 1983, Laurence Olivier won a Golden Globe award for Lifetime Achievement, the Cecil B. DeMille Award - one of the more memorable Golden Globe acceptances when he broke the top off the award.

[Branagh bursts into giddy laughter at this!]

I was working the ceremony and had a chance to meet him at the Globes.

Oh, great! Great!

Shortly thereafter, you received the Laurence Olivier Theater Award in 1983 for your work in 1982 as a breakout theater actor.

That’s right.

And now, here you are, with a Golden Globe nomination for portraying Olivier. Did you ever think in all these years imagine that you would now be playing Laurence Olivier?

I did not. The weird connection goes back even further to a 15 year old boy borrowing from the school English cupboard, an LP record of Laurence Olivier performing speeches from Shakespeare from his films of 'Hamlet' and 'Henry V'. If you had said to me as I listened to these strange words from this beautiful voice in my bedroom in Reading, Berkshire, about an hour from London, "In about 10 or 12 years time you’re going to make the first of your two films of these great plays, and then you’ll get an award in his honor, and then 30 odd years later you’ll end up playing him", I would have said "That’s bizarre. That’s a weird circle of possibility."

I feel it connect, however, all the way back to a moment through, essentially, a disembodied voice on a record player. There was an invitation. It was one of the things that sparked my interest in acting and Shakespeare, being led and guided by this man, by this man’s work by this man’s voice. When I came to think about whether it was the right thing to do to play the role in 'My Week With Marilyn', part of me felt in my guts that it was a "thank you" - the performance was in a way, a thank you, a tribute, a celebration, a deep debt of gratitude for a man who had had such a profound influence on what I was going to do.

And what do you think Sir Olivier would say if you walk away with that Golden Globe?

When Derek Jacobi played the role of Mr. Puff in Oedipus in a famous theatrical double bill that only Olivier had played before him, Olivier sent him a telegram on the first night; this young man playing the two roles that Laurence Olivier had made his own. And the telegram had two words and said, Cheeky Beggar. And I suspect if one was lucky enough to walk off with such a prize that up in the great green room in the sky he might be saying - hopefully, with a twinkle in his eye - "Cheeky Beggar."

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