Kenneth Branagh playing Laurence Olivier?
In some ways, it seemed perfect match. Both were consummate Shakespearean actors who broke out into movie stardom; Branagh received Oscar noms for two Bard adaptations for which Olivier won Oscars (“Hamlet,” “Henry V”). And yet, for a film such as “My Week With Marilyn,” which uses celebrity as a means of exploring identity, it could come off as, well, gimmicky.
“?’Gimmicky’ and ‘Hollywood feng shui’ are both good ways of putting it,” Branagh says with a laugh. “It does seem impossibly inappropriate in some way. I’ve been compared to Olivier over the years, almost always unfavorably, so why would I put myself in that position? But producer David Parfitt brought me the script and I trust his taste. He knows me well enough to know that I’d be wary of it, so there had to be something to it beyond the obvious.”
The film follows the making of Olivier’s frothy comedy “The Prince and the Showgirl,” underscoring the battles between the imperious director and his ethereal, deeply troubled star, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), as seen through the eyes of a set gopher (Eddie Redmayne).
“Beneath the film’s gossamer lightness, there are some interesting ideas at work there,” Branagh says. “At that point in his career, Olivier was becoming fossilized as an institution. He wanted Marilyn to renew him. I had a chance to bring some authenticity to this. I got hooked and disregarded all the things that were spooky, mad or gimmicky about it.”
Director Simon Curtis helped contextualize the era for his cast.
“He was absolutely encyclopedic in his knowledge and feel for the context of this story. America was so incredibly exotic and Britain was on the way to losing an empire,” Branagh says. “He laid all of that out, and it was helpful to feel that era in your bones.”
The actor got into character by spending his time in the makeup chair (having a prosthetic chin affixed) listening to an audio performance of Olivier reading the Bible. “It was a wildly dramatic vocal performance, to hear about God via Sir Laurence. When I was done, I’d open my eyes and he would be starting to appear.”