Kenneth Branagh On 'My Week With Marilyn,' Filling Laurence Olivier's Shoes

11/23/2011 02:37 pm ET

It's not easy to step into Laurence Olivier's shoes, but Kenneth Branagh manages to do it in a captivating, heartbreaking and hilarious way in the much buzzed-about movie "My Week with Marilyn." The film, a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of "The Princess and the Showgirl," not only captures the well-known insecurities of Marilyn Monroe -- played by Michelle Williams -- but also shows a surprisingly vulnerable side to Olivier.

Branagh talked with The Huffington Post about taking on such a heavy role and his thoughts on the world's obsession with Monroe.

You've been compared to Laurence Olivier for nearly your whole career. Were you worried about actually playing him?
I wasn't expected to do it and I wouldn't have imagined that I would ever choose to do it. But I read the script and that really got me hooked. I felt like it was a behind-the-scenes story that had a point to it and a real illumination of something and characters that were drawn with some authenticity and affection.

It did feel there was a kind of reality to the way Olivier was being portrayed which was fascinating to me, so that got me over any worries of the comparison game or being eternally linked with him.

What I loved about the movie was you saw Olivier's insecurities and felt sorry for him too.
When he talked about it, it's almost as if the film represented a mid-life crisis -- artistically and even perhaps as a man. We subsequently understood it was toward the end of a very difficult relationship with Vivien Leigh. Also one can imagine it couldn't have been the simplest thing to say, "You know that play we've been in for a year together, darling? I'm going to do it as a movie but Marilyn Monroe is going to play your part." Bit of a tricky evening at the Olivier household, I should think.

I think he wanted to not feel as if he was being cast as a dinosaur in the English theatrical tradition. The Oliviers were like minor royalty but they were living a sort of lie at this stage; they were not happy together. He was feeling revered and respected but seen as a museum piece. Marilyn was a chance to be seen as edgy and attached to something youthful and that the world loved. He felt that he could either literally or metaphorically seduce her and in doing so, her shine would rub off on him and he would be cool again.

Could you relate to his anger at Marilyn's chronic tardiness?
Marilyn felt if the muse wasn't with you then you weren't ready to go on set. He said that you can't be great all the time; sometimes you have to be content with merely being very good. I think Marilyn wanted to be great all the time at this stage in her career. What he took personally is the disrespect by her lack of punctuality.

I sort of agree.
It's a tough one, isn't it? There's a big psychological cupboard to open when it comes to why people are late.

It means the person is saying their time is more valuable than your time, right?
There's an interesting interview that Marilyn gave about this issue. Basically it was along the lines of the singular position of the artist. She quoted Picasso, who basically said that if you want Picasso, you can't make him show up tomorrow morning at eight to paint a masterpiece. If the masterpiece starts occurring later, even at midnight, then you wait for it. I suppose the problem with that is you've got to take Marilyn on face value … But listen, the world was coming to see her movies. You wait until she's ready and that was part of a price that Olivier didn't know he would be paying.

He was also annoyed by her use of the Method style of acting. Does it bother you?
I think anything that gets you to the performance is fine by me. I do absolutely believe you ought to turn up on time. You can still be as crazy and wacky as you want after that. I do think there's a sort of ritual about everyone rolling up their sleeves at the same time.

I think that's valuable and sometimes when people don't, it's because they're scared or playing games or trying to sabotage other people in a weird kind of competitive way. It never works. To do well you do have to work together. I've never been on a screamy, shouty set or one of those toxic sets where the quality of the work has improved because of it. I remember asking Robert DeNiro years ago, "You've worked with so many people. What's the common feature of good work?" And he said, "Harmony." That doesn't exclude passion and temper and people feeling strongly about it, but basically you've all got to kind of get on. If you do get on, then anything goes.

I once had an actor have a go at me because he thought I was messing about between takes. I was having a bit of a laugh. I don't think I was doing anything particularly outrageous. I remember him screaming at me, "This is a priesthood man!" To which I said, "I don't know any priesthood that orders a car to pick you up for which you were late. I don't know which priesthood would bring you the espresso just the way you like it. So we should think about what priesthood we're talking about here."

So did that shut DeNiro up?
That was definitely not DeNiro! It was an actor that must remain nameless and a perfectly nice one as well.

Is it easy to get too insulated and used to having coffees brought to you?
It depends on your background and what you've come from and what you go back to. Frankly, in work and in life, you've got to keep yourself honest and try and see things for what they are. If someon has been kind enough to bring you a cup of coffee, you should see that for the absolutely beautiful act of loveliness that it is.

And not scream when it doesn't have a sugar.
Exactly and why don't you consider bringing someone else a coffee one morning or at another point in the day? Basically, if you can get out of any ridiculous sense of entitlement and realize on a film that's it's a collaboration. One should be grateful for acts of generosity rather than assume that some people are better than others.

Why do you think Marilyn continues to fascinate us?
She was delicious -- knee tremblingly delicious -- and innocent at the same time and seemed tragic. Maybe she seems tragic because of what we know happened to her and [we] project that back onto the previous work, but the way in which the life and the work somehow interweave and are somehow at such dramatic odds.

Take, for instance, this film. In theory it comes at the happiest point in her life. She's married the most famous playwright in the world. She's coming over to act with the world's greatest actor, with her own production company. She's the biggest movie star in the world; it all ought to work, shouldn't it? It should be a gateway to something remarkable.

But somehow she seems dogged by her own insecurities and demons, some bad luck and all of this wrapped up in this beautiful yet vulnerable creature that seemed to be able to show both things in photos. Somehow she makes you feel like you know her.