Interview: Kenneth Branagh Fakes the Truth in ‘My Week with Marilyn’

By  · Published on November 22nd, 2011

Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn isn’t really a bio pic. Underneath the core love story of a naive dope, it’s about a clashing of two actors. In one corner, there’s Miss Marilyn Monroe, wanting to be taken seriously. In the other (and more respectful) corner, there’s Sir Laurence Olivier, possibly wanting the fame Marilyn has, at least according to a few characters. Marilyn needs to “find” the character, while Olivier believes it’s all on the page.

The veteran actor sticks to his classical roots, while the blonde bombshell attempts more unusual methods.

Kenneth Branagh, who portrays an artistically frustrated Olivier, sympathizes with both sides. Underneath their differences, the two portrayals of Monroe and Olivier are similar at heart: they’re both simply trying to create something, but they use the opposite methods. My Week with Marilyn is a deconstruction of what it means to be an actor, and those types of discussions seem to be the kind Branagh revels in.

Here’s what Kenneth Branagh had to say about faking the truth, the fright of acting, and how you don’t have to be a murderer to play one.

Olivier has a line in the film, “If you can fake the truth, you’ll have a good career.” I’d say you’ve faked the truth pretty well.

[Laughs] Well, I’ve heard variations on that line. It’s a way of talking about the issue in the movie between the methods of traditional acting. It’s a bit of a blurred line between how much you feel something and how real it is, and all of you are pretending in a group of tin sheds in a place called a film studio. And yet, the illusion of truth is something people pursue. What I like about this movie ‐ and not to bang on a personal favorite topic of mine ‐ Shakespeare talks all of the time about what’s real and what isn’t, when people are acting and when they are not, and what is a real emotion and what is not a real emotion. A lot of the problem between Olivier and Marilyn was about how you define that and how you arrive at it. Certainly, in my career, I’ve tried to ‐ either in theater, film, or television ‐ find ways to appear to be as truthful as possible, by whatever means, whether you work at it like Marilyn, from the inside out, or like Olivier, from the outside in.

Despite their two different methods, they’re both fairly similar, in terms of simply trying to create something. Do you think they’re more alike than it would appear on the surface?

Yes, I do. In a way, one of the things that must’ve been tantalizing for them, but also for the people around the edges of the experience ‐ and perhaps as an audience ‐ they just missed the connection. In fact, they had many similarities that might’ve made the eventual movie, The Prince and the Showgirl, and their collaboration a great success. They both were perfectionists, in their different ways. They both had very good taste, in terms of an approach to quality. Maybe this is more true on Olivier’s side, but by the age he was at and the position he was in from the culture he was in, he simply expected, I don’t know, a little more unequivocal respect and understanding than he felt he was being given by Marilyn. I think she arrived with all of that, but she also was coming in fresh from a film world, where Marlon Brando and James Dean were creating something quite revolutionary, in the way characters were portrayed on screen, from a country where Rock ’n’ Roll was exploding on the scene and there was more danger in the arts. It was a little more irreverent, and Marilyn maybe carried a little bit of that as well. There was also kind of an age gap. In a way, this clash between them seemed to do some an enormous amount of good subsequently, but it just didn’t work out in the process itself. Although I agree they were perhaps more similar than they were different.

Have you ever had the type of experience Marilyn has in the film, that difficulty of cracking a character? Or is it like Olivier says ‐ the character is on the page?

Well, I wish it were that simple. Even Olivier, if you pressed him ‐ I watched so many of his interviews, so many research pieces of his, television interviews and things, and he often spoke about the process of acting. He understood there was some extra territory you could go to, if you had all of these things and were superficially very affective, which have to do with inhabiting the interior life of the character, and I always think that is a pretty tough nut to crack. He said, when people spoke of great performances of his on stage, he would say, “You can only be great, in a theater performance, maybe once or twice every once in a while. The rest of the time you had to be content with being merely very, very good.” He seemed to be accepting that that was the case, and someone like Marilyn didn’t entirely accept it in the same way. She wanted to be great all the time, and whatever it took or whatever time it took. There’s a story you may know about Olivier, but I spoke to Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins, who both worked with Olivier as young actors in the 60s, and both of them were completely in awe of a performance he gave as Othello.

It was lauded as a great, extraordinary performance. All of the actors knew this was a special performance. He somehow burst the bubble, lived in the moment, wonderfully and technically brilliant, and it was a sublime theater event. As he came off the stage all of these actors all applauded him off the stage. It was unusual and a great, great night. He storms off, and he’s incredibly angry. Hopkins goes and knocks on his dressing room door, and Olivier yelled at him, “Come in!” Hopkins nervously puts his head around the door and said, “But, Sir Lawrence, all of the actors applauded you because you were absolutely sublime this evening, sir.” Olivier replied, “Yes, I know! And I’m so angry because I don’t know how I did it!” You see a man who wants to capture it, perfect it, and make it that way every night. To answer your question: However technically able you may be or minded you’re still looking to lose yourself in a part, in some mysterious way. It was put well to me by a principal at drama school, “Ultimately, you want the part to play you. You want to be a vessel to the part, let the part takeover, to surprise you, and have a life of its own, so the magic takes over like that.” I guess, as an actor, you’re looking for a liftoff point. You do as much work as you can, as much research as you can, you find the accent, the hair, the costume, the look, and all that, and then you’re hoping for a divine inspiration as well. I think both of these characters were, and their obsessive and different approach to the work was an illumination of that part of this craft.

When you’re acting, do you always look for perfection? I’ve spoken with some actors who say that’s not possible, and that it’s important to have the flaws.

I would tend to agree with that. I tend to think, again, one of the disputes between Marilyn and Olivier was over what is real and controllable. I think she liked to have that, while he learned to have this surrender and abandonment to the living moment. Ultimately, although you’re an artist and you show up and prepare and adjust, finally for this living dimension ‐ when you’re playing a living and breathing person ‐ you want to have something that is unexpected, real, and, yeah, flawed. I would agree that the little bit of brick in the eyes is important. Again, to make the point for these two, Olivier was a phenomenal artist afterwards. I think one of his greatest screen performances is as Archie Rice in The Entertainer, which was an extremely edgy and provocative piece at the time. He was unexpected, real, surprising, naturalistic and wonderfully imperfect, and I wonder if he saw an example of that looking at Marilyn.

Like you said, Olivier was known to be a real perfectionist, especially with actors. Do you relate to that directorial method, or do you try to give actors more space and freedom?

I try to find whatever seems to be the specific requirement bespoke for the job and for the actor. I do like to try and find out what’s the best way to get the best out of an actor. The bottom line is I like for people to show up on time, and no question about that. I’m pretty much a stickler for punctuality. That’s just so we can get to work, whatever way that is of getting to work. Whether it’s being accurate on lines, whether it’s throwing the material away, whether it’s running takes together, and whether it’s doing the close-ups first. I’m all for finding every piece of evolving trickery on the day, to remove all of the acting that you can, to get rid of all the schmacting that you can, and to allow it to be. I enjoy that, and it’s quite an evolving process for me. I get a bit nervous when people say “this is how I work.” I think how you work changes and depends on the project, the people you’re working with, the time in your life, and what’s required. I think it’s exciting to figure out what it is for a project. With this, it was interesting to watch what appeared to be a fairly rigid approach from Olivier and a very flexible approach in Marilyn.

How do you deal with an actor like that, someone who never feels comfortable or right about a character?

I guess you’re trying to work out what removes from fear. I think most problems that actors have deal with fear; a fear that they’ll mess up, a fear that they’ll lose their lines, fear that they’ll somehow be humiliated, and a fear, strangely, that they won’t be able to control the performance. The process of giving yourself to a part is sometimes rather scary. If you want to pursue what we’ve been talking about ‐ this kind of in the moment lifelike quality ‐ it’s exposing and makes you feel rather vulnerable, and I think actors get scared of it and almost all bad behavior comes out of it. What I try to do is find out what the fear is, and confront it quietly with them and see if I can do anything about it. Also, create conditions where you can concentrate and be a little more focused. I like to be led by that, to a large extent.

Although it’s a peculiar form of courage that actors have, it is a very potent form. I think people like Marilyn and Olivier, in different ways, have this extraordinary courage. Sometimes the ego, the vanity, and the fear of what might come out of what they did while running up to that great leap into the dark, which is the mark of greatness, was to do with anxiety and apprehensions over exposing themselves, their hearts, their minds, and sometimes you might be grand enough to say their souls. It can make people pretty cranky and pretty antsy on the way to that goal. When people like Marilyn and Olivier knew the world was watching them, I think some of that pressure allied to their own sense of perfectionism. It created a pressure, which can sometimes make life pretty difficult. Also, it can make for pretty interesting people to be around. Ultimately, when they got it together, they were magic to watch. Not necessarily in the movie The Prince and the Show Girl, [Laughs] but in so much else of the work.

When you’re acting, what usually helps you put trust into a director to take one of those great leaps?

Well, it’s an interesting question. It’s different every time. Usually, there’s no other kind of way to do it other than to jump in and maybe make a bit of a fool of yourself, say something silly, or do something silly. Just go for something that may or may not, in the end, be effective. See how the director reacts. One of things as a director I’ve learned with actors, a lot of the time ‐ not just with actors, but with the crew and fellow artists ‐ you got to say “thank you” and “well done.” I think there has to be sensitivity and politeness for the effort; it’s a funny thing. I don’t know if you made public speeches for a wedding or friends or family, but you know that can be quite a nerve-racking effect, can’t it? I think actors are facing up to that kind of a thing, and on a daily basis. While I don’t want to make the wrong kind of case for it ‐ since it’s what we do and choose to do and goes with the territory ‐ I would say an appropriate sensitivity of the right kind, not modulating, it’s amazing the value of simply saying “well done” and “thank you,” when someone, even if they do something completely wrong, just exposes themselves and tries something on the way of maybe getting something great together. You must be respectful and encouraging to the actor. In both directions, as an actor receiving that or as somebody trying to encourage it, I find it simply effective. A couple of people I’ve enjoyed who do that: Danny Boyle, who I did a short film with, and Robert Altman, who was also very civilized. That kind of kindness is a simple route to bring the best out of actors.

Have you ever worked with a director that’s perhaps not very civil, and could that type of environment perhaps be helpful if the film required a more manic or different style?

All of this stuff that we’re talking about, Jack, is of great interest to me, because it’s so much to do with the conditions of which the best artists produce. I once worked with Robert De Niro, and we got on very well, and I asked him what he thought was a common feature of what turned out to be very good work. He said harmony, and that does not exclude temper, passionate disagreements, and doesn’t exclude the odd screaming match. Basically, to put it crudely, I have not found the equation of playing a character that’s a bit of a shit, and if you’re being directed by a bit of a shit that it helps. You know, I can pretend the shitty bit, [Laughs] and I don’t need to live in it all of the time. I’ve been in the hands of the screaming people, the tension people, the games-playing people and the rest of it, and I have found that that’s less helpful to me. It can be done.

I think it’s debatable whether it produces better work. It’s been argued as the opposite of that, that people feel too smug or too cozy, and the results become passive or not edgy enough. I think, in the end, so much of what we do is a virtue and expression of the imagination, and the conditions have to be there for the imagination to work as well as possible. In the end, we don’t have to be murderers to play murderers; we have to use our imagination. By the same token, creative harmony, which includes temper and passion, is the basic requirement, and Marilyn and Olivier didn’t have it for The Prince and the Showgirl. They didn’t have that creative harmony and that trust, and I think it shows in the resulting work. You might have thought some of that tension would be helpful, but in the end, for the finished movie, it probably wasn’t.

My Week with Marilyn opens in limited release on November 23rd.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.