In 1990, Kenneth Branagh became one of the three youngest Oscar nominees for Best Director when he scored directing and acting nods for Henry V. More than two decades later, he may finally earn his second acting nomination for playing one of his idols, Laurence Olivier, in My Week With Marilyn. (Here’s an exclusive shot of him in character.) Now that the film’s trailer has just been released, Branagh got on the phone from Belfast to talk about becoming Olivier, his costar Michelle Williams, and his feelings on Thor 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What would you say Olivier means to you as an actor?
KENNETH BRANAGH: He’s an inspiration to all actors because he was so creatively ambitious and he was audacious. And he was someone whose comedic sense was very strong. It’s the completeness of his work that is very inspiring. When I was 18 years old at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, I was cast as the ancient doctor Chebutykin in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. I couldn’t have been more miscast. I would use a vast amount of talcum powder to make me look old. In a fit of inspiration I wrote to Sir Laurence Olivier who had played Chebutykin in his film of Three Sisters and said, “How at 18 do I play this much older man whom you played so brilliantly in your film?” And the sweet reply came back: “I have absolutely no idea. Have a bash and hope for the best.” He was kind to throw a crumb of comfort in the direction of a young actor.
As you play him in the movie, Olivier is not always patient with Marilyn. He has a bit of a temper.
Sure, some people would talk about Olivier’s ungovernable rages. But he was an enormously passionate man and artist. And with that goes the capacity to care a great deal. I always feel that temper is a natural consequence of people caring and being passionate about what they do. The two of them were an electrifying clash of the titans, but that got missed when the camera was rolling.
What did you do physically to look more like him?
Every morning I would have a false chin piece put on so that the lumps on my chin would disappear and the cleft in his chin would appear. And during the couple of hours while that was going on, I would listen to Laurence Olivier reading the Bible in its entirety. It’s a dramatic reading; you can find it online. It shows all the range of this acting animal.
I talked to Michelle Williams last year while she was filming My Week With Marilyn, and it sounded like the shoot was taking a lot out of her. Did you get that sense?
I think so. We’d be there at 5 o’clock in the morning and we’d have a laugh and a chat. She was wonderful company. And then as I was sitting listening to Sir Laurence for a couple of hours and having prosthetics applied, I’d turn around and Michelle was there for a bit, and then Marilyn, as it were, would start to come in the room. And then, three or four hours later, Michelle was gone and Marilyn was there. And Marilyn was a serious woman.
Lastly, as the director of this summer’s Thor, what’s your reaction to the news that Patty Jenkins may direct Thor 2?
Monster was, I think, an absolutely sensational film. I think that she’s a great talent. As a possibility in the mix, I think that’s a tremendous idea.