With a career arc that bridges highbrow art and lowbrow fun, “My Week With Marilyn” star Kenneth Branagh keeps fans enthralled and critics off-balance
Author ALYSSA GIACOBBE
NOT LONG BEFORE his critically hailed turn as acting legend Sir Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn, Kenneth Branagh was facing the firing squad for taking on a different kind of legend: Norse god/comic book hero Thor, the titular hero of a big-budget fantasy film that Branagh was set to direct. Critics derided him as being “too serious” for the job—what was a Shakespearean actor doing dabbling in CGI? But Branagh never saw the disconnect. “I’ve always felt I was in the business to produce entertainment,” he says. “Even Shakespeare faced commercial pressure. And in the end, audiences decide what’s worthy.” Indeed they did: Thor earned $66 million in its opening weekend alone. Branagh’s work in My Week With Marilyn, meanwhile, earned him an Oscar nomination earlier this year.
Born in Ireland and raised in England, Branagh seemed almost destined for the role of Olivier. While training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, a 19-year-old Branagh was cast as Dr. Ivan Chebutikin in a stage production of Chekov’s Three Sisters, and decided to write to Olivier, a former Chebutikin himself, for advice. The great actor wrote back with what must have been inspiring counsel: Branagh, like Olivier, began gravitating toward Shakespeare productions both on stage and in film, launched his own theater company and directed, starred in and earned two Oscar nominations for Henry V before he was 30. For many years, critics referred to him “the next Olivier.”
Now 51, Branagh is always on the lookout for “complex” projects —including, most recently, playing the lead in the BBC detective series “Wallander” and directing the next installment in the Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan film franchise. Here, Play chats with him about what it was like to step into his idol’s shoes (and midlife crisis), how a little amateur psychology can go a long way, and why Bill Shakespeare and Stan Lee aren’t so different after all.
My Week With Marilyn is set against the filming of the 1957 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, which cast Laurence Olivier opposite Marilyn Monroe—and while everyone knows Marilyn, that’s not really the case with Olivier. Did that make your job easier, in a way? As famous as Olivier is, when you get beyond a certain generation, knowledge of his work is patchy. I wanted to portray a character that an audience might want to go back and see more of, and I think I did that. Many people have told me they’ve revisited Olivier’s work as a result of seeing the film, which has given me great pleasure and satisfaction. And I’ve been very lucky that so many people who worked closely with him—Sir Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi, Maggie Smith—have all seen the film and been very, very kind. To get their blessing was exceptionally important to me.
Early on, you expressed some reservations about having accepted the part of Olivier. But it worked out OK, I’d say. Though ultimately invigorating, the role was every bit as demanding as I’d expected. I couldn’t ever quite get away from the fact that I was playing someone so iconic. I felt many times as if I was on a bit of a tightrope: From the outside, My Week With Marilyn is a rather racy and scandalous inside look at the lives of the rich and famous, but it’s also a touching tale of lonely people, of Marilyn’s secret and brilliant wit and Olivier’s secret and thwarted romantic a raction to her. It was complicated. There was a long way to fall.
Growing up in England, you were an Olivier fan even before you started acting. Did you learn anything new about him with this film? Laurence Olivier was on record as having been immensely frustrated by Marilyn Monroe, particularly her lateness. And yet I remember Tony Hopkins telling me that when she passed away, Olivier was really struck by it. Very, very upset. So what surprised me was the depth of his passion for Marilyn, and how much he was perplexed by that. He found it extremely difficult to understand why she wasn’t bewitched by him, as most of the rest of the world was.
Sounds like he had a sort of love/hate thing going. I guess he couldn’t help it, and he couldn’t do anything about it either. He may have been a famous actor and a member of British royalty but he was also going through a sort of midlife crisis. He wasn’t 30 anymore, and Marilyn was, and I think there’s a kind of analysis of the male ego at a certain age that is absurd and a bit ludicrous and tremendously vain—but at the same time, very touching.
Hmm, are you speaking from personal experience? Well, I too am 50, yes! But I think many people could relate, not just me, and that’s why the audience experience went beyond people just being happy to see celebrities portrayed. The film is so much about appearances and what reality may lie behind the persona of famous people, which is always more complex than what’s portrayed in public.
In the film, Olivier declares that “directing a movie is the best job ever created, but Marilyn has cured me of ever wanting to do it again.” Could you relate? As a director, I’ve had some pretty rough experiences with actors. I’ve tended to try to be a bit amateur-psychiatrist about it. Once, I was quite full-on about letting an actor know I found it very difficult to work with him. We had a wide-ranging conversation—when we might have been shooting—about why that might be. It was a good talk … and he turned up late the next day anyway! I now try to meet people at least once, and hopefully three times, before working with them. But bad working experiences are like bad reviews: They stay with you for a short time, and then you’ve got to let them go.
Speaking of bad reviews, critics were sniping about your decision to direct Thor even before they’d seen it. How did you feel about that? I’m happy to entertain people with things that others might regard as complex, and by the same token I’m happy to see complex things in material that other people might regard as simple. Often there’s a kind of innate snobbery in the attitude that it’s not possible for popular entertainment to be rich and sophisticated. But, you know, Thor was a character that existed and entertained some 700 or 800 years before Shakespeare. When Stan Lee took the character and adapted him for Marvel Comics, he was doing so because Shakespeare had already raided all the other great myths.
Your work to date has covered quite a range. Is there anything that you’d still like to do? I’d love to direct a western. Westerns are great modern myths, but so alien to me. I like being a bit out of my comfort zone. Also, I like the idea of finding a creative home, be it a theater or a movie studio or just a group of people. When I was a very young actor I had a theater company called the Renaissance Theatre Company, which then did Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. That sort of home base appeals to me at this time in my life.
You wrote a memoir, Beginning, about those early days. Are there any parts you wish you hadn’t written, or maybe saved for a later memoir? One of the things I felt at the time was great clarity about why I was writing the book—which was for the money. The theater company needed a home, and we used the advance to buy space. There were inherent risks that I wasn’t aware of, really, in the depths of my ignorance in writing—I was 28—but I’m glad it was unfiltered. The book wasn’t necessarily sophisticated or complicated, but it was honest. And even when I made a mistake or offended people, it was a great lesson. At some point maybe I’ll even go and read it again!
When young actors come to you for advice, what do they want to know? They often ask if they should pursue acting or not. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I think if you’re asking that question, you probably shouldn’t. If they’re doing it and love it but are struggling, I encourage them to try and enjoy every single bit of it, even the struggling bit. Some of the most memorable and illuminating times I’ve had were when things went wrong.