Kenneth Branagh’s wickedly funny portrayal of Sir Laurence Olivier in the Weinstein Co’s My Week With Marilyn has earned pretty much every awards-season nomination available and also landed him an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor. It’s fitting, as comparisons with Olivier have dogged Branagh throughout his career: Early on, he was touted as “the next Laurence Olivier,” and like Olivier he founded his own theatre company before going on to direct and star in movie versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V and Hamlet. While married to Emma Thompson, the two were compared to Olivier and wife Vivien Leigh, the reigning monarchs of British theatre. Branagh admits all the Olivier comparisons gave him pause before accepting the role. AwardsLine contributor Tim Adler caught up with the actor in Sweden, where he is filming Wallander for the BBC, based on the bestselling Swedish detective novels.
AWARDSLINE: When you were a teenager you wrote to Laurence Olivier for acting advice. Why? And what advice did he give you?
BRANAGH: I was 19 years old at the time. I was struggling with a role in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters playing the doctor, Chebutykin. Olivier had played him in a famous production that became the only film he made after The Prince And The Showgirl. He often blamed Marilyn for putting him off directing for the best part of 20 years. I remember asking Olivier if there was a painting or a book or a piece of music that in some way had inspired his performance, and he wrote back and said, “Yes, there had been all these things,” but it was up to me to find my own. His simple advice was just to “Have a bash and hope for the best.” In a way, it didn’t matter what he said. Here was a letter that I put up in my bedsit kitchen in north London with the letterhead of Laurence Olivier. Not only was he the unquestionable leader of his profession, he was also somebody kind enough to throw a few words of encouragement to a young actor.
AWARDSLINE: Did you identify with Olivier growing up?
BRANAGH: He was unquestionably the dominant figure in the British acting scene when I started acting. He was the epitome of this combination of a classical actor, a great film star and a national institution. The first time I ever encountered Olivier though was seeing Peter Sellers on TV doing an impression of his piping strangulated tenor. I remember impersonating Sellers impersonating Olivier the next day in the school playground. One was aware even then of what a complete and all-pervasive impact Olivier had on all elements of the profession.
AWARDSLINE: Your Olivier connection runs deeper than that though. When you were offered My Week With Marilyn did you have concerns about rekindling the Olivier thing?
BRANAGH: I did have some concerns, but I decided that I would just read the script and see. Many people coming to see the film will not be aware of my minor media moment being compared to him. They would not really know who Olivier was. What they would be interested in would be the clash between these two famous and differently talented people. That story was definitely one I was interested in telling. I did have the rare experience that he had of both acting and directing Shakespeare films, therefore there might be an insight into what was particular about him. All of that was very compelling and got me past initial doubts very quickly.
AWARDSLINE: Anthony Hopkins worked with Olivier. Did Hopkins encourage you to do the role while you were making Thor?
BRANAGH: We spoke a lot about Olivier. Tony encouraged me to present the different aspects of Olivier’s personality. He was a constant performer in life. Tony observed that Olivier had this dazzling, charming capacity to be all things to all men: the company leader, the chummy actor, the statesmanlike Voice of Britain, the naughty camp Olivier. One day with Olivier might present you with all these people. John Gielgud wondered “Who was the real person?” Of those masks, the question of “Which was the real one?” was an interesting thing to hold onto during filming.
AWARDSLINE: Did you answer your own question by the time filming ended?
BRANAGH: Olivier was an artist to his fingertips. He had the ego of a great artist but the frustrations of a craftsman because he could not control the inspiration. It led to a tension in his work, including the perfectionism that was on show during the making of The Prince And The Showgirl.
AWARDSLINE: Olivier acted from the outside in, while Marilyn was trained in the Method. Do you think that Olivier took something away from Marilyn?
BRANAGH: I’m slightly suspicious of what Olivier said when he worked from the outside in. Actors do whatever is necessary, and Olivier’s art went way beyond the surface. He and Marilyn were spiritually much more connected than the circumstances of the film allowed. What Marilyn allowed Olivier to understand was how profoundly the world was changing; and that he would have to change if he was to remain relevant. One year later, Olivier was playing Archie Rice in The Entertainer at the revolutionary Royal Court. That his performance in The Prince And The Showgirl and The Entertainer exist in the same century let alone within the same 12 months is extraordinary.
AWARDSLINE: What do you think Olivier would have made of your performance?
BRANAGH: It would be delightful if Olivier gave me a truck-full of notes and said, “Ken, it’s terrific but I’ve got some notes for you so let’s go back and reshoot and this time I’ll tell you how to do it.”