Sir Laurence Olivier’s Advice to a Young Kenneth Branagh: “Have a bash and hope for the best”
Let’s be honest: what current actor would you pick to play fifty-year-old Sir Laurence Olivier in a movie? There’s really only one logical choice to play such a significant Shakespearean actor: Kenneth Branagh, also fifty, who is likewise known for his Shakespearean roles.
Branagh, who appears as Olivier in My Week With Marilyn, which chronicles a period during the time when Olivier was directing and co-starring with Marilyn Monroe in the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl.
It’s important to note that the teenaged Branagh wrote Olivier for advice about a difficult role while going to acting school. Olivier, however, replied not with technical advice but a note that said “have a bash and hope for the best.” While acting as Olivier Branagh reflected on that advice, especially when in came to reenacting Olivier’s difficulties with dealing with Monroe on the set. He explains, “I suppose what his simple remark belied was just the feeling one senses in his dealings with Marilyn, that sometimes you just have to do it. Don’t talk about it or prepare it. That was one of the problems between them. He believed you show up and give it your best and your best ought to be good enough, and she (Marilyn) believed you didn’t show up until you were going to be superb.” Ever the perfectionist, Branagh got into the role as one of his acting idols by not only listening to Olivier’s recordings while in the makeup chair (getting that perfect Olivier cleft chin, of course), but by visiting Olivier’s home at the time, where he lived with then-wife Vivian Leigh. But perhaps the greatest perk was working with Michelle Williams, who — even more than Branagh — immersed herself in her role. Branagh points out that in regard to Williams as Monroe, “It’s a very difficult role and one she arrived at having a master-class amount of detail. She was an encyclopedia. Michelle is who I went to with all questions on Marilyn. She was the on-set research resource.”
Overall, Branagh was impressed by Williams’ transformation into Monroe. He raves, “She immersed herself in everything to do with the technical: look, walk, sound of the voice. She seems, in any given scene where she was being Marilyn, to make this imaginative leap into her own actor’s estimation of what she thought the real Marilyn was. I admired her very much for how should could do everything people expected of her. She was immersed and very focused.”
My Week With Marilyn is now playing in limited release.