Now, Branagh has earned SAG and Golden Globe nominations for portraying Olivier in the film My Week with Marilyn, which chronicles Olivier's volatile relationship with movie star Marilyn Monroe (played by Michelle Williams) while making the 1956 film The Prince and the Showgirl. TheaterMania recently talked to Branagh about playing his idol.
THEATERMANIA: Where do you begin when you play a legend like Sir Laurence Olivier?
KENNETH BRANAGH: The good news is you've got plenty of material. I started with the things that I hadn't really looked at before, which were his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor and films I never saw like William Wyler's Carrie or Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing
TM: What other research did you do?
KB: I caught up with many of his recordings because I was so interested in finding the voice. I hadn't realized that he recorded a reading of The Bible and a lot of short stories by Flaubert and Chekov. When I came to be shooting the film, it used to take a couple of hours per morning to actually get the prosthetics in and begin the process of the makeup. So I listened to Laurence Olivier reading The Bible every morning. I not only got to play Laurence Olivier, I became much more religious in the process.
TM: Why did you want to wear prosthetics?
KB: He was an actor who went on record as saying he liked to play roles starting from the outside in. He was always looking for the look of the character -- the hair, the walk, the gloves. He's a wonderfully handsome fellow and he had a great square jaw. So we put a prosthetic chin piece on and gave me a bigger bottom lip, It was nice to have a bottom lip for once in my life!
TM: Why do you think Olivier wanted so badly to work with Marilyn?
KB: He wanted the film to work so he could reinvent himself. He was honest about his insecurities. He was looking for Marilyn to renew him, to associate him with the new and the youthful and the vigorous and the sexy. He felt that he was becoming a bit too establishment.
TM: Do you think he regretted working with her?
KB: He felt that she was undisciplined and unprofessional and he was infuriated by that. He didn't direct another movie for nearly 20 years, and he said Marilyn was the reason. And he loved directing movies. But I think he felt his own performance suffered as a result of the situation in this movie, and I also think for a while he was quite perplexed at just how good she was even despite him, as he sort of comically says in the film.
TM: There are moments in the film when Olivier randomly quotes Shakespeare. Did he really do things like that?
KB: It was a part of his style and part of his way of dispensing wisdom. And in this case it was a sort of therapy. I can believe when he watches the phenomenon that is Marilyn and he can't quite explain it, he can understand through Shakespeare's Prospero, "we are such stuff as dreams are made on." It's an expression of the inexpressible.
TM: Did you ever meet him?
KB: I sent him a letter once and he did reply. I was asking advice about playing a role for which I was much too young. The ritual of writing to a God with an address in Central London was exciting. I remember my hands shaking when the envelope came back with the name Laurence Olivier on the back in embossed gold writing. Written on an old Underwood typewriter were the words "I'm afraid I can't give you any advice in particular ways about how you should approach this role. It's up to an actor himself to come up with these individual things. But my advice to you is to have a bash and hope for the best, which is certainly what I wish for you." I wrote those words on a post-it note and put it on the top of my dressing room mirror for this movie.