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Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Kenneth Branagh, one of the most revered stage and screen actors of his era, and not a bad writer or director either, about his remarkable life and career. (Scroll down to listen to audio of our conversation.) Branagh is probably best known for his work in the theater, but has, over the past 30 years, accomplished a great deal in the world of film, as well, most notably writing, directing, and starring in three of the finest adaptations ever made of William Shakespeare‘s Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Hamlet (1996). Branagh has four Oscar nods to his name — for best director and best actor for Henry V (1989); best adapted screenplay for Hamlet (1996); and best live action short for Swan Song (1992) — and may soon add a fifth, for best supporting actor, for his portrayal of Laurence Olivier, one of his greatest acting heroes, in My Week with Marilyn. Branagh rang me from Sweden, where he is now at work on his next film, and, over the course of 30 minutes, we discussed all of the above and more.
Branagh was born in Belfast, Ireland into a working-class family. His father was a carpenter and his mother worked at the local fish-and-chips shop. When he was 10 years old, the family moved to Surrey, England, at which point Branagh undertook his first acting project: losing his Irish accent to avoid mockery in the classroom. By the age of 16, he was acting in serious school productions, and it was then that a teacher nonchalantly suggested to him that he possessed the talent to pursue acting for a living. The idea that he might be paid to do something that he so enjoyed made a profound impact on him, and became his greatest ambition. Just three years later, he was a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and also made his big screen debut in a brief uncredited part in Chariots of Fire (1981), which went on to win the best picture Oscar, and by the age of 28 he had already accomplished enough to write an autobiography.
In the early years of Branagh’s career, in particular, he was frequently compared to the greatest actors of all-time, including and especially one of his own acting heroes, Sir Laurence Olivier. Of those sorts of comparisons, he says today, “Quite frankly, of course you can’t live up to it, and you feel, sort of, overwhelmed and humbled by it.” He didn’t help to make them go away, though, when he elected to follow in Olivier’s ambitious footsteps by adapting, directing, and starring in big screen adaptations of Henry V (Olivier in 1944, Branagh in 1989) and Hamlet (Olivier in 1948, Branagh in 1989); in-between those two, Branagh tackled the Bard’s Much Ado Nothing (1993), as well. Branagh acquitted himself very well in those efforts — so well, in fact, that many people have struggled to see him in any context but a Shakespearean one. (“I might have been boxed in by the association with Shakespeare or these kinds of parts,” he acknowledges.)
Consequently, his filmography since those movies has been less impressive than many expected it would be. His own take on Frankenstein (1994), Barry Sonnenfeld‘s Wild Wild West (1999), Chris Columbus‘ Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), his remake of Sleuth (2007), and Bryan Singer‘s Valkyrie (2008), to name a few projects, aren’t all bad films… but they don’t exactly sound like the sort of thing with which Olivier — or “the next Olivier” — would associate himself.
So how was Branagh able to get out of this rut, of sorts? The solution came in the most unexpected but appropriate of opportunities: a chance to play Olivier himself in Simon Curtis‘ My Week with Marilyn, which centers around the brief relationship that developed between Marilyn Monroe and a young stagehand during the making of the 1957 film The Princess and the Showgirl, a troubled production that Olivier directed and in which he played the male lead. Who, after all, could be better qualified to play Olivier at the age of 50, in a bit of a career rut, but still one of the all-time greats, than Branagh, who currently fits precisely the same description.
Branagh, who as a 19-year-old student at RADA exchanged letters with Olivier but never saw him in-person, says that he quickly embraced the opportunity to play the great actor, rather than run away from it, as many expected him to because it would inevitably reawaken those decades-old comparisons. He says, “I was grateful — I felt as though I had, in some way, humbly earned the right to try and bring something to him.” He goes on, “I did feel that I had a kind of understanding of the essence, the very particular and specific kind of effort, of entrepreneurial energy, and, you know, sort of, creative drive that would allow any actor to, you know, direct and play the title role in Hamlet or Henry V — that takes a very particular, unusual set of circumstances and abilities.” Above all, though, he says, “It felt like a sort of debt of gratitude… [I] felt totally, totally motivated to get it right for him.”
And so he set to work.
Before My Week with Marilyn got underway, he visited many of the places that Olivier passed through during the making of The Princess and the Showgirl, and revisited that film and many of Olivier’s others. Once the production got underway, he would arrive on set early each morning, have a cup of coffee with costar Michelle Williams, and then spend two-and-a-half hours in a makeup chair listening to Olivier’s rendition of the Bible as prosthetics were applied to give him a cleft chin; makeup was used to reshape his eyebrows and heighten his forehead; and Brilliantine was slicked through his hair. Once on set, he learned to wear a monocle like the one that Olivier wore in The Princess and the Showgirl, and wore specially-commissioned shoes from the same shoemaker that Olivier used. And, now that the film has been completed and is out before the world, he hopes that it will have the same sort of rejuvenating impact on his professional life that The Princess and the Showgirl had on Olivier’s.
Branagh tells me, “This film, which was a glorious and joyous experience for me, leaves me wanting to have the same kind of bravery going into the next part of my career — to jump in and be as brave, and courageous, and as artistically-adventurous as Olivier was.”
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