BWW Interviews: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh and Director Simon Curtis of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
In the summer of 1956, American film icon Marilyn Monroe arrived in England to begin filming ‘The Prince and the Showgirl', a light comedy about the Grand Duke of a fictitious Balkan country, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, and a beautiful, young showgirl played by Monroe. While the film was a comical farce, it was of great critical importance to the careers of the two stars involved. For Monroe, it was the chance to gain credibility and prove to the world that she should be taken seriously as an actress. For Olivier, the project may have represented a final opportunity to reinvigorate his faltering film career.
In the midst of this highly charged and stressful movie set was a 23-year-old aspiring filmmaker named Colin Clark, who was hired to work as the 3rd Assistant Director (in movie terms, a glorified ‘gofer'). Improbably, the world famous Monroe was immediately drawn to the youthful, innocent Clark, and an intimate friendship soon developed. To Clark's great surprise, he found himself spending one magical week alone with the international superstar. He chronicled that special time in his life in a best selling memoir that has now been adapted into the film MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, opening in theaters nationwide on November 23rd.
BWW had the chance to meet with Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams, critically acclaimed actor and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh and the film's director, Simon Curtis about this behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of iconic movie star Marilyn Monroe.
"I remember ‘The Prince and the Showgirl' when it came out and I remember being fascinated by the collision of Marilyn and Olivier," says director Curtis of his initial attraction to the project. "And then I couldn't believe my eyes when I read, ‘My Week With Marilyn' which told the intimate story about this young man that had this moment in time with Marilyn... I think there are lots of different versions of what happened in London in 1956 but our starting point for the film was Colin's version of those moments."
For the film's star Kenneth Branagh, the experience of making "My Week With Marilyn" brought a newfound respect for the famed actress. "I can say that one of the things that surprised me most was how intelligent she was," offers the actor. "We were really touched by Marilyn's hunger to be taken seriously as an actress. I certainly think we came to really admire her and sympathize with her from the work we did on this film and I hope that audiences will do the same."
Ironically, comparisons are often drawn between Branagh, and the man he portrays in the film, legendary screen actor Sir Laurence Olivier. "I'm flattered by it but I think that you can't help but fall short of that comparison," the actor responds humbly. "He was the world's greatest and most familiar actor and dominated in that post for so long, and if you even remotely went near a part that he played before, you were compared to him, usually unfavorably. So this was a strange moment when Simon came to me about this movie - to play that part, this ghost... but I decided just to be flattered and get on with it."
Throughout the film, Olivier is portrayed as growing more and more frustrated with Monroe's frequent tardiness on set, mounting insecurities and unwavering dependency on ‘Method' acting coach Paula Strasberg. Yet Branagh believes that beyond these irritations, Olivier felt a true admiration for his co-star. "There is a series of photographs from the actual set of the movie; half of which have Olivier concentrating, directing the film...and half of the photos show Olivier by the camera looking at Marilyn with a jaw open - just like a kid on Christmas morning. We've been talking earlier about the issue of what makes greatness in actors or performers and sometimes I think it has to do with access to a child-like quality. When you are upset, you are fully upset, when you're happy you are deliriously, wholesomely happy. And in these pictures of Olivier, that's what I was surprised by. That whatever the grand image was of him, he was also a kid with a train set, loving it, jusT Loving it and actually being really impressed and bewildered by how Marilyn did it - really fascinated by that."
The film opens with a dazzling musical number featuring Williams as Monroe, along with two male dancers performing the classic hit, ‘Heat Wave'. Rather than resort to body doubles and lip-synching, Williams took on the challenge of doing all the singing and dancing herself. To add authenticity to the performance, Curtis assembled a first-rate team of Broadway pros, including Tony Award-nominated choreographer Kathleen Marshall, choreographer Denis Faye and singing coach David Krane.
Williams admits that while the idea of singing and dancing was initially daunting, she was eager to take on the challenge. "I'm not a singer or a dancer. I haven't been on a stage doing either of those since I was 10 years old," confesses the actress. "In some ways, because of that, I felt like when I was able to put the nerves aside, I really felt a tremendous outpouring of joy - like a little girl whose dreams came true for the first time."
Performing the musical number as Monroe added a higher degree of difficulty to the task. "I was able to tap into what I imagine made Marilyn Monroe so luminous in those singing and dancing numbers. What I experienced was that when you're in that state, your critical mind has to turn off - there's no room for it, because you're remembering steps and lyrics. It's like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time," explains Williams. "And maybe that's what makes those performances of hers so magical is that she's not thinking. So it took just a tremendous amount of preparation and the willingness to start at the very beginning - to not know what to do and make mistakes along the way, and to not be hard on myself for those and to realize they are part of the process."
Adds Curtis, "I cast Michelle knowing she was a phenomenal actress but it was really exciting to see she was also a phenomenal singer and dancer as well. And that was a real, real joy to discover that."
In preparation for the role, Williams watched films starring Monroe and pored over all the books and research sources she could find. She also studied the star's movements in order to recreate her physicality, from her seductive walk to her sultry voice. "I had a picture of her in my bedroom when I was growing up, so I always had some sort of response to her," notes the actress. And now that she has developed a special bond with the movie icon, Williams feels regret for what could have been for the troubled superstar. "I wish that she could have experienced what I have been able to, which is to work outside of the studio system. To not be bound to playing the same role, to not be a contract player, to not basically be on salary and to have to take what's given to you," laments the actress. "I wish that she could have experienced choice and independence and that creative will like I feel very lucky to have been able to do."
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 23rd.