In the Michelle Williams dramedy My Week With Marilyn, Kenneth Branagh portrays Sir Laurence Olivier in a way we’re not accustomed to seeing him: frustrated and cussing up a storm. Marilyn’s Olivier is attempting to direct and star opposite Marilyn Monroe in the film The Prince and the Showgirl, but he finds himself stymied by her perpetual lateness and mood swings, which often cause him to unload in a torrent of R-rated words. “He apparently was no stranger to a little bit of fruity language,” laughs Branagh, who recently chatted with Vulture about his career resurgence, passing the directorial baton on the Thor franchise, and his valuable tip for directing divas.
In this film, Olivier seems very thrown off by Marilyn and totally unable to deal with her eccentricities. When you direct, how do you deal with actors who act out?
I try and see it coming. You know what I say to actors sometimes? Please tell me now, or whisper it in my ear at any point, anything that is a personal obsession of yours — however silly it may seem. If you really can’t be photographed from the left because you think your earlobe is monstrously big, even though I can tell you right now it’s not monstrously big, but nevertheless if you feel that, rather than us indulge in a sort of game that requires me to be a clairvoyant through the shoot and wonder why you’re behaving so crankily, when all we need to do is photograph you from the other side, or frame your earlobe out, then I’ll do it. Because if that’s going to make you produce better work, I’m going to take a deal on earlobes.
It’s suggested by someone else in the movie that Olivier was an actor who wanted to be a movie star. Was that the sort of conundrum you ever pondered yourself?
The impression is sometimes that at a certain stage in your career you can strategize, and you can somehow lay out the path and how it’s going to be. But in fact, quite a lot depends if not on lady luck on a certain amount of arbitrary opportunity that may or may not come your way. And so I think what I’ve been led by is project by project, doing things in which I am passionately interested because it’s always been sort of vocational for me. Also, coming from the British Isles, there’s always been a sense that you do a little bit of everything, so you act on the radio, and you do plays, and you do television. And actually, when I started working, there wasn’t really a British film industry. So the idea of being in the movies continually or consistently was not really part of what I’d come to expect. It ended up being something of a delicious surprise that I had a career in movies at all.
This has been a pretty big year for you, between My Week With Marilyn and the massive success of Thor. Have you thought at all about how to spend all that capital next?
Well, it has definitely been an enormous, enormous, momentous kind of year. Also, I’ve celebrated 30 years in the business to my amazement, and I now often see the word “veteran” next to my name. [Laughs.]
Are you okay with that?
It makes you think. I’ll tell you what it’s been, actually, it’s been a year of utterly replenishing my appetite for the work and my enjoyment of it. And I don’t know why that should be, particularly — I didn’t feel that I’d particularly lost it, but I certainly feel as though there is a renewed kind of relish. This time last year, I was both editing and in postproduction on Thor, and I was acting Olivier in the Marilyn movie. And I was finishing Olivier in the evening and meeting with [Marvel head] Kevin Feige on Thor, then bringing all that crazy director-ness back into the playing of Olivier the next day. I remember Kevin saying one night, “Tell me a little about this part in the movie.” And I said, “Well, I play a man who’s directing a film in which he acts, and of course I am an actor who has directed films in which I acted.” It’s one of those kinds of movies.
What do you think of the pick of Patty Jenkins to succeed you on the Thor franchise? Have the two of you gotten to speak at all?
We haven’t spoken, we’ve exchanged letters, really just saying “well done” and “how thrilling.” I think it’s a great choice and I’m really excited about that, and I think Marvel have always been so imaginative about the way they match these projects with directors who may have very particular things to bring to them but may not be superficially a natural kind of fit. But my gut tells me this is a tremendous choice, so I’m very excited. I’m also thrilled that the second movie is being made, and I just think her in combination with those actors is such a terrific thing. And I think she’ll get on in the way that I did with the Marvel guys, which was a very happy, creative collaboration.
As a veteran of performing and directing Shakespeare, did you happen to see Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous? What did you think of the conspiracy theory over whether Shakespeare actually wrote the plays attributed to him?
I have not seen it, but I shall definitely see it. I look forward to it; I think it’s fascinating. I am not persuaded by the Oxfordians’ arguments, or indeed by any of the alternates to the man from Stratford, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t find it completely riveting as a concept. Everything that’s behind why people find it doubtful is also very interesting. For me, it’s just another angle on something which is a special subject for me. I shall go to the film with great interest.
I wonder if there isn’t a little bit of class snobbery there to suggest that a non-aristocrat like Shakespeare couldn’t have possibly written these plays.
One of the fundamental issues in addressing the authorship issue is the notion that the Romantics around 1800 suggested that to be a great artist and a great literary artist, you needed to be an aristocrat of some kind and a conspicuous genius. So the Romantic notion of what they took to mean a genius seems to have bled through into a position, for some people, of dismissing the idea of how someone from humbler origins and from a lesser classical education could possibly produce this work. But the truth is, and what is so wonderfully challenging — and for many people, frustrating — is that we just don’t know enough about Shakespeare’s life, and it’s very frustrating for people who assume that all art is autobiographical, that the plays themselves must be the key to the life of the man. But it’s possible, I think, to be good-humored and good-natured about the debate. I think it talks of people’s fascination with Shakespeare, even if they may be wrongheaded.