When My Week with Marilyn opens this week, all eyes will be on Michelle Williams and her transformation into one of the most iconic movie stars of all time (which, by the way, she does superbly). But there’s another transformation going on in the film that, while subtler, is just as remarkable. Kenneth Branagh co-stars as Sir Laurence Olivier, the very actor whose shadow he has lived in for most of his 20-year career. The two even directed and starred in film versions of both Henry V and Hamlet. Branagh talked to TIME about what it was like to play his mentor and why he had to listen to the entire Bible in order to do so.
You’ve spent much of your career being compared to Sir Laurence Olivier. Did that affect your decision to take the role?
I will be honest, it gave me pause for thought. People have suggested that I have a kind of obsession with Olivier, but really that just tells you what a dominant figure he was in the 20th century when it came to classical acting roles. He had set such a high watermark for what could be achieved.
I liked the fact that My Week With Marilyn wasn’t a biopic. It was a film about a very particular moment in the lives of Olivier and Marilyn Monroe as they tried to make a movie together. Like any artist, he wasn’t as effortlessly successful as he often appeared, particularly in dealing with Marilyn. In the end it felt like a good challenge.
(MORE: Michelle Williams is Magical in My Week With Marilyn)
Did you ever meet the real Sir Laurence Olivier?
No, I never met him. But I did write him a letter once asking for acting advice and he wrote me back.
When did this happen?
I was studying at the Royal Academy of Arts and I was playing the role of Dr. Ivan Chebutikin in Chekov’s Three Sisters. I was about 50 years too young for the part. Olivier had played the very same role in a film that he also directed. It’s funny that I should be in My Week with Marilyn now because Olivier said many times that working with Marilyn Monroe put him off directing for 20 years; the next movie he directed after The Prince and the Showgirl was actually Chekov’s Three Sisters.
Anyway, I wrote to him and said, ‘Could you please help me? I’m 20 years old and the only idea I have is that I should cover my hair in talcum powder and move with slightly bent legs, but it’s not yielding much by way of success. What advice do you have?’ He wrote back and said, ‘I can’t really give you advice, it has come out of yourself, but I would advise you to have a bash and hope for the best, which I certainly wish you.’ That he even bothered to reply to a 20-year-old nobody was very much a thrill. It’s letter which I’ve treasured ever since.
Do you still have it?
I do indeed. It’s in a special trunk in my study. I try to make it my practice to answer letters from younger actors who seek advice like that from me. It makes a big difference to people.
(MORE: TIME’s 1989 coverage of Laurence Olivier’s death)
It must be both a blessing and a curse to be portraying someone whose mannerisms have been so well documented — as opposed to a fictional character that exists only on paper. I assume you watched many of Olivier’s movies, but was there anything else you did to study him?
It seemed to me that one had to try to create some sense of Olivier that people might be familiar with. He had a theatrical voice, one that he was very aware of. So yes, I did watch lots of movies, but I also listened to him especially carefully. He once recorded the entire Bible as dramatic reading, so—
He recorded the Bible?
Oh yes, it’s quite something. It’s eight volumes and it takes up many, many, many hours. It’s Olivier doing the entire New Testament. My ritual for preparing to be him in the mornings was this: to arrive on set early, have a conversation with Michelle Williams outside the makeup shop while we’re having coffee, then go into my trailer, put my headphones on and listen to Sir Laurence Olivier reading the Bible. Two hours later I’d emerge with a prosthetic chin that replaced my chin with his square one with a cleft in it. And the spots that I have on my face but that he didn’t would be taken away. And then would be Olivier, or as close as I could come.
I had no idea until I saw the film that Marilyn Monroe was so inconsistent. She forgot her lines. She showed up late. And then eventually, in the hundredth take, she’d be perfect.
Tony Curtis remarked during making of Some Like it Hot that the terrifying thing about working with Marilyn was that you had to be great all the time. If in take 37 she’s brilliant and you’re not so good, the studio will use that take. In The Prince and the Showgirl, when she finally gets it right, Olivier sometimes looks visibly relieved — which means he’s not so good himself.
The difference between Olivier and Monroe is that Olivier felt it was preferable simply to repeat a line over and over until you got it. Marilyn recreated the emotions every single time. She’d start and stop and throw it away. But she’d always be living it, and even the most brilliant technical repetition couldn’t match her.
Is that what makes her so appealing?
Aside from her looks, I mean.
Marilyn is unquestionably sexy and glamorous, sometimes even beautiful, but hers was a slightly unconventional beauty. And with it there’s this vague sense of unhappiness that she seemed to convey behind that glamor. It’s impossible to define and therefore is constantly alluring. She possessed this elusive ‘X-factor’ that makes the audience feel as if they could be her friend. This is why we still talk about her. Her absence, the tragedy of her youthful death, somehow still has an effect on people. She was more than just sexy and beautiful and funny in film roles. We felt like we knew her. In fact, we still do.
PHOTOS: Images of Marilyn Monroe