Kenneth Branagh’s wickedly funny portrayal of Sir Laurence Olivier in the Weinstein Co’s My Week With Marilyn has earned pretty much every awards-season nomination available and also landed him an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor. It’s fitting, as comparisons with Olivier have dogged Branagh throughout his career: Early on, he was touted as “the next Laurence Olivier,” and like Olivier he founded his own theatre company before going on to direct and star in movie versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V and Hamlet. While married to Emma Thompson, the two were compared to Olivier and wife Vivien Leigh, the reigning monarchs of British theatre. Branagh admits all the Olivier comparisons gave him pause before accepting the role. AwardsLine contributor Tim Adler caught up with the actor in Sweden, where he is filming Wallander for the BBC, based on the bestselling Swedish detective novels.
AWARDSLINE: When you were a teenager you wrote to Laurence Olivier for acting advice. Why? And what advice did he give you?
BRANAGH: I was 19 years old at the time. I was struggling with a role in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters playing the doctor, Chebutykin. Olivier had played him in a famous production that became the only film he made after The Prince And The Showgirl. He often blamed Marilyn for putting him off directing for the best part of 20 years. I remember asking Olivier if there was a painting or a book or a piece of music that in some way had inspired his performance, and he wrote back and said, “Yes, there had been all these things,” but it was up to me to find my own. His simple advice was just to “Have a bash and hope for the best.” In a way, it didn’t matter what he said. Here was a letter that I put up in my bedsit kitchen in north London with the letterhead of Laurence Olivier. Not only was he the unquestionable leader of his profession, he was also somebody kind enough to throw a few words of encouragement to a young actor.