As we sit down for our interview, Kenneth Branagh — recently nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Sir Laurence Olivier in “My Week with Marylin” — pours himself a cup of coffee and promptly apologizes. “I discovered on films that if I have too many [cups of coffee] ... I would find that 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I’ll be f---ing demented,” he says. “I usually just have one in the morning. But this is my deciding to be a bit fast and loose this afternoon.”
Branagh has plenty of reasons to need to keep his energy up, of course. As awards season gets under way, Branagh has been racking up accolades for his work as Olivier, including the Globe nomination as well as nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and several critics’ groups. Plus, he’s got the return of his TV series, “Wallander,” and more directing to consider, though he is decidedly not directing the sequel to “Thor.”
Taking on a role like Laurence Olivier, how did you go about making an impact with him but still presenting him as a human being?
The funny thing is that, several people have told me they know Marilyn mostly from the iconic looks — you’ll find wherever there is a montage of cinema images, your seven go-to images that say the history of cinema, and Monroe is one of them — yet they don’t necessarily know the movies, and I think that’s even more true of Olivier, where he’s a name for some. People aren’t necessarily aware of his work beyond that. So it was the image and the sort of institution that is Laurence Olivier that we had to get past with this. People have an imagined version of him and of her, and that was kind of the first thing to come to grips with, you know?
Reviews for your performance have covered a pretty wide range. Does that have to do with these preconceived notions of Olivier?
I don’t know if you have this experience, but sometimes there are films that you talk about that had an enormous impact on you the first time you watched it, so much so that you might bang onto people about it and eventually you’ll show it to them, and you’ll see it and you really can’t understand why you were so thrilled by it. And I think there is a version that people may feel about Olivier and Monroe that already is an imagined thing to which any version might not match up.
It seemed pretty clear during interviews for “Thor” you wouldn’t be doing the sequel. Can you talk about that decision?
I was proud of [“Thor”] ... But it was straight back in, and I needed time away from it, I needed to have a think. The third series “Wallander,” the TV series I do, was already on the cards, as well as a farce called “The Painkiller,” a play I did in Belfast ... These things were already lined up, and it just wasn’t going to be possible to do all of them. It was a timing thing and a creative freshness kind of thing.”
Branagh soon returns to TV for another series of “Wallander,” starring as the Swedish detective popularized in a series of novels. With “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” out as well, we asked why audiences respond so strongly to murder mysteries set in Sweden:
“[Ystad, where ‘Wallander’ is filmed] is so moody visually, I thought well maybe that’s part of the appeal,” he says. “The atmosphere of the place seems to breed preoccupation with dark things.”