<i>My Week With Marilyn</i>: Simon Curtis Talks Michelle Williams and Marilyn Monroe

After two previous Oscar nominations, former Dawson's Creek star-turned-in-demand-Hollywood-actress Michelle Williams looks set to three-peat, playing iconic screen legend Marilyn Monroe in the new film, My Week With Marilyn. Adapted from a memoir by Colin Clark, the film takes viewers behind the scenes on the ill-fated 1957 British film The Prince and the Showgirl, which co-starred Monroe and Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh here). The two repeatedly clashed during the shoot and Monroe sought solace by briefly befriending Clark (Eddie Redmayne), then a young production assistant. My Week With Marilyn director Simon Curtis spoke with us about Williams' take on Marilyn and why The Prince and the Showgirl probably should never have been made.

TWoP: The film attempts to show us two sides of Marilyn Monroe, the public and the private person. How did you set about capturing those two very different personas onscreen?
Simon Curtis: We had an awful lot of research material, including the movie version of The Prince and the Showgirl itself, for the public Marilyn, but we had no reference at all for the private Marilyn. And that was kind of strange. Usually you either have a complete reference or nothing at all, whereas we had some for one side and none for the other. But what's fantastic about Michelle is that she's equally adept at playing the external Marilyn and the internal Marilyn. In a way, the film is about the battle between external English acting and internal American acting. And she does both.

TWoP: How closely did you seek to recreate the scenes from the original Prince and the Showgirl for this film?
Curtis: There are shot-for-shot recreations, most of them shot on the actual soundstages at Pinewood Studios where the original movie was filmed. We took great pride in that. The trouble is that's quite a stagy old film. It's a not-great film, based on a not-great play. It's one of those things that happened because it was a property that existed and Marilyn wanted to work with Laurence Olivier. So it was rushed into existence. And by the way, Monroe was way ahead of her time in setting up her own production company to make movies. The irony, of course, is that one of the reasons she did that was to get away from playing ditzy showgirls and the very first part she played in her own production was -- low and behold -- a ditzy showgirl.

TWoP: Did Pinewood allow you open access to their entire studio?
Curtis: No, when we shot at Pinewood last year, there was X-Men: First Class, Captain America, War Horse and the new Pirates of the Caribbean. You couldn't believe that one studio would have that many gigantic movies filming at the same time. And I thought, rather smugly, that because we were a love letter to Pinewood, we'd get what we wanted. But no! One room we wanted to use as a production office was being held for Tim Burton should he want to make a movie. [Laughs]

TWoP: When you make a biopic, what are you looking for in the cast's performances? Obviously you don't want a straightforward impersonation.
Curtis: Well, first of all, I don't think of this film as a biopic. It's more about capturing a moment in time. But in terms of the performances, you've got to deliver on the people's impressions of that person, like when Frank Langella plays Nixon or Helen Mirren plays the Queen. But in the end, it's Michelle's Marilyn and it's always going to be that. She brings such complexity and nuance to all her performances and so that's what most intrigued me about her playing this enormously complicated character.

TWoP: Why do you think Marilyn and Olivier clashed so much during the shoot?
Curtis: As a director, I feel that Olivier should have handled Marilyn and her method better. I think he was sort of exasperated and didn't have the facility to embrace her way of working. In my opinion, a director's job is to take each actor as they come and find a way they can be most helped by a director. And he was sort of threatened by her. His wife, Vivien Leigh, had been in A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Elia Kazan and he wasn't great fan of the Method so that didn't help. Nor did the fact that Marilyn was playing a part that he'd done onstage with Leigh. So it was that lethal combination of elements. The real truth is that The Prince and the Showgirl is a film that probably should never have been made.

TWoP: This is your first feature film after a lengthy career in television. Was it difficult to make the transition?
Curtis: No, because I think that TV has evolved in such a way that the gap between it and film has narrowed. But obviously one wants to be as ambitious as one could be within the schedule we had. We only had seven weeks to shoot the movie. From my TV work, I learned to be ambitious with casting and having respect for actors when they arrive on the set. The biggest lesson I learned while making the movie is that you have to be passionate about the material because you're going to be under such scrutiny. That really taught me not to take a movie just for the job -- it's got to be something I really, really love, just like I really loved this.

TWoP: Were you a fan of Monroe growing up?
Curtis: Like everyone, I was intrigued by her, but I wasn't one of those Marilyn freaks. I was more interested in telling the story of a young man that achieves his dream of working in film. That was my starting point into this story. I was also interested in the way that Olivier in the movie is emblematic of fading Britain, while Marilyn embodies exciting new America. These days, it's all very different. British actors star in American blockbusters and Gwyneth Paltrow does Jane Austen. It's all much more open. While there would be a lot of fuss if certain movie stars came to England, it would not be the same as Marilyn Monroe walking off that plane in 1956.

TWoP: Is there one moment in the film in particular where you feel Michelle Williams was really channeling Marilyn Monroe?
Curtis: When she does that dance from The Prince and the Showgirl on the very same stage at Pinewood where they'd shot the original scene. Michelle had worked so hard on that dance and it was a very special moment. When they see the film, I hope that the audience sees behind the cliché of Marilyn and discovers this very complicated, very nuanced picture of an intelligent woman who was doing her best.

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