NYFF: "It Was A Very Slow Process" -- Michelle Williams Talks Challenge Of Portraying Marilyn Monroe

by Cory Everett
October 9, 2011 9:00 AM
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And 5 Other Things Learned From The "My Week With Marilyn" Press Conference At NYFF



We've now reached the midpoint of the New York Film Festival, which means that tonight will see the World Premiere of the festival's Centerpiece, "My Week With Marilyn." While most of NYFF's films have stopped elsewhere on the festival carousel, this is one of the few films to make its world premiere at the fest. (It's certainly the one with the highest profile, that is, until Monday's secret screening anyway.) Based on two memoirs by Colin Clark, "The Prince, The Showgirl And Me: 6 Months On The Set With Marilyn & Olivier" and "My Week With Marilyn," the film is the author's account of working on "The Prince And The Showgirl," a Laurence Olivier-directed film that the acting great costarred in with Marilyn Monroe, who at the time was at the peak of her career. The film stars relative newcomer Eddie Redmayne as 23 year old Clark, Kenneth Branagh as Olivier and Michelle Williams as the iconic Monroe along with Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Dougray Scott and Emma Watson who round out the supporting cast.

The cast and crew, led by TV veteran Simon Curtis (who we'll have a full interview with in a day or two), faced the public after the film screened for press this morning; below are five highlights from the press conference. "My Week With Marilyn" has its first public screening any minute now, and The Weinstein Company will release it in theaters from November 4th, 2011.


1. Marilyn Monroe, in addition to being an icon herself, has already been portrayed dozens of times on film and television but rarely to much acclaim. Williams acknowledged that taking on the iconic part was risky but felt there was room for improvement.
“Because the previous representations of her were more of that ilk, it felt like there was room [for improvement],” Williams said. Knowing what the challenge was in portraying Marilyn, the actress said she went to considerable lengths to get the details right. “It was a very, very slow process that all started with watching movies, listening to interviews, poring over books and it was something that started in my living room. [I started] trying to mimic the walk, trying to figure out how it is she’s holding her mouth and the first big discovery that I landed on was that 'Marilyn Monroe' was a character that she played. The image that you’re most familiar with, there’s a person underneath there. [Her persona] was carefully honed but it was artifice and it was honed to where you couldn’t tell that it was artifice. It felt so real but it was something that she had studied and perfected and crafted. So once I discovered what that layer was [that was the key to the character].”

2. Williams also had the difficult task of having to sing as Monroe in the film but like the actress had a team of coaches to help her through.
“I’m not a singer. I have not sang since I was 10 years old.” Williams said, but with her voice coach she was taught about “breathing, about how to deliver emotion on the lines instead of just saying the words. So I had [my coach] and then I listened to [Marilyn]. She still comes up on my iPod all the time. And she was very influenced by Ella Fitzgerald so I listened to her a lot too.”

3. Eddie Redmayne, the least well known member of the starry cast, related to his character’s experience of being on a film set surrounded by his idols, although he did get to demonstrate how far he's come.
“It did remind me a lot of my youth” said the 29 year old Redmayne, only 6 years older than the character he was playing. “There was one extraordinary moment when we were actually shooting at Eton College, and I was showing ‘Marilyn Monroe’ around the college, and that was the school that I went to. So we were doing the scene and Harvey [Weinstein] was there, and Michelle was there and all these schoolboys were playing the parts. And my old head of drama was there and there was a wonderful moment where we did that scene walking through [the college courtyard] with all the guys and Michelle spontaneously improvised a kiss on one of them. And the guy just went beetroot [turning red] and they would take me aside [and ask] ‘What’s [Michelle] like? Is she lovely?’”

4. The film went to great lengths to recreate the era but luckily for the production, Pinewood Studios, where “The Prince And The Showgirl” was filmed a half century ago, as well as some of the other locations, are still standing.
“One of the great things with the whole production is that we shot in the studio that “The Prince And The Showgirl” was shot in.” Redmayne explained. “My dressing room was Marilyn’s actual dressing room,” Williams said of the room used nearly 55 years ago, during filming. Director Simon Curtis added that even the house where Monroe had stayed during filming, with her husband Arthur Miller, was able to be used as well. “Parkside House is playing Parkside House. So when Marilyn is sitting on those stairs looking at Miller’s journal, Michelle sat on the very stairs that Marilyn sat on. One of the great moments for me was when Michelle did that one little dance from “The Prince And The Showgirl” and you’re seeing that on the stage, the very spot, in 1956 that Marilyn danced in that very spot. It was incredibly moving and incredibly special.”

5. While the filmmakers stressed that the film is from Colin Clark’s point of view, they tried to remain as faithful to his books as possible.
“We really worked hard to be faithful to Colin’s version of events as we could,” Curtis explained, and stressed that even smaller characters like Emma Watson’s wardrobe girl were all in the Clark’s memoirs. Despite an emotional performance from Williams, it keeps mostly a light touch at times, veering towards a full-on comedy but this too was from the source material. “I think we all took very seriously the tone of Colin Clark’s diaries" the director continued, "and he’s incredibly insightful in many ways and incredibly witty in many ways. For me, I think the complexity of Michelle’s performance is extraordinary, it’s so nuanced. But there’s no reason that shouldn’t sit among something that’s comedic or light as well. And I personally find the pain of directing as expressed by Oliver’s performance very funny and very heartening at times.”

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