Kenneth Branagh, 51, has been rocking both ends of the movie spectrum. He's getting Oscar buzz -- and a Golden Globe nomination -- for playing actor-director Sir Laurence Olivier in the art-house hit "My Week With Marilyn" opposite Michelle Williams. It's the story of the tensions on and off the set of "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957) as chronicled by lovesick production assistant Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). And last summer, the Irish-born actor scored a global hit directing the Marvel comic blockbuster, "Thor." He talked exclusively to Yahoo! Movies about Hollywood goddess Marilyn Monroe, and having a blast playing with gods -- and Hollywood cash -- on the set of "Thor."
Thelma Adams: What are your impressions of Marilyn Monroe, the woman and the myth?
Kenneth Branagh: I didn't know enough about her childhood to know that something that had happened there had produced this sadness. She always brought this extra bit of atmosphere, even when she was gushing and laughing. Was it the product of a tough childhood or emotional scarring? Or was it the sense of isolation when she was such an enormous movie star, while not getting consistent satisfaction from her personal life? I was always intrigued by that.
TA: What was your sense of Marilyn before you made the movie?
KB: The Marilyn I was most familiar with was from "Some Like It Hot": angelic and fun and sexy and quite mature, less gushy than in the other movies. I so wanted to be in that cabin with Tony Curtis and Marilyn [when her character seduces his on a yacht]. It really carries a very strong sexual charge. It gets under the skin a bit. That was her very best to me. I just wondered about this sadness, and I was pretty sure Michelle Williams would bring it in.
Kenneth Branagh's Five Favorite Olivier Films >>
TA: Obviously, Williams delivered. She's also nominated for a Golden Globe. What do you think was her take on Marilyn?
KB: Williams was really smart to understand that the Marilyn we see in the film, who seems determined to prove that she is a great actress, arrives in England as an already fictional character, who is a woman named Marilyn, who is not Norma Jean, who doesn't speak in that orgasmic whisper, or walk that exaggerated walk with her knees locked together. What I could see in Michelle's eyes as I acted opposite her was Marilyn's confusion. She presented a Marilyn who was really in search for herself -- and she was looking in England to see if she could find the great actress, at the foot of the great actor.
TA: What she found was a foot, a real man not an icon. There was a lot of tension on the set, starting with her inability to be punctual.
KB: Showing up on time was one basic principle that they didn't agree on. The pressure on Marilyn to arrive as Marilyn, as Michelle says to Eddie Redmayne's character: "Oh excuse my awful or ugly face," but even then she'd still come as Marilyn with the headscarf and the lateness. Before she ever arrived at work she'd already put enormous pressure on herself to be someone she was not.
TA: How did you see Marilyn through the eyes of Olivier, director and star?
KB: Olivier had expectations that Marilyn would fall in love with him, either actually or with his genius, and that she would adore him. This was kind of planned when they met six months previously in New York, when she gave that idea of serving him. It came as a shock that very quickly she became indifferent to him because they couldn't find a way to communicate. Also, her acting coach [Paula Strasberg, played by Zoe Wanamaker] undermined Olivier in front of all the people that saw him as a leader of the profession and minor royalty.
TA: There were other power issues, too.
KB: It was difficult because Marilyn was also Olivier's boss. Marilyn Monroe Productions was making this movie. Finally, what was alarming for him to see -- like an accident experienced in slow motion -- that while worrying, waiting, and failing to communicate with her, she would nevertheless, on take 51, eventually be tremendous.
TA: Wasn't that a good thing for him as a director? Or did it take a toll?
KB: In the meantime his own performance was suffering. You almost feel in some sequences in "The Prince and the Showgirl" his frustration and tension and surprising lack of freedom. All of that added up to a kind of resentment, that she was not behaving -- and then being better than him.
TA: That must have been particularly galling. Another irony is that while you were playing an actor-director in "Marilyn," you were also an actor directing the $150 million budget 3D blockbuster "Thor."
KB: The difference in scale was very, very exciting and insanely intoxicating. When I was shooting "My Week With Marilyn," I was in postproduction on "Thor." I was playing Olivier under pressure, while I was directing a film that demanded much of me under pressure.
TA: Were you literally shuttling back and forth between studios?
KB: I drove from Pinewood Studios to Shepperton Studios where the Marvel team was based, from tiny independent to this enormous juggernaut of visual effects -- the kind of variety and change of pace that Olivier would have enjoyed.
TA: Was it fun to have all that money to throw around directing "Thor"?
KB: I had a ball doing "Thor." It was a surprise. To work with 3D visual effects along the scale of 1,400 shots, to work with a combination of blue screen, green screen, and people in prosthetic makeup since 2 a.m., and seven camera crews … newness in terms of the tools and the scale, and the shooting for months and reshooting. It was a high-intensity experience that was new to me except as an actor in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," where I would walk onto a set of literally hundreds and hundreds of people.
TA: It sounds like you were entering a stadium, like stadium filmmaking.
KB: In both cases, it was stadium filmmaking -- like stadium rock.
TA: I think we've coined a new phrase here.
KB: I think we have. At the "Harry Potter" level, it's definitely stadium moviemaking.
See Kenneth Branagh in 'My Week with Marilyn':