There was magic in the air on the set of the film My Week with Marilyn as two-time Academy Award-nominated actress Michelle Williams took her spot on the exact same soundstage Marilyn Monroe had over 50 years prior.
“I wanted to recreate an authentic world as much as I could,” My Week with Marilyn director Simon Curtis told me about getting access to the London studio for his film. “Michelle walking from Marilyn’s old dressing room to the soundstage and taking the same steps as Marilyn seemed of value.”
In My Week with Marilyn, Williams portrays the iconic starlet during the 1956 production of the light romantic comedy The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Sir Laurence Olivier. My Week with Marilyn is based on the memoirs The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark, who worked as a third assistant director on the set of the film and wrote about his experience escorting Monroe around London during production.
During our interview, Curtis, 51, discussed why he thinks Monroe is still such a beloved icon today and what he saw in Williams to convince him she could capture what he describes as "different Marilyns."
Did you ever have a second thought about taking on a film portraying someone as iconic as Marilyn Monroe? It seems like a lot of pressure to get it right.
There were upsides and downsides. We were all nervous delivering Marilyn and all the other icons in the film. But we loved the story enough. Also, the fact that it wasn’t a biopic telling her whole life was sort of comforting as well. It made it more concentrated and it felt more achievable.
Looking back on this specific year, 1956, when Marilyn was making the film The Prince and the Showgirl, where do you feel she was in her personal and professional life?
That was very interesting when we discovered that because someone has described her rise in London during that time as the most optimistic moment of her life. She was desperate to escape the Hollywood studio system. She had married Arthur Miller (author of Death of a Salesman) who she thought was going to help her become the intellectual she wanted to be. She had set up her own production company, which was far ahead of her time, in order to control and improve the roles she was doing. She was coming to England to work with the great [Laurence] Olivier. She had very high hopes at the start of our story.
It’s been almost 50 years since Monroe's untimely death. Why do you think people are still so intrigued with her in comparison to other stars who came during that era?
It’s a combination of things. Her performances resonate so well. Most people haven’t seen the performances as much as they just know her brilliant face and image. I think the fact she was sort of ahead of her time, her life became an ongoing soap opera with her marriages and her affairs and the mystery. I also think, like you said, it was her untimely death that makes her iconic. It’s one of those Princess Diana things. It keeps the fascination going.
Talk to us about Michelle Williams as Marilyn and what you saw in her that led you to believe she could flourish in a role like this?
She is such a brilliant actress. She is brilliant at authenticating the psychology of her characters and bringing all that detail to them. I knew that’s what I wanted for this performance. Obviously, you want someone who could represent Marilyn, but it was the hidden Marilyn that Michelle portrayed that really interested me.
When an actor plays someone in real life, there is always a fine line between a genuine performance and an impersonation. Did you keep that in mind when directing Michelle or was that the kind of work she had to do from her end more than anything?
I’d say I have to give her a lot of the credit for the evolution of the character. You just do what seems right for the scene. Michelle has a brilliant sense of what a scene demands and needs.
I read that she also stayed in character between scenes. Was that a challenge as a director? I mean, I’m guessing between scenes you want to direct an actress, but she’s still playing Marilyn.
Well, it was always very different because the thing about Marilyn is there are so many different Marilyns. I think that’s what sort of excited and dismayed people about her life. They never knew quite who she was from moment to moment. Michelle is very good as that shifting psychology.
What were your initial thoughts when you read Colin Clark’s books?
Well, the story is a very special experience in his life. That appealed to me. He was the guy that got the golden ticket to work in show business on this fantastic film. It seemed natural to put the two books back together in chronological order.
Some people have doubted the authenticity of Colin’s stories and the events he says took place during the week he spent with Marilyn. Did that bother you or come into play during production?
No, because he has described them as a fairytale that nonetheless were true. I’m absolutely convinced that essentially it is true. I’m sure everyone working on that film would’ve had a different version of events. Our job was to present [Colin’s] story.
Since this film comes five years before Marilyn’s death, did you want that sense of foreshadowing tragedy to be an important part of the film?
I don’t know if I wanted it, but I think it’s there if that makes sense. I think Colin and quite a few people had an instinct that she needed to quit the business. Even Joe DiMaggio wanted her to give it up. They knew somehow it was going to destroy her. I think there are references to her taking pills and her behavior. You know what is going to happen to her a few years later, so it can’t help but resonate.
Something I thought was very interesting is your decision to shoot the film in the same studio where The Prince and the Showgirl was shot. Do you think that helped capture the essence of that period of her life?
I think that was just my starting point. After all, we’re in London and the studio is still there and we were able to get access to it. I don’t know how much that resonates with the audience, but it certainly felt helpful to us.
More magical than anything.
I think so, yes. I mean, there is one scene where the Oliviers bring the Millers to their house and there is a photo taken outside their house. We were recreating a picture we had from that day over half a century earlier and actually standing outside the same front door they had. Also, Michelle doing Marilyn’s dance on the exact same soundstage as Marilyn had done it. It did feel very magical.
I’m sure you did as much homework as everyone else on this film before production. When all was said and done, had you learned anything new about Marilyn you didn't know prior to filming?
I think all of us really came to appreciate her more. We realized she wasn’t this nutty bimbo. She actually was a very intelligent woman trying to do her best under difficult circumstances.
Did you also realize that, despite people always trying to dub the “next Marilyn Monroe,” no one is ever going to really come close?
Yeah, I mean it’s so much about a person and their time. She was a prototype superstar in so many ways. It was during a time that was so different than today. It was the only time in her life where she arrived at the London airport. Angelina Jolie probably comes in and out of that airport every third Tuesday. Everything happens so much more now.