Taking on the role of Marilyn Monroe was never going to be easy, but then again, Michelle Williams could relate to THE LEGENDARY SCREEN SIREN, writes Paul ByrneIt can't be easy for an actor, taking on such an iconic figure. Then again, for Michelle Williams, the aftermath of Heath Ledger's death saw the father of her child, Matilda Rose, being turned into a tragic poster boy for a new generation.
That his Oscar-winning portrayal of the macabre, psychotic Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight was about to be unleashed added fuel to the iconography. And the T-shirt sales. And the tabloids.
So, fleetingly at least, Michelle Williams would have experienced the kind of bubble Marilyn Monroe lived in at the height of her fame. And it's at the height of that fame that Williams portrays the late Ms Monroe, in the intriguing film My Week With Marilyn, which hits Irish cinemas on November 25.
"That kind of fame is utterly terrifying," nods the 31-year-old actress. "And, I'm sure, intoxicating, if you're the centre of the storm. Marilyn's struggles with her fame, with her very public life versus her private life, have been well documented, but this was something a little different. A slice of that life that told you so much . . ."
The slice of life in question took place during the shooting of the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, with Monroe playing the latter and Laurence Olivier the former. It was during a seven-day break from the shoot in the summer of 1956 that production assistant, 23-year-old Colin Clark, took Monroe on a tour of Britain, away from the movie lights, and her new (and third) husband, playwright Arthur Miller.
In the movie, Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier, Dougray Scott is Arthur Miller and relative newcomer Eddie Redmayne plays Clark,whose two diary accounts, The Prince, The Showgirl And Me and My Week With Marilyn, are the basis for director Simon Curtis' new film.
Monroe was keen to move on from the sex bomb roles that had made her a star in such movies as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). Her finest role, in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, was three years away, and her death, on August 5, 1962, a mere six.
Monroe was on the crest of a wave, and on a quest for some kind of credibility. Having just formed Marilyn Monroe Productions, the girl formerly known as Norma Jeane Mortenson had now hired Laurence Olivier to both direct and co-star in The Prince and the Showgirl. Olivier was regarded as the greatest actor of his generation, and Monroe was determined to make movies that were more than just box-office fodder.
"Marilyn Monroe was incredibly self-aware," says Williams. "To a fault. She was aware of the image that both made her a star and limited her as an artist. She was more than happy to play the dumb blonde, but she knew you could be smart in the ways you played dumb. You don't sign up someone like Laurence Olivier to direct and co-star in a movie with you if you're thinking about making fluff. Marilyn wanted to make good work, and to prove herself worthy of the fame that had been bestowed upon her."
Still, Monroe didn't find her confidence being buoyed by her time with Olivier.
"There was a belief on Marilyn's part that she wasn't being treated as an equal," says Williams. "And there were definitely whispers in hallways, these fleeting glances, that played heavily on her mind. She was incredibly talented, but she was also incredibly vulnerable. It didn't take much to turn Marilyn Monroe into a nervous wreck.
"It didn't help either that her marriage to Arthur Miller wasn't working out. She was convinced she was a disappointment to him, and an entry she found in one of his notebooks convinced her that this was true. So, you know, she turned to drink, and to pills . . ."
For Michelle Williams, getting over heartache and then tragedy (she and Ledger had separated when he was found dead in a Manhattan apartment in January 2008) meant throwing herself into her work. Already firmly established as more than just a pretty face, Williams had moved on from the teen TV drama Dawson's Creek to star in indie faves such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), I'm Not There (2007) and Wendy And Lucy (2008).
In the past two years, Williams has given us Shutter Island, Blue Valentine (both 2010) and Meek's Cutoff (2011).
"The work has definitely been important," she says. "It's always been a wonderful way to get out of your own skin, to take on someone else's life, to understand another time, another place, another situation. . . It also helps you live through pain at a safe distance, if that makes sense. You can throw yourself into another life, and hopefully get close to becoming that other person. It's like deep-sea diving; you just explore what's down there.
Upcoming for Williams is Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz (for which, alongside My Week With Marilyn and Meek's Cutoff, Williams won the Hollywood Film Festival Award for Best Actress). She is currently shooting fantasy film Oz: The Great And Powerful, playing Glinda The Good Witch. Which must be very therapeutic.
"Absolutely," she laughs. "I'm learning all sorts of buried desires and demons that I possess, and it's all been very cathartic. Once again, film has come to my rescue. And there's catering, too.
"There aren't many therapists who come with a buffet, so, you know, I've lucked out . . . "
My Week With Marilyn hits cinemas on Friday