The year Michelle Williams spent preparing to play Marilyn Monroe for her Oscar-nominated turn in Simon Curtis’ “My Week With Marilyn” has taken on a mythos that seems appropriate given all the outsized legends that have surrounded the Hollywood icon for the last six decades.
But all that research and rehearsal either went out the window or had to be hastily enriched while shooting three of the film’s key scenes. “Sometimes you have to fight the circumstances or re-create them in your head,” the 31-year-old actress says over tea at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Bar Nineteen12. “Which is OK,” she adds with a laugh. “Using your imagination is always a fine thing for an actor to do.”
Here, Williams, by turns playful and thoughtful, revisits those three scenes, revealing a few details she has kept close to the vest while promoting the movie since its October release. “This is nice,” she says at one point. “I miss Marilyn, and talking about her keeps her close. I’m still not ready to let her go.”
Having a ‘Heat Wave’
The movie’s opening production number, featuring Williams vamping her way through Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave,” was, as the actress puts it, a “late-breaking idea” added at studio head Harvey Weinstein’s request after the film had wrapped production. Williams shot it simultaneously while starring as Glinda the Good Witch in Sam Raimi’s upcoming film, “Oz: The Great and Powerful.”
“I’ve never done a movie with reshoots,” Williams says. “But Harvey said it was like making a movie about Babe Ruth and never seeing him hit a ball. So I was … willing. But having spent 10 months prepping the movie and two months shooting, it felt like we had just a moment to get the number down.
“Marilyn sang this song in a movie, but the one thing I was intent on was that I didn’t want to perform something she’s already done in the same way. Nobody could do it as well as she did. You could match it, but that’s a dry, dead task. So no mimicry. But ‘inspired by’? That’s OK.
“One of my first big hits about her while prepping was that she always tells you where to look with her hands. She’s constantly referring to her own body, guiding your eye with her hands. It’s so smart. And, my God, what a dancer! She gives pleasure wherever she goes. It just pours out of her, looking like the most natural thing in the world.
“ ‘I started this heat wave / by letting my seat wave …' I gotta admit, those lyrics never registered with me before. But they were oh-so-fun to perform.”
The Doll House
Midway through the movie, we see Marilyn decide to make her version of a “jailbreak” during the fraught filming of “The Prince and the Showgirl.” She whisks production assistant and confidant Colin away for a date in the countryside, and they wind up at Windsor Castle, where they enjoy looking through the royal library and examining Queen Mary’s famous dollhouse.
“That scene has Marilyn opening up the dollhouse and falling into some memory or wish. She looks at the dolls and says to Colin, ‘This is me and this is you and these are our kids. We look like such a happy family, don’t we?’ What I remember most about that day is that I opened up the dollhouse and found myself staring at the ugliest dolls on God’s earth. They were these twisted, miserable things and did not in any way support what I was talking about.’ And I’m looking at them, thinking to myself, ‘Oh, no. Oh, dear.’
“So, later, we have a screening of the movie in Detroit, and it’s raucous. The audience was having so much fun. Then we get to that scene, and right after I said, ‘We look like such a happy family,’ there’s this insert shot of these horrible dolls and the crowd bursts into laughter. I turned to Harvey and said, ‘You’ve got to cut those ugly … dolls!’ And we did.
“It made me remember something Ben Kingsley once said to me. We made this movie together when I was 12 (“Species”), and he told me, ‘I don’t like to act. It’s very lonely. I like to react.’ And my mom wrote it down, and I had it next to my bed. As an actor, you do depend on the world and people around you. If it’s not right, it can really throw you.”
A polar skinny dip
“My Week With Marilyn” had been slated to shoot during the summer of 2010, but Williams wanted more time to prepare and asked to push the start to the fall. While that made the use of Nat King Cole’s “Autumn Leaves” all the more striking as a music cue, it also added a bit of peril to a late-October skinny dip in the Thames.
“It’s supposed to be this pure moment of bliss, so you can’t be a buzz-kill just because your teeth won’t stop chattering and the medic has this awful look on his face because your body temperature won’t stabilize.
“I do love when she kisses Colin and says, ‘That’s the first time I’ve kissed someone younger than me. There are a lot of old guys in Hollywood.’ I relished that line. That was a clue to something that was important to me. My biggest question to Simon going in was: ‘Why him? Why this guy?’ And one answer that assisted me was that in the movie she’s making, ‘The Prince and the Showgirl,’ her character has a relationship with the young prince. And Marilyn’s a Method actress. I think at some point she thought, ‘I don’t know what it’s like to have intimacy with a young man. Let me try it on for size.’
“And that line she says right before she kisses him [she says “I have something in my eye,” to lure him closer] … I wish I could use it without someone knowing it came from my own movie, because it’s such a fantastic line!”