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Michelle Williams: I was born to play Marilyn

By Will Lawrence

When her family moved from Montana to California, the nine-year-old Michelle Williams decorated the walls of her new bedroom with posters of her favourite stars. Chief among them was Marilyn Monroe.

"It was a picture of her taken at Roxbury, her house in Connecticut where she lived with Arthur Miller," says the two-time Oscar nominee. "She is in a white dress, barefoot, spinning among the trees. That is where I started. I think everyone has an image of her that they hold most dear or most closely associate with her, and that was mine."

A true icon of the 20th Century, Monroe has been an idol for millions, inspiring numerous books and films, including two diaries written by English filmmaker Colin Clark, which recount his time working with, and befriending, Monroe on the production of the 1957 movie The Prince and the Showgirl at Pinewood Studios. These memoirs now form the narrative for a new film, My Week with Marilyn, with Williams cast as Monroe.

"I have always been drawn to Marilyn," says the 31-year-old Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine star, "but that doesn't make me special in any way. She has that magnetism and that draw for so many people, so I read about her when I was young, devouring biographies."

In My Week with Marilyn, Monroe is a beguiling character, both larger-than-life personality and fragile, vulnerable waif. The real-life shoot on The Prince and the Showgirl proved a trying period both for Monroe and her co-star and director, Laurence Olivier, the pair rarely seeing eye to eye.

On paper, the Olivier-Monroe match looked like a dream pairing, Britain's most respected Shakespearean actor teaming up with Hollywood's most glamorous movie star. In reality, however, Monroe felt that her director refused to accord her the respect that she deserved, while Olivier became exasperated by his leading lady's tardiness, inability to memorise her lines, and devotion to Method acting.

"She went to Pinewood with high hopes," says Williams. "But it turned out to be a very unhappy time for her, and, when things started going wrong with Miller, she really felt as though she needed a friend."

She found one in Colin Clark -- son of the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark -- who had wangled his first job in film, as third assistant director and general gopher. In My Week with Marilyn, Eddie Redmayne takes on the Clark role (Kenneth Branagh is Olivier), and audiences bear witness to a tender relationship that forms between Clark and Monroe.

However close Clark and Monroe became in real life, his books and Williams's film do paint a very intimate and delicate portrait of the star. My Week with Marilyn is a light sketch, rather than an epic canvas, and the actress delivers a nuanced performance that is winning critical plaudits.

"To be honest, the part kind of landed in my lap," says Williams, "although I knew immediately that I was going to challenge myself to do it. I spent the next six months talking myself out of it but, in the end, there was a kind of inevitability. It was the kind of part I was born to challenge myself with."

Simon Curtis, who is making his feature film debut with My Week with Marilyn, says that Williams is "perfect in so many ways. She is one of those actresses that I always want."

After making her name on Dawson's Creek, that celebrated teen TV serial, Williams graduated to independent features, like The Station Agent and Wim Wenders's Land of Plenty, before turning in an Oscar-nominated performance in 2005's Brokeback Mountain.

She followed that with the critically lauded Wendy and Lucy, and the ensemble pieces I'm Not There and Synecdoche, New York. Last year she featured in both Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island and Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, the latter earning her a second Academy Awards nomination.

She is the mother of six-year-old Matilda, whose father, Williams's Brokeback Mountain co-star Heath Ledger, died from an accidental overdose in 2008. In the aftermath of Ledger's death, Williams found herself harassed by the paparazzi, and has subsequently shied away from most media contact.

'The important thing with Michelle is trust," says Curtis. "With our film, she wanted to know that she could go on this journey with people she could trust. Also the fact that this wasn't the whole of Marilyn's life, rather it was just one month in her life, made it focused, and Michelle responded to that. No one could have worked harder than Michelle and she was brave to take on such an iconic role."

Williams smiles. "Marilyn is an icon, and I must say that I have never been so affected by somebody's beauty until I started spending a lot of time with her. I think she was an incredibly clever woman but also kind of guileless, a bit like a child. She always had such control over her own image, and what the world knows of Marilyn was all very controlled.

"There's this incandescence, this mixture, this woman-child. She gave the impression of having the body of a woman but the mind and the heart of an innocent, and that was an intoxicating combination. She transmitted an available, mature sexuality, but it wasn't dirty or threatening. That, I think, was her genius."

My Week with Marilyn is in cinemas now

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