"Oh, boy. Oh, boy."
Michelle Williams hesitates a moment when asked, "What did you think when you first saw yourself up on the screen as Marilyn Monroe?"
The 31-year-old actress portrays the Hollywood legend in the new film "My Week With Marilyn," directed by Simon Curtis. It recounts the time in 1956 when Monroe was shooting "The Prince and the Showgirl" in London with another screen legend, her co-star and director Sir Laurence Olivier.
"There was the initial shock -- almost like a trauma. It was very hard to process," says Williams, who is currently filming Sam Raimi's "Oz: The Great and Powerful," about the experience.
In "My Week With Marilyn," opening Wednesday, audiences first glimpse Monroe up
on the silver screen -- a tight shiny dress, all curves, all Marilyn -- performing a medley of "When Love Goes Wrong" and "Heat Wave."
It's actually a fantasy sequence, since the star did those numbers in two different films. She's being watched by Colin Clark (Tony Award-winning actor Eddie Redmayne), the 23-year-old third assistant director (a glorified gofer) on "The Prince and the Showgirl," whose two memoirs form the basis of the new film.
He claims to have had a relationship with the actress during the film shoot. How accurate the story is, only Clark, who died in 2002, and Monroe, who overdosed on barbiturates at age 36 in 1962, know for sure.
Filming on "The Prince and the Showgirl" was a stormy affair. It was the pairing of the world's biggest star in Monroe and the world's greatest actor, as Spencer Tracy called Olivier (played with great zest by Kenneth Branagh). Nearly 20 years older than the 30-year-old Monroe, Olivier had lured the actress for the collaboration with the hopes of reviving his own Hollywood career.
It turned out to be a disaster for myriad reasons, and the film remains a curiosity today, with glimpses of both actors' power.
Monroe had just wed American playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), who was having trouble adjusting to the circus of the star's life. Meanwhile, Olivier's long marriage to two-time Oscar winner Vivien Leigh ("Gone With the Wind," "A Streetcar Named Desire") was ending, and Leigh (Julia Ormond), then in her early 40s, was aware of her husband's fascination with the younger actress.
But Monroe and Olivier were from different worlds and they clashed on the set. Insecure, she was constantly late, sometimes absent and clung to her Method acting coach like worry beads. Her behavior was maddening to the great thespian, whose background was in the professionalism of the British theater.
For her approach to playing Monroe, Williams, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in last year's "Blue Valentine," did "whatever works."
"Sometimes it's just a combination of what I've read and what I've empirically experienced and how I've seen other actors get places. I'm not above doing a rain dance or saying a prayer -- whatever gets you there," says the actress, who first became a star as a teen on TV's "Dawson's Creek."
Most of the time, when Williams takes a role she starts by examining the interior of the character, but with Monroe she began with exterior qualities, because she had never played someone who had been alive.
"I knew I was going to have quite a distance to cross," she says.
This involved costumes, hair, eyebrows, studying Monroe's movements and performances
and even adding a few pounds.
"I didn't adhere to anything special or have a set goal. I would gain weight very differently. If I gain 15 or 20 pounds, it's not going to give me the body of Marilyn Monroe," she says. "Otherwise, I would have done it a l-o-o-n-g time ago. It was sort of eyeballing things. It was looking in the mirror and saying, 'Does this look right?"'
At first, audiences may concentrate on how much the actress resembles Marilyn, who has been portrayed hundreds of times in films and TV with most being little more than impersonations.
But, if I may be allowed some editorializing here, Williams' performance soon makes you forget any such surface comparisons. It's brilliant, Oscar worthy. Her Marilyn embodies the icon's many contradictions and is, ultimately, all too human.
Director Curtis, who began the project after reading Clark's memoirs, says he soon learned that supporting Williams' instincts about how to play Marilyn was the way to go.
"She has the ability to bring a psychological truth and complexity to the character, and watching her performance evolve on the set every day was a truly great experience," he says.
Curtis describes "My Week With Marilyn" as a moment in time, an episode in a life that tells a story, rather than a traditional biopic. While the film enjoys investigating the emotional and personal dynamics of the moment in time, Curtis says it's fair to say that it's not trying to make some grand statement about Marilyn.
Monroe, of course, remains firmly in the public's consciousness nearly 50 years after her death. In October, she was ranked third on Forbes magazine's list of top-earning dead celebrities with $27 million over the past year, and in June her billowing white dress from "The Seven Year Itch" sold at auction for $4.6 million.
Earlier this year, Authentic Brands Group bought the rights to the icon's estate and aims to give the screen siren's image a high-end makeover, planning to put Marilyn's name on cafes, makeup, fragrances and iPod accessories.
Like many others, Williams was drawn to Marilyn growing up.
"I was more a fan of her image than her work. I really didn't know her films very well at all," says the actress, who kept a poster of the star on her wall when she was a teen. "I was intoxicated like everyone else by her face, with her surface impressions. And it was just in making this movie where I came to have this -- I don't know -- respect, awe that I do now when I watch her on screen."
"My Week With Marilyn" certainly has an air of authenticity, having been shot at Pinewood Studios, where "The Prince and the Showgirl" was filmed, and Parkside House, where newlyweds Monroe and Miller spent a stormy four months.
In one scene in the film, Monroe is overcome by the crush of fans on a London street. Williams is no stranger herself to the crush of public attention, particularly after the death of her former boyfriend, actor Heath Ledger, from whom she was separated when he died in 2008 from his own pill overdose. The couple had a daughter, Matilda, now 6.
Perhaps that's why Williams -- who has drawn raves for performances in "Wendy and Lucy" and "Meek's Cutoff" -- prefers working on indie films.
"I like to make families wherever I go. Small families work best, and I find it makes it easier for me to kind of do what I do when I know everybody by name and I go get a beer with them after work."
She says she was able to find that feeling on "My Life With Marilyn" and even so far on the big-budget film "Oz," in which she plays the Good Witch Glinda -- as a blonde, naturally.
As for avoiding the public eye herself, Williams notes that Marilyn and other people said the star had this switch that she could turn off and on and that there were stories about her disappearing into the New York City streets without being recognized.
"I feel like maybe that's a little bit harder these days because of the Internet but still possible," says Williams. "And I have to believe that it's still possible because I don't want to believe in a world where it's not."
In "My Life With Marilyn," Monroe disappears for a while with Clark, who called his story a fairy tale that nevertheless was true. Curtis believes it to be true.
"Michelle had a brilliant insight that Elsie, Marilyn's character in the 'The Prince and the Showgirl,' had an interest in the young prince at the embassy and was working through something in her character," says Curtis about Clark's relationship with Monroe.
If you think about it, it seems plausible, but no one ever knows for sure about Marilyn. Part of our fascination with her is that she will always be an enigma -- shadow and light invented for the silver screen.
Williams says she has now seen herself enough times as Monroe that she's able to step back a little.
And even while preparing for the role, the actress wanted to allow Marilyn some privacy, "because," she says, "if I allowed a mystery to stay inside of her, it allowed the mystery to stay inside of me."