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You're in rehearsals for Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse in London right now. How's it going?
I would be the happiest man alive if I could just rehearse and never actually do a play or film. Rehearsing for films and theater is always so exciting, because you're in an environment where you try ridiculous things. Some of them stick and some of them don't. But if you're working with the right people, it's a wonderfully inspiring environment where you push yourself.
Is doing Shakespeare a rite of passage for British actors?
[Laughs] It's funny you say that. Michael Grandage, who's the most wonderful director [Grandage directed Redmayne in Red on Broadway in 2010], called me up and said, "I want you to play Richard II. Will you?," and I said, "Yes!" It wasn't planned as a rite of passage. It feels like a trial by fire at the moment.
You're also set to be in Les Miserables next year. You've been in a lot of period movies; are you planning on doing something set in the present day?
[Laughs] I feel like I do, but no one ever sees them. But you're right. I think [being in a] period drama has a lot to do with [those films] being a major part of the British film industry. We have this amazing wealth of history and literature and all this stuff in British film and television to remind us of that. The rest of the world is interested in those British films, whether it's Henry VIII or The Tudors.
I read an interview recently in which you talked about living in New York while you were in Red in 2010. What did you like about the city?
New York has an eternal mystery and romanticism and excitement to it. I remember staying in hotel when I was young and opening the curtains and seeing St. Patrick's Cathedral or something, and all these skyscrapers [were] juxtaposed with this Gothic building. It was this punch-in-the-stomach, breathtaking moment. It's always retained that romance for me. Another thing New York and Broadway does so well is this sense of community. So many of your theaters on Broadway sort of back in to each other, so you share a corridor with God of Carnage and Phantom of the Opera. You see the other actors going into work to do their show, and then in between the matinees, leaving performances. And everyone goes to Ninth Avenue; there are about seven restaurants where you can see the cast of just about anything all getting their food before the evening performances. Being an actor can be quite lonely, but it's lovely when you get a sense of community, and I think New York is extraordinary for that.
What attracted you to the role of Colin Clark, whose relationship with Marilyn Monroe is depicted in your new film, My Week with Marilyn?
I was astounded that I didn't know about this moment in our cultural history. It seemed like it would be such a big story. [Clark] got extraordinary access to her and saw what the world wanted of her. He's like a knight that ends up with his heart broken.
I didn't get the sense that Clark's relationship with her was fueled by celebrity worship. Why do you think he became so smitten with her?
He grew up surrounded by Vivian Leigh, Laurence Olivier—the people that were almost like godparents to him were icons. He's brighter than the completely wide-eyed gawking kid. He grows quite quickly into being a great diplomat, and learning to negotiate with these extraordinary egos. But of course, [with] Marilyn Monroe, there was something there. I think it was a fascination with her and seeing her complexity.
He starts the film off as being overeager, but by the end of it, after things with Marilyn have ended, he has grown up.
I remember that feeling. That's how everyone feels [when] they're 18 years old—when they come out of school or university and [have] that confidence and excitement to take over the world. What Marilyn gives him is an emotional education.
The movie was filmed at Pinewood Studios, where The Prince and the Showgirl was also shot. Did that help everyone get into character?
Michelle [Williams] was in Marilyn Monroe's dressing room. And we shot at Parkside House, which was the house she actually stayed at. All of those things created an atmosphere around the film that makes it to be relished.
Were you a fan of Marilyn Monroe before this?
I have to admit it, I'd seen very few if any of her films. But it was a wonderful catalyst for me to get into that. I was blown away. I realized I had judged her, like I think most of the world has, from images of her as a bombshell.
Many people approach her films with that mind-set.
Her image almost became stronger than her body of work. It moved into a different kind of media, so her face became more famous than her work.
My Week with Marilyn is out now.