12 days...Joss Whedon's house...a cast consisting of familiar faces to Whedon's fans...and Shakespeare. It all adds up to a modernized take on William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, the original romantic comedy. Whedon brought together actors he's worked with in television and films and on a very tight schedule with no real budget shot Much Ado About Nothing. Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, The Avengers) and Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods) take on the leading roles of Benedick and Beatrice and in this exclusive interview, Denisof discusses the dialogue, Shakespeare, and working with Joss Whedon.
Amy Acker says you helped her get comfortable with the dialogue because of your extensive experience with Shakespeare. Is it easy for you to fall into the rhythm?
Alexis Denisof: [Laughing] "It's all lies...all nonsense and lies. Amy doesn't need any help with Shakespeare; she is amazing in this movie as she is in everything. It was I who was lucky enough to share the screen with her because she's just phenomenal in anything, but particularly in this. I feel like she was just born to play Beatrice. I have had experience with Shakespeare and I love Shakespeare, so much so that I went to study in London so I could get a little more of that experience and exposure over there because where better than in the country where he was writing and working? So it's always been something that I've enjoyed and I do have, I suppose, a comfort with it as a result of having seen a lot of his plays and performed in some of them, and read most of them - not all of them, but plenty of them.
This was a great deal of fun for me. Joss also has a passion for Shakespeare. We identified early on in our relationship that we had discovered a shared love of Shakespeare. Of course you probably heard about the Shakespeare readings he had at his house, and this movie is in many ways an extension of what those were, which was people coming together in a relaxed way and having the fun of enjoying the play without any expectations or pressure. I think that spirit is what is alive in this movie as I see that a lot of friends are doing something they enjoy."
Did you realize when you were first doing it that it was going to become a big theatrical release or were you just doing a little project with Joss with no expectations of a release in theaters?
Alexis Denisof: "No, not at all. I don't think Joss even was thinking of it in those terms. Honestly, I mean he was coming off shooting The Avengers which is an enormous operation. It takes a huge amount of time and energy, and there are a vast number of people involved in every step of movie-making on those types of movies, and I'd had a small role in it. He called me at the end of the shoot and said he wanted to talk to me. I was convinced that he was coming over to tell me I'd been cut from the movie and recast, and they were going to have to reshoot, and he wanted to be the first one to let me know."
You didn't really think that, did you?
Alexis Denisof: "No, I did. I told my wife that. She'll tell you. I got up that morning and said, 'Honey, Joss had a very weird tone in his voice. I think I'm in trouble.' She was like, 'Just relax. See what he has to say.' And of course, he didn't say that. It was a double surprise when he pulled a script of Much Ado out of his pocket and said, 'You know, I was going to take a European vacation with my family but my wife [Kai] thinks we should do a little Shakespeare movie that's been on my mind for years. We're going to start in a couple of weeks. We have 12 days. What do you think?' I said yes before he even finished the sentence."
Is it even possible to say no to him?
Alexis Denisof: "Well you'd have to be a blithering idiot, which I am but that didn't prevent me from saying yes. Honestly, we didn't have much time to get worried about it. The rehearsal process such as it was, was quick. Much quicker than normal, and the shooting process was even quicker. All I really remember was we had an enormous amount of fun, and it was hard work. I don't want to pretend it wasn't. There are a lot of lines to remember in a short amount of time. There were some long days, and there's things that you wish you had time to do differently or whatever. But on the whole it was just an exhilarating experience to have some of your favorite friends and actors all together doing something that we love. And that was the spirit of it.
We weren't, to answer your question, we were not thinking about theatrical release or Internet release. We weren't thinking about anything. We were just like, 'Well, let's just do this.' I think Joss had said at the outset maybe he would just put it out on DVD and sell it, or maybe he would just put it on the Internet as a surprise and there it would be. But about halfway through the shoot, I remember he was shooting on a scene and I was watching and he turned to me and said, 'This thing is good,' with a note of like pleasant surprise. I don't if that's the right thing to say. I mean, he was like, 'I think we've got something here.'
He had a clear idea of what he wanted to do with the story. He pulled out a pool of people that love working with him, and all can work together well and quickly, and can make it an enjoyable process. We all had our own ideas and he was happy to incorporate and work with those in the context of what his overall take on it was. I think the speed of it in a way is what brought it to life, because you were really just getting the raw enjoyment we were having in the readings and in this movie, which is a kind of glorified reading."
The whole 12-day shooting schedule fascinates me because you as an actor don't have time to worry about anything then. You just have to do it.
Alexis Denisof: "No. You have to bring your own clothes and learn your lines. That's the last thing he said to me, because we won't have much time. He was right. When I wasn't in a scene, I was on the opposite end of the house just trying to learn the next piece and get it the way I want it and get it into my head, because you didn't want to waste takes on fluffing lines. If you get another take it's because you want to do something differently, not because you're just trying to get the lines in the right order. He really wanted to get that part of it locked down.
I think the speed of it also caused us all to commit. You know, I have to make views about this character, about this relationship, as do Joss and Amy, as did everybody in their particular roles. And in this kind of environment, you just go for it. There isn't a studio or a suit standing over you, standing there saying, 'I'm thinking maybe it would be better if they brought in a more famous actor instead of you.' Or, 'Maybe it would be better if we shoot it differently.' You know, just all of those pressures that come with it. This was the freedom of getting together and doing it for the love of it.
There's a wonderful studio, Lionsgate, that has graciously stepped in and is going to distribute it. This movie is getting attention because people are seeing it and talking about it, and their taking it upon themselves to make other people aware of it and that is exactly what this movie needs if it's going to get seen by anybody, because there just isn't a budget that a studio movie would have behind it to get it out there to be eyeballed. So this is a kind of a grassroots social networking event. We're just hoping it's a strong enough entertaining movie that people will get other people to see it, and they will get movie theaters to show it, and they'll hopefully stamp their feet for it. That's all we can hope."
And because of Joss Whedon's involvement, as well as the cast, this could introduce Shakespeare to teenagers who are not going to be familiar with the text of Much Ado About Nothing.
Alexis Denisof: "I hope so. That's a wonderful idea... may what you just said come true. That would be the most satisfying of all would be young people come to Shakespeare and are pleasantly surprised at how much fun and how easy and enjoyable it can be. We are not trying to have an academic debate in our interpretation of this play. We're trying to have fun and have it be hip and sexy and approachable. If you love Shakespeare and you consider yourself knowledgeable about him, I think you'll watch this movie and be happy and intrigued at a new and unusual interpretation. But if you've never seen Shakespeare or you even don't like Shakespeare, because many of us who were scarred in high school by again, of course, having to swallow all that gobbledy gook, then I think you'll watch this movie and say, 'Wait a minute. Not only did I understand Shakespeare, I enjoyed it.' If that happens for students that would be for Joss and all of us, the ultimate compliment."
The witty banter between your character and Amy Acker's is so specific and so lyrical. Was that fun to deliver?
Alexis Denisof: "It's fun. I mean this is the original romantic comedy. That's the thing. Everything that follows it started with that couple. Whether it's Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn, or whether it's Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, or whether it's The Thin Man movie, or whatever - take your pick - it all works its way back to this play and this couple. To get a chance to go back to the origin of romantic comedy is really exciting for actors."
Where would Much Ado rank in your order of favorite Shakespeare plays?
Alexis Denisof: "It's way up there. Among my favorites, certainly. Probably my first when I was younger, Romeo and Juliet was probably my first and that was a monologue I used that I worked on in order to get into acting school. <>A Midsummer Night's Dream was the first Shakespeare play I ever appeared in when I was a teenager and that was here in the Northwest, and also I love Hamlet. Almost any of the comedies and almost any of the tragedies. I get a little less excited about the histories, but some of those are great too. Some of those, for sure, have their merits.
If you only got the chance to play one great Shakespeare couple, this would be the one that I would want."
Rather than Romeo and Juliet?
Alexis Denisof: "Yes, more so than Romeo and Juliet because the fact is, they don't really have any scenes together. [Laughing] That's the bottom line.
You know, they've got the great balcony scene but it isn't really a relationship. It's a tragic love story. I think where we're coming from with this movie and what interested Joss about this, was this was like a love story about love. Really looking at the mechanics of it from two different perspectives, you've got the clearly meant to be together lovers of Beatrice and Benedick, and then you've got the other end of the spectrum with the innocent almost Romeo and Juliet like Hero and Claudio who have a tragic turn in their relationship in counterpoint to the fun of Beatrice and Benedick's relationship. But, it's not all fun for both couples. Joss, in his masterful way, has found plenty of light and comedy but he's also found plenty of darkness and drama as well in the telling of this story."
After all these years of working with Joss, has he changed at all as a director or is it still the same guy you met years ago?
Alexis Denisof: "It's the same guy who has an impeccable ear, an impeccable eye, and has tremendous courage and impeccable taste, but he's grown much more confidant technically. When I first worked with him in season three of Buffy - and I'm not saying I knew anything about camera angles or lenses - but Joss would be the first one to say that was not his strength going into Buffy was knowing which lens he should be on, or whether he should be on a dolly or be on sticks, or whether he needed a crane. I think that he had all the raw talent and now he's added years of experience, so he's at a wonderful place in his evolution as an artist where it's all coming together, all the elements of his talent and all of the years of his experience. I feel so lucky to have been able to watch and learn and be part of some of his evolution."
(Photo of Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in 'Much Ado About Nothing,' directed by Joss Whedon. Photo Credit: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis)