Alexis Denisof on Reawakening the World of Shakespeare in Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

When it comes to cinematic preferences, I lean toward the darker side, falling for films that make me ache—in the best way possible. More often than not, it’s the more haunting, dramatic features that evoke the physical reaction I so yearn for. But on occasion, a film comes along that’s so absolutely delightful, so pleasurable in every aspect that I cannot help but find myself in a state of utter glee, completely tickled with what’s happening before me on screen. It’s a rare occurrence, but with Joss Whedon’s contemporary retelling of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, I found myself transfixed in the allure of his black-and-white world. 

Playing out as a love letter to Shakespeare’s comedic tale of a merry war betwixt two lovers, Much Ado is brimming with charisma and sensual thrill. You don’t need to be a scholar of the bard to find yourself captivated by the story, with its silky smooth and velvety jazz-filled atmosphere, you’re eased into the film in a way that’s far from intimidating. Whedon infuses a conversational style to the story that makes it more accessible than any other Shakespearean re-workings in recent memory, adding to a charm that’s heightened by its phenomenal cast of characters. 
Filmed in his own home in Los Angeles, for the director best known for hit shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, or Hollywood blockbusters like The Avengers, Much Ado was a welcome surprise. The comedy feels like a breath of fresh air, a respite from major studio pictures that allows Whedon the freedom to let loose with a rapturous mix of refinement and playfulness. Much Ado may seem minimalistic in its production style, but that speaks nothing of the beauty with which it was shot and the wonderfully nuanced performances by its sprawling cast. 
Peppered with members of Whedon’s world, from Nathan Fillion and Clark Gregg to Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz, the film stars Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as its main pair of lovers, Beatrice and Benedick. With an instant and palpable chemistry between the two, we see them verbally spar their way into love in the tale that goes as follows:
Leonato, the governor of Messina, is visited by his friend Don Pedro who is returning from a victorious campaign against his rebellious brother Don John. Accompanying Don Pedro are two of his officers: Benedick and Claudio. While in Messina, Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero, while Benedick verbally spars with Beatrice, the governor’s niece. The budding love between Claudio and Hero prompts Don Pedro to arrange with Leonato for a marriage.In the days leading up to the ceremony, Don Pedro, with the help of Leonato, Claudio and Hero, attempts to sport with Benedick and Beatrice in an effort to trick the two into falling in love. Meanwhile, the villainous Don John, with the help of his allies: Conrade and Borachio, plots against the happy couple, using his own form of trickery to try to destroy the marriage before it begins.A series of comic and tragic events continue to keep the two couples from truly finding happiness, but then again perhaps love may prevail.
No stranger to Shakespearean text, actor Alexis Denisof takes on the role of Benedick with a mix of humor and sensitivity. Beloved for his roles on Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse, here we see a new side to Denisof that’s as endearing as it is hilarious to watch. So with the film’s premiere this Friday, I got the chance to speak with him about stepping into his leading role, his natural chemistry with Amy Acker, and the passion behind the picture.
You’ve been traveling around a lot with the film, bringing it to different festivals and premieres. I imagine this is a pretty amazing group of people to be doing this with.
It’s very true. We are genuinely friends, so it didn’t feel like work when we were making it and it doesn’t feel like work when we’re promoting it. All of it has been a huge amount of fun and that’s the best kind of work there is. If you can make it fun, then it doesn’t feel like work.

I absolutely loved the film. I can’t remember another recent film where I found myself just grinning the entire time.
Oh good, that’s a perfect way to say it.

What I loved about it was that it felt like a very indie 1990s chamber comedy, like The Anniversary Party, with Shakespeare as the vernacular. The combination of those two things is probably my ideal film.
Yeah, that’s very well put. I’ve seen it a few times now and each time I get a slightly different feel and I see more of the references that Joss is inserting here and there. I love how it all pulls together even though it’s 400 year old language, two-year-old suits and ties, mid-century black-and-white, and cool jazz.

The jazz was a great element and gave it that extra bit of play.
And yet somehow it all pulls together into one experience that just flies by. I normally find it difficult to watch films or television shows that I’m in because I pick them apart, but with this one, I just get carried away and remember how much fun we had making it . I think almost all of that fun is on the screen.

As someone who loves Shakespeare it was obviously enjoyable, but what’s great with this is that it feels much more accessible than a lot of other adaptations of the work.
I agree. If you love Shakespeare and you’ve seen Shakespeare, I think you’ll go to this movie surprised and delighted at this fresh interpretation. I think people will watch this movie and feel good that you understood it and enjoyed it. It’s accessible and it’s fun and hip and sexy and cool, and it’s very hard not to like it. The movie is not trying to scare you off or make a statement about Shakespeare or become a polemic about the Bard, it’s just these people brought to life in a way that the directors and actors felt were right for them and creating a world that we believed in. And we tried to make it fast and fun.

How did you find yourself cast in the role of Benedick? You’ve worked with Joss in the past.
I have been fortunate to collaborate with him quite a few times over the years. Before Much Ado, the last time was on The Avengers, in which I had a small part. So I saw him in the middle of shooting that huge movie and when we wrapped principal photography, I got a call at home asking where was I and if he could come see me. I told him he could come over right now and I hung up the phone and said to my wife, "Oh dear, I think he’s coming to tell me that the footage we shot of me in The Avengers was terrible and they need to recast and reshoot, and wants to break the news in person." And she told me to relax and see what he wanted to say. So it was a double surprise when he arrived and plucked the script for Much Ado out of his pocket and said, "So I’ve got a couple weeks off and my wife has suggested that instead of the European vacation we planned, that we shoot Much Ado at my house. It starts in three weeks and we have twelve days to shoot it." I said yes before he’d even finished the question, and thankfully didn’t have enough time to freak out. A couple weeks isn’t much time time to prep for that kind of role, and 12 days is certainly not a lot of time to shoot that kind of film, but everybody involved has worked with each other either directly or knew each other socially, and we had pretty much all worked with Joss, so we had a rapport and could work quickly with each other— that was a key element. And most of us participated in casual Shakespeare readings at Joss’s house just for fun from time to time, so that created a springboard as well and all that conspired along with Joss’s extraordinary vision for the film. 

Did he say right away that he wanted you for Benedick? 
He did. When he first proposed it, he said that he was thinking me for Benedick and Amy for Beatrice—for me, that’s the holy trinity: Joss, Amy Acker, and myself. I couldn’t be happier than when I’m working with those people. We just have a very special chemistry, the three of us, and it’s always challenging and exciting. We feel relaxed and free to play. If you really boil it down, whether it’s comic or tragic, it’s all play in this movie-making, television, or theater business—it’s complicated versions of playing and I think Joss and Amy and I play well together. 

The scenes between you and Amy were certainly my favorite, whether it was a dramatic moment or the many moments of comedy, you two have such a wonderful chemistry together that was befitting of your characters.
I do appreciate it and I want to speak frankly about my feelings about it, but at the same time, I’m not trying to give myself compliments. I agree, I feel we have a chemistry but it’s up to everybody else to agree that the chemistry is working. I feel like in this case we hit on something special.

The film was shot at Joss’ house and on a very small scale, yet it still felt so polished and the cinematography was beautiful.
Yeah, if you were just told about a black-and-white movie shot in 12 days at his house, you would immediately think it sounds down and dirty and it’s going to look down and dirty and be all that shaky camera kind of hand-held flip cam style of shooting that’s become in vogue—but it’s not that. It’s very luxurious to look at and very sensuous and sexy, and I think the black and white lets you ease into it comfortably, and the language is not intimidating. Anybody that has spoken to me about the movie, all of them have said, "It’s so strange, after a couple of minutes I didn’t realize it was Shakespeare anymore, I understood what people were saying." So it is beautiful to look at, and I knew Joss had fallen truly in love with this movie when he told me that he was composing the score. Once he starts to hear music when he’s working on something, then it means his heart is in it, it’s taken him over. By the time he was in editing and post-production, he was having to do that on his own free time from post-production of The Avengers. So that meant occasional late nights during the week and occasional late hours on the weekend on his laptop and yet, that’s the kind of talent he is: from the moment he conceived his vision of this movie, to the final note on the bass and treble clef that he wrote, it was one fully-realized vision that was slow and extremely challenging, but nevertheless beautifully extracted from him.

My first thought when hearing about the film was that doing something like this so passionately in such a short amount of time, and so cheaply, it must have been a wonderful revitalizing breath of fresh air for him.
You don’t have to know anything about movies to conceive what it must be like to shoot a $200 million movie. It’s just painstaking minutia, thousands of decisions, and many, many people involved in every aspect of the film. So a movie like The Avengers is a military operation, and I think he wanted to go back to grass roots and let things fly a little and get back to that feeling of being in a rip-roaring collaboration with people that he loved to work with and just see what happens. So with low or no expectations—which was what we all had—you’re free really to do whatever and that’s one of many strengths of Joss as a director: he creates an atmosphere in which you feel absolutely safe and free. I think that’s a perfect balance when you’re in a creative process—safety and freedom.

With such short time shooting and in prep, did you and Amy have a chance to rehearse a lot together, or did your relationship develop more on set?
The rehearsals were grab them when you can. Amy and I called each other immediately after Joss dropped this bombshell and said, "How soon can you get together?" And the three of us would meet whenever possible before shooting began, and Amy and I would work on things ourselves and bring Joss in when we could, or he would pull us aside when he could. That was a process, and that continued throughout the shooting. If we were in a lightning turn around, we would walk off and take a look at things and map them out. And of course it’s his house, so he has the advantage of knowing every nook and cranny and has total comfort in the space, in terms of what it is and what it can do. And while shooting in a real location confines the cast and crew into small spaces—which a film stage doesn’t—a real house gives you that authenticity that supports what you’re doing. There’s something about real walls as opposed to flimsy painted canvas walls that give you reassurance, and if I open the fridge in the kitchen there’s actually milk and eggs and the kid’s lunch because it’s his house. All of that lent itself to the movie.

And just as a play, Much Ado offers itself so well to physical comedy, and with something like this where you’re able to see small details closer than you would on a stage, you were able to play more with that and it really added to the entire film.
That’s a good point. Joss wanted to have a feel of live theater in this to some degree, but at the same time, because it’s film and there’s a camera, you can direct the eye more than you can in a theater. He took long takes when he could and shot things a little bit wider so that you could see everybody that was in the scene in the room. That pulls the audience into the room, and if it’s a party scene you really are in the party, and if it’s a love scene, you’re comfortably close to the lovers. This film is as close to merging film and live theater as anything I’ve seen successfully. Of course if you were just to put a camera on sticks and shoot a theatrical performance, it’s very tedious, it just doesn’t translate and it rarely works. You’ve got to get the cameras in closer and you’ve got to have cut-aways and close-ups —you just have to because the screen is a different visual medium. Somehow this is a successful merger of the two.

I feel like so many Shakespearean adaptations nowadays are either the very grand, romantic Kenneth Branagh-type pictures, or the more veiled, contemporary re-imagining of the text. This, to me, felt like the perfect merger of both those worlds.
I would agree with that. We were certainly not attempting something highbrow and sophisticated, this was not a reproduction of Elizabethan theater, and we’re not attempting to present poetry to people. We wanted to get under the skins of these charters, and bring them to life, and find a journey through these relationships, and bring a real contemporary authenticity to it, but still respecting the fact that this was written 400 plus years ago. Some of it is very poetic, but we wanted to let the audience find that poetry rather than present it to them. So it’s very conversational and we took a very relaxed approach with the language. I think the roots go back to the readings at Joss’ house where we would have fun with plays and you could do whatever you want and weren’t’ necessarily cast in a role that you would ever play—but who cares, it was a reading and a glass of wine.

Did those readings happen often?
Well, they were in a nice groove during the Buffy and Angel days when Joss was on a TV schedule. Now that the shape of his career has changed and there’s much more of a movie schedule to his life, it’s been difficult to get together and read the plays as of late. But it’s always a possibility and they’re always spontaneous. He’ll think of it on a Wednesday and call a bunch of people, then email a bunch of people on Thursday, and if enough people say yes, then he sends out a list of parts on Friday or Saturday, and then you show up on Sunday and read the play. I know it’s not everybody’s idea of fun…

Are you kidding? I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening.
Well, clearly you would find this great, and for people who have an interest in the plays, it is fun. I think what this movie has done is take the fun that we all have in the reading of the plays and brought it to life in a very vivid way. We’ve committed to it whole-heartedly here, so now with this movie, you could like the plays or not like the plays, the movie stands on its own as the story—a complex story about two pairs of lovers clearly meant for each other but instead are quarreling and resisting each other. The other pair are on the opposite end of the spectrum and are models for Romeo and Juliet and the whole cosmopolitan political world in which they’re set, and all of the wonderful characters that weave through the whole story. The bottom line with this movie is that it’s an indie. There’s no big studio behind this, we want to get it out to people, and we’re lucky that LionsGate picked it up and people will get a chance to see it. But it’s only people like you and people who tell their friends about it that creates the demand that will give it a shot to get out to a broader audience.

[More by Hillary Weston; Follow Hillary on Twitter]

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