Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker are both charter members of the Joss Whedon ensemble. Denisof played Wesley Wyndam-Pryce in nine episodes of Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one hundred episodes of Angel; Senator Daniel Perrin in four episodes of Whedon's Dollhouse, and "The Other" in The Avengers. Amy Acker played Winifred "Fred" Burkle in over sixty episodes of Angel and Dr. Claire Saunders in over a dozen episodes of Dollhouse as well as playing Lin in The Cabin in the Woods. Now the pair star opposite each other—as Benedick and Beatrice—in Whedon's feature film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. In addition to many other film and TV credits, both have Shakespeare plays on their resumes: Acker in a previous production of Much Ado, and Denisof as Tybalt in a telefilm of Romeo & Juliet and as fight director for a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet. During Denisof and Acker's stay for the San Francisco International Film Festival, we chatted at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.
Groucho: First of all, what can you tell me about these Shakespeare evenings that Joss used to host? When did you first get involved with those?
Alexis Denisof: They go back a few years, don't they?
Amy Acker: A long time.
Alexis Denisof: I think they started back in the Buffy days. You know, Joss is crazy about Shakespeare, and there were a few people floating around that were as well. And so he got the idea of reading a play, for fun at his house. And it was so much fun that he did it again, and then he did it again, and then he did it again.
Amy Acker: I think probably within an hour, he saw on my resume when I auditioned for Angel that I had done Shakespeare before, and probably the first conversation I had with him was him saying, "Well, if you ever want to come to my house [laughs] and do one of these Shakespeare readings—
AD: You're like "Yeah, right! You're a kook!"
G: You've done this play before, too, right?
G: Which character did you play?
AA: I played Hero. It was my first professional theater job out of college, though.
G: When Joss assembled—I assume there was a cast meeting before the film began. I presume there was time for that.
AD: Uhhh, not everybody.
AA: There was a couple—
AD: A couple big—
AA: The first day was a cast meeting of me, Alexis, and Joss. And then the next week—
AD: A few more people were in—
AA: He had gotten about six people there.
AD: I don't think we ever had everybody in the room at the same time.
AD: Before shooting started. 'Cause it just wasn't possible.
AA: Yeah, I think Clark [Gregg] was occupied until the night before. Something fell through, so he literally found out he was doing it and started shooting the next day.
AD: Yeah, amazing.
G: So whether in that first meeting with you two and Joss or by email or whatever, I'm curious what his pep talk was for the actors going into the project, setting the tone for this film. And how you would approach the language, for example.
AD: Well, Joss would never take anything on if he didn't have an interpretation in his mind. And so when the idea to do this came up, he has said that once he got what he wanted to do with it, then he was ready to make the movie. So by the time he talked to us about it, he already had—he was fairly sure he wanted it to be in black and white. He was already thinking about that, y'know, in the early rehearsal days.
AD: And I don't even know if I would call them rehearsal days, because they weren't officially rehearsals.
AA: Oh, yeah.
AD: We were just calling each other, trying to get together. "Have you got two hours this afternoon?" "Yeah, okay." "Can Joss make it?" "No, he can't." Or "Yes he can." "Okay, great." But anyway, it was in that time that he would share with us important larger thematic concepts, like he wanted to bring a feel of the mid-century Golden Age of moviemaking, the noir, romantic noir, comedy: some hybrid of that. So kinda keep pushing the tempo of it a little bit so it stays fast and muscular.
AA: I feel like early on he emphasized to us that it was kind of this difference of, y'know, finding grown-up love.
AA: Whatever that meant. And what that meant to him. And to us.
AA: And so that—
AD: That was important.
AA: Those were all kind of the starting points that we came from.
AD: That's right...
G: Pushing the tempo is kind of a traditional Shakespeare acting approach, I think, but one of the striking things about the film is the kind of radical naturalism, in terms of the text. I think there's not that kind of, maybe—
G: Playing to the back row.
AD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
G: Punching-the-words kind of approach. It's really hugely natural, I think.
G: Was that something that Joss was specifically cultivating, or was everybody kind of picking up that cue from each other?
AD: Well, I would say both.
AD: [To Acker:] But I do think maybe it'd be better if you say this, but you've said so accurately that a lot of the feel of this comes out of the Shakespeare readings.
AD: And those were very natural. And fun and loose. And people bringing their own interpretation. And, y'know, if you wanted to do something silly with a character, it didn't matter. It was a Sunday afternoon reading a play. At somebody's house.
G: Low stakes.
AD: Low stakes. And I think those low stakes carried over into this. There was not a lot of studio money involved here. He had the image of us in our own suits, and our own clothes. And we were in his house, which is comfortable. And I think that everybody and everything about it informed itself and this style. And I think as actors, all of us, our proclivity was to make it understandable, make it accessible, and have it be fun and approachable for the audience. Not to do a disservice to Shakespeare, 'cause I don't feel that we were doing that in our delivery of the language. And you're absolutely right: there are plenty of productions that you can go to where you hear it being spoken extraordinarily well, almost to a poetic recitation level, but that's not what we were attempting. This wasn't ruffled shirts and tights; this is guys in black suits that carry guns. And I think what we wanted to bring was something very real and edgy. And that's what's contemporary about it. And I think if you've never seen Shakespeare before, it doesn't matter. In two or three minutes, you'll forget that it's Shakespeare, and you'll just be caught up in the story of it. And then at the end, you'll say, "Oh my God, I just—I watched, understood and enjoyed a Shakespeare play!" And if you've seen a bunch of Shakespeare plays, you'll be happy you saw this fresh interpretation that I doubt you'll have seen before, even in the hands of Baz Luhrmann or Kenneth Branagh or some great interpretations that are out there—but I think this one has found its own corner.
G: Yeah, definitely. What kind of discoveries did you make about your characters, either in your preparation for the film or during production?
AA: Ohh! I mean, I feel like I'm repeating myself now, 'cause I've said—(laughs). [Whispering:] But Alexis, pretend that I'm saying this for the first time. (Laughs.)
AD: It's always fresh to me!
AA: But when Joss told us at the beginning that he was going to add the scene—the first scene of the movie...the flashback—and we kind of all said, "Yes." 'Cause, y'know, when I have read or, in school, talked about the play before, it's always like "Well, were they together before? Or was there a history?" And it's—the answer is definitely yes. So kind of starting on that—just the moment that he created there really gave, for me, a place of where she was coming from, why she was saying these things like she—it really grounded everything that she was feeling and how she just, y'know, doesn't want to get hurt again by this person.
AD: Yeah, I would echo—for sure I would agree with Amy that that was a sort of—that gave a foundation to the relationship and also grounded it in a very real and approachable place. But I—to your question about the specifics of the character, I guess I—when he said we're doing this, then the job for me was to find out "Well, why do I want to play this part, and what is it about this role that I think I can bring to it?" And I guess for me what I saw in this character was a journey of a man who starts out in a—as a lot of guys do—in a very kind of external, almost false image of themselves. I mean, I was kind of imagining that this guy thinks of himself like he's John Wayne. Then, as he begins to—these feelings start to happen, it reduces him to Jerry Lewis. I mean, he becomes completely undone by the appearance of authentic feelings that he's doing everything he can to avoid. And it's only when he comes to terms with those feelings—and commits to both the feelings and the woman—that a real man appears. An authentic, kind of integrated man appears. And so that was the sort of trail that I tried to follow through Benedick. And I hope make him feel like a real guy. I wanted to feel like this was a guy: I've had drinks with this guy. I've been with these guys before. I didn't want it to feel like a stuffy Shakespearean actor reciting lines at you, you know? I was hoping to come up with something that was much more immediate.
G: Yeah. Well, Shakespeare was so progressive with gender roles. Like you say, you want him to feel like a guy, and yet of course we see his vulnerability, and we see her strength.
AD: For sure!
G: It's so kind of perfectly balanced—
AD: Yeah. Absolutely right.
G: What you learn from the characters there. And the "Kill Claudio" scene is obviously the meatiest scene to play. It really makes these two more deeply real characters beyond just the comedy of it, I guess is what I'm trying to say.
AD: Yeah. It finds a new gear there, for sure.
G: Was that a scene that you got a little extra time to work on, or was it still like blazing through?
AA: Surprisingly, that one is pretty much one take.
AD: Really just went straight through. That was just "Everybody stand back and hang on, 'cause Amy's about to blow your doors off."
AA: (Laughs.) Oh, no, that's not true.
AD: Yeah, no, she's incredible in that scene. And you didn't have to do anything but point a camera at her, and have me stand there and listen. It's perfect...she found that perfectly in that scene.
AA: That was one of the advantages of being in a real house that was—y'know. You didn't have to break it up to put a new wall in or anything. You know, we started in one room and went—
AD: Walked into the other!
AA: Into this room, and walked up the stairs, and back down, and—
AD: Camera better follow us!
AA: He found—yeah, it was—it really was the closest thing—I mean, you just don't get to do that that often in film. You don't get to play a whole scene like that. And have it be the—then you're like "Okay, that's it!" Like we didn't go in for close-ups or—
AD: Yeah. Yeah, no.
AA: That was it.
G: And did you do, like, basically camera rehearsals? Rehearse it and then shoot it, on each day? Or did you do rehearsals prior to the shooting?
AD: A little of both.
AA: We had pretty much—pretty much everything—we knew where the scenes were going to take place—
AD: Yeah, we'd mapped them out.
AA: Before we had blocked them. And, y'know, if we didn't feel comfortable with something, when they were shooting something else, we could go in that room—
AD: Rework it.
AA: And be like "Oh! Actually, this would work better." And then Joss would come in when he had a second, and then he'd be like, "Yeah! Or do this!" You know, so it was kind of—that was the fun part about it: being in his house and us all being there is—we could—things built even over the twelve days.
AA: We had time to explore things that we weren't working on, and to find new things.
G: Well, it's been terrific talking to you. I think my time is up.
AA: Oh. Thank you.
G: I hope the film goes through the roof.
AA: Oh, well, thank you!
AD: Oh, yeah, yeah. And it has to be said, this is a little movie, and it has a small release in San Francisco, L.A. and New York on June 7. And so we're really—we're really hoping those cities show up. Because if people get out to see it there, on June the seventh, then on June 21, it'll have hopefully a second wave.
AD: But that'll be all about whether it gets any attention. So we want to thank you for giving it your attention.