What would you do if you were given a 12-day vacation in the midst of directing a $220 million blockbuster? Take an epic power nap? Not if you’re Joss Whedon.
It seems there’s no rest for the wickedly talented, as Joss – along with his architect and producer wife, Kai Cole – instead opted to invite a bunch of friends over to their house to shoot Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
As you do.
Talking to actress and Whedon regular Amy Acker - who plays the film’s feisty and delightful Beatrice - the film is an extension of a well-established tradition of Shakespearean readings over boozy brunches at the Whedon residence. It’s also something of a professional homecoming for Acker, whose first theatre role was that of Hero, and she fondly remembers coveting the part of Beatrice – Shakespeare’s caustically hilarious heroine who launches a “merry war” of wits with Benedick (wonderfully played by Alexis Denisof). Acker also fondly remembers learning Shakespeare at school; a rare experience not shared by her co-star Nathan Fillion, who she admits wanted to chicken out of making the movie.
So although Acker has always had a soft spot for The Bard, she can appreciate how Whedon’s joyful, wine-drenched adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing might just help win some more fans over to the Shakespearean cause…just in time for Whedon’s next break during the shooting of Avengers 2….
I understand this whole thing kicked off at brunch. And ok, I eat eggs at brunch, so can you walk me through how Shakespeare works as a side dish?
[Laughs] They started doing the [Shakespeare] readings before I became a part of Angel, so I think I heard they started in Season 3 of Buffy. Joss found a group of people who all seemed to be as nerdy as him and liked to read Shakespeare on a Sunday afternoon and he would just find parts, and make some parts for the play and call everybody over and have a spread of delicious food, and people would sit outside and drink wine and read Shakespeare.
Wow. That’s better than eggs. I think I need to step up my brunches!
[Laughs] Well, you’ll have to come. We’ve been telling Joss he needs to do another one but he hasn’t had time recently because he’s been so busy with The Avengers  – so for the next one you’ll have to make a trip.
Of course I will!
Now the Benjamin Franklin saying goes that houseguests are like fish: they smell after three days. So I’m wondering, how did you all fare after 12 days?
[Laughs] I think the thing that I love most about watching the movie is that it feels a lot like how we felt when we were making it. It was just such a fun [experience]. People were there all the time, but something about their house, and Kai, [Joss’] wife’s energy, and their kids, it was like – I mean, she built the house - and it was almost like she’d built it to be filled with that many people.
We would come in in the morning at 6 or so, and you would walk through the kitchen and people would be setting up lights, and then their kids would come down and be getting cereal out for breakfast. [Laughs] They just kept going with their own lives; it was like there wasn’t a whole film being shot in their house.
That’s brilliant. And actually, my Mum is an architect.
Yeah, and I think once you’ve dealt with tradesmen and builders in your home at 6am because they need to get started, I wonder if a film crew just isn’t that different.
[Laughs] That may be the case! That makes a lot of sense. Maybe that’s why Kai was so used to it.
And the house is so beautiful; it’s really a character [in of itself]. You could film the house and not have anyone talking, and it would be a great movie. Especially for an architect.
Yes definitely. I’ll have to take my Mum along to see the film!
I must admit, I'd never seen a Shakespearean commando roll before. How did you, Alexis and Joss come to bring such wonderful physical comedy to the film?
I mean, when we started, we didn’t have any idea anyone was ever going to see any of this. I kind of thought it was going to be Joss filming it on his camera or something, and you know, at best, maybe it would be on the internet one day. So there wasn’t a studio or anyone telling us what we couldn’t do, so everyone mainly was just trying to make everyone else laugh. I think it just kind of gave it a freedom, and we were all having fun and everyone felt so comfortable because we’d all worked together before, and we’d all spent time at Joss and Kai’s home, and worked with Joss. And so there was just a lot of freedom to play around and make silly choices.
There was a couple of times when Alexis was doing his calisthenics to impress me that Joss was like, “I don’t know about that!” [Laughs] But luckily he ended up coming around and being like, “Yeah that is really funny.”
That was hilarious! And of course you have an impressive pratfall down the stairs.
That was very fun.
Can we reminisce about school days for a minute? Is the American system like the Australian, where you suffer through mind-numbing Shakespearean recitations in class? Was that your experience in school?
I had an amazing English teacher and theatre teacher in high school, who somehow knew how to make it accessible and fun and interesting. But when I’ve heard other people in the cast – like Tom [Lenk] and Nathan [Fillion] – saying how they’ve been scared of Shakespeare since high school. And I think that hopefully that’s something this movie will show, is that, you know, the thing is it’s meant to be performed. [Shakespeare] didn’t really write the plays to be read, he wrote them for actors to perform them. So when you’re sitting in an English class reading the pages with people who don’t want to be there in the first place, you really lose a lot of what you’re supposed to get from them. And I think that we all just had so much fun bringing it to life, that we all loved the plays and love this play in particular. I know for me it’s a part I’ve been wanting to play for a long time.
Yes because I understand you played Hero…
I did. That was my first job out of college, I played Hero. So I think that when you first start doing something, and it was my first real professional theatre job, and I looked up to the actress playing Beatrice so much, and I looked at the role and I thought, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” [Laughs] So it was always something where I was like, “One day I want to play that part.” So I think that that’s why, if no one had ever seen the movie, if we had just done it in Joss’ back yard, it would have been a great experience. But the fact that we’re getting to share it with everyone is so exciting.
Has it been interesting to come back to the play then? Has your perspective changed? Was it that back then Hero made a lot more sense, and these days you can totally get your head around Beatrice?
Yeah completely, I mean in college I always found myself like, “Oh I feel like I’m Hero. I could be that part.” And I wouldn’t have even thought that [playing Beatrice] was a thing I could try to do at that point. So I think it is definitely something that you grow into, when you’ve changed as a person and as an actress.
Shakespeare has created the ultimate screwball comedy - but I'm curious, was there an idea of creating a new rhythm for modern audiences?
You know I think a lot of how we did it came out of doing the readings at Joss’ house, with the brunches, because the readings would be some actors – if someone was in town they could just read a part – [but] there were [also] writers, there were editors, whoever wanted to be part of it read a part, and everyone kind of read it as themselves. I mean sometimes people would bring funny characters that they had thought of, but it was really conversational and just casual and relaxed, the whole thing. So I think going in to making the movie; [Joss] said so often, “I wish we could share these readings with people.” And so I think we always knew this film version was an extension of that casualness and that experience that we’d had doing the readings at the brunches. So it wasn’t a conscious effort to make it more of that, but that was kind of always what we’d experienced together over all these years. And we knew that’s what [Joss] wanted it to be, and what we wanted it to be.
Now there’s a fair bit of red wine in Much Ado About Nothing. Do a few glasses of Shiraz help the Shakespearean medicine go down?
[Laughs] I think it helps. Joss made a great observation with the play, because so much of the deception of the play is really that you have to stretch to believe that it’s happening. [But] if there’s a party that’s going all night long, then [laughs] you start to understand how people’s minds get, judgement is blurred, vision is blurred, and everyone starts to easily accept things that are said. And I think it makes a lot of sense for this play, and setting it in modern times.
I like it; the further you get into your cups, the sketchier the decisions.
It's not too long a bow to draw to say Joss Whedon is a wordsmith like Shakespeare. But what’s it like pairing them? What’s the magic of Joss Whedon plus Shakespeare?
Well I mean I think if you have watched Joss’ work, you can see how much he admires Shakespeare in plot, in character, and in writing style. And the thing I always love about being part of Joss’ shows is that he’s not afraid to jump from different genres and different tones within an episode of a show. Not just over the period, [but] even from scene to scene. And I think, kind of like what you were saying about Much Ado, that Shakespeare does the same thing in these screwball comedy, hysterical things, with people falling all over the place, and then the next scene is kind of heart wrenching, shameful; all of those hurtful, sad moments, that they just go between the tones so quickly and so seamlessly. And I think that’s something that Joss does really well.
Yes, the seamlessness of the tonal shift. That’s interesting in terms of Beatrice decrying her powerlessness to affect change [in the “Oh that I were a Man” scene] – and especially as a modern woman. Were you able to get some feminist readings in there as well?
[Laughs] You know we had talked about it as well, and that scene [“Oh that I were a Man” Act V Scene I] was one of the scenes that kind of was like, I’d be sad about it in so many different ways, [but] the part that I really love about that scene, is that there are so few of Shakespeare’s men, who, at the end of the scene, like, Alexis is willing to say, “I believe you, and I’ll do anything that you need.” So seeing the change that that whole speech brings about in [Benedick] in him, I just love how from that point on the movie takes a turn in tone.
So in that way Beatrice does actually affect change.
But I do love that Beatrice and Benedick still get a balcony scene.
[Laughs]. Joss knew he wanted that moment, where he shot that scene through a window, and we were trying to kind of figure out how the scene leading up to that point played, and then we were like, “Wait! There’s a balcony! We have to do this!”
So it was that freewheeling and organic a shoot?
It was. That was the great thing. And so much was happening so fast too, that sometimes Joss would come up to me and be like, “Oh go outside and look at that place, I just had an idea.” For instance, when we were sitting around and Alexis was roasting marshmallows, we were just throwing out random ideas of, “Why would we all be sitting here? What could be happening?” So yeah, that was my favourite part of doing it, is that cooperation with Joss and Alexis and I, and just getting to come up with ideas, and one idea playing off of the other, and just all doing it together.
And of course this all came about with Joss on break from The Avengers, so I have to ask if there was any talk about how Beatrice and Benedick would fare if they met The Avengers?
[Laughs] I think they could hold own!
Yeah they could verbally joust with Tony Stark, and the rest would be wondering why they were bickering so much?
They would probably just confuse them so much they’d give up. “Make it stop!” [Laughs]
Now please tell me, was this a proof of concept? Can we hope for Much Ado About Nothing being the beginning of a box set?
It definitely was a lot of fun, and I know Joss has a lot of plays that he would be excited to explore further. So I would be interested to see myself. I’ve heard him mention things, well, everyone wants to do Hamlet, so, I figure maybe that one could be happening, I don’t know. [Laughs]
Wow! Let’s make that happen!
Yeah well since he’s making Avengers 2, he’ll probably need a vacation afterwards, so, it’s a good excuse.
I hope if it ever happens again, obviously it would be a different experience, because when we made this one – as we’ve said so many times - we really didn’t have any expectations of what it would be. So that’s really captured in the movie, that everyone is doing it because they love each other, and love the play, and love Joss, and love the house.
Certainly no one was making any money, and Joss was actually spending his own money, so it was all just to be together and do something that we were excited to do.
So I should ask if you’ve made a shout out to your English and Theatre teachers who have given you such a love of Shakespeare?
I have. I got to go to Dallas. [The film was playing at] a film festival at Dallas where I grew up, and they both got to come and see it at the festival, which was so exciting.
Nice! What are their names?
Well the English teacher is Mr. Wood, and my Theatre teacher is Nancy Pointer.
And did you ever regroup with Nathan Fillion and the others scarred by Shakespeare in high school? Has the therapy worked, are they cured?
[Laughs] I think so. It has been funny going to different places with Nathan, because he’s so funny anyway, but he tried to chicken out of doing [the movie].
Yes. Initially. Then he went and read it and he thought, “I don’t know what this means. I don’t know what I’m saying.” And Joss basically said, “Well, I don’t have a Plan B, so you’re doing it.” And I mean he’s just so funny in it and if he hadn’t done it I really don’t know what the movie would have been.
So he wanted to chicken out because he’d been scarred at school?
Well yeah. He just thought, “I don’t like Shakespeare. I don’t know anything about Shakespeare.” He’d just always been like, “Why?” – he had never really gone to the readings that much. He was like, “This is not my thing.” [Laughs] And he loved the movie!
So it’s actually been really fun seeing [the movie] with people who have been like, “Look, I’m going to support you, because you asked me to go, and you’re in it, but I don’t like Shakespeare, or understand it or anything.” And they’ve come out and been like, “That was actually really funny! And I really understood it!” [Laughs]
I love it, you’ve been transforming people into Shakespeare lovers the world over!
I hope that people enjoy it and see it in a different way and get re-excited about it, or excited about it for the first time.
Freelance writer, award winning film critic and shameless history nerd. The Plot Thickens has become an archive for my published scratchings - for publications including Limelight Magazine, The Guardian Australia, The Vine, SBS Film, The Big Issue, Mornings on 702 ABC Sydney as well as the Critics' Forum on Richard Glover's Drive. I also produce and host The Spoiler Guys podcast with Marc Fennell and Giles Hardie.
So, welcome to my brand of cinephilia: everything from Antonioni to Zoolander.