INTERVIEW: Alexis Denisof & Amy Acker on Much Ado About Nothing

I've been a fan of actors Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker since their time together playing doomed lovers Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and Winifred Burkle on creator Joss Whedon's late, lamented series Angel. While the two have kept busy with a variety of different projects since the show ended its run nearly a decade ago, they've reunited this week as Benedick and Beatrice, the will-they/won't-they couple at the center of Whedon's adaptation of William Shakespeare's immortal comedy Much Ado About Nothing.

The film, which Whedon shot over the course of twelve days last year as a way of unwinding from the stress of making a certain mega-budgeted blockbuster, is a virtual cornucopia of longtime and frequent Whedon collaborators, with Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, and many others on hand to give voice to the Bard's words. I had a chance to chat with Denisof and Acker a few weeks ago about Angel, Much Ado, and what it's like when you're filming a movie at Joss Whedon's house. Check out the transcript of our conversation below:

Just this morning I re-watched the last episode of Angel, and I haven't seen it in...9 years ? Since it aired?

Amy: Yeah, probably!

Alexis: My God.

I'd avoided watching it because I was so moved by it the first time. I watched all the rest of the episodes, but I remember specifically the last scene that you guys have together [in that episode]. I was watching it with my wife, and she hadn't seen it, and she's like, "Explain this to me," and I'm like, "Well, you know, this is Wes and he's in love with Fred, and Fred died..." and she's like, "That's so sad!" And I thought, "Yes. It is sad." And I was happy that she was sad.

(all laugh)

I think that goes to the writing, but it also goes to the performance that you guys brought to the table. I was happy to see you playing against each other again in this movie, and as I was watching, it got me thinking about the podcast that I host. It's basically, for me its, y'know, we have listeners and everything else, but really it's a chance for me to hang out with my friends. And I feel like for Joss Whedon, Much Ado About Nothing is, "Yeah, we get to do Shakespeare, but really I get to hang out with my friends." Am I right or am I wrong in that? 

Alexis: You are 100% correct.

Amy: That's what it was.

Alexis: That's a big part of it.

Amy: That's why weren't terrified of doing it. We kind of just were thinking, "Oh, we're gonna go play and have fun with it."

Alexis: Yeah, we weren't afraid to fail, because what could we fail at? We were already having fun with our friends. There was nothing to lose and I think that freed up the movie, in a way, from everybody. From Joss all the way through the cast and crew. Everybody felt safe but also free.

That's what I felt watching. I said, "I'm enjoying watching this," but I would also love to just be hanging out between, like, while setups are happening.

Alexis: Well, you would have been having to help us memorize lines between setups. But it's true that there was a lot of fun and a lot of silliness going on. I think a lot of that is in the scenes and a lot of it was between the scenes.

Amy: That's kind of the great part about...for me, there was a long time between when we finished shooting it and when we actually got to see it, but watching the movie removed from it as an audience member especially when I'm not on screen and thinking about, "Oh, I should have done something..." but with other people, it feels watching it how it did making it. It feels like you're there.

Alexis: You make a good, well-made, point, because how often do you feel what I experience when I see things that I worked on, where the finished product is very different than what I was imagining we were doing, and what I thought I was doing, and what I thought the project was and it comes together as something else entirely. Not necessarily bad, but just very different. But that's not the case with Much Ado, I think. What I see on the screen is also what I felt and experienced when we were making it.

Now, you talked about having to memorize the lines, and obviously as a performer, I would think that part of a tool kit that you have is where you're able to improv. But if you're doing Shakespeare, what you speak can't be improv'd. So, I'm wondering, how do you bring yourself to your character given that you are locked into what you can say?

Alexis: Well, I'll start but obviously you jump in, Amy. I think while it's true that the dialogue is locked, and God forbid you riff on Shakespeare when you're doing his lines -- or at least riff intentionally (laughs) -- It's sort of frowned upon, but, in a way that frees you up physically and it frees you up with interpretation and with the rhythms of how you speak and the words...which words in a sentence you choose to stress, and there are so many ways in which you can interpret and express.

Yes, you can't revise or improvise or rewrite the dialogue, but that's only a small part of the storytelling, and Joss wasn't afraid to point the camera at people who weren't talking, and he's not afraid to make sure that in the edits that you see people's reactions and you see nonverbal communication going on whether it's intentional between characters or unintentional, there's a lot happening all the time. And he did, you know, the long, wide takes, where you can almost like a theatergoer just see the life of this story unfolding in front of you, so there aren't that many angles and there aren't that many edits. There's not a lot of...the fashion now is for quick edit, crazy angle.


Alexis: The director forces your eye to constantly see just the thing he wants you to see. But that isn't what Joss did. He put all this out on a great big platter, and lets you choose as a viewer what you want to enjoy.

Amy: Also you've got Joss. I mean, most everyone who was in the movie had gotten to say words that Joss wrote before, and it's kind of similar when you get a script that he wrote. It's not like you want to improvise. All the words were chosen for a reason and I think that that's definitely true with Shakespeare. I mean, we're certainly not going to say anything better than what is there. (laughs) So you want to stick with what's on the page.

Now when you talk about monologues, Alexis, I remember in the film there's the monologue you had where you're warming up and you're going up and down the stairs. Was that a challenge for you? How many takes did that end up being? Because I I was noticing, I was like, "Man, this is intense!" I don't know people do it on the stage!

Alexis: It was relentless. I had learned it, and I...we, since I knew it all and we didn't have to break it up, we saw it as an opportunity to see if we could shoot it all as one piece, and the whole film contains longer takes, so it was appropriate for the film. And then we were rehearsing it and kind of decided we wanted to make it this early morning workout thing, and at his house he's got this fantastic set of stairs, but we couldn't quite figure out how to...that seemed technically difficult, but we had an incredibly brave camera operator/DP who was willing to sling that heavy camera up on his shoulder, and as hard as it was for me to do the dialogue and run up and down the stairs, and try to have it make sense, at least I didn't have to do it backwards, which is what he had to do.


Alexis: And, we got a few takes into it and thought that this maybe wasn't going to work, because we just couldn't get me and the camera kind of close enough without either me popping out of frame or the camera dropping out, and it just wasn't looking as cool as we wanted it to look.

But he gave us a little extra time on that, because most of the other scenes we shot really quickly - just a few takes - but since this was gonna be the whole thing, and all in one take and no cut away, we just used the time to try to get it, and then luckily on the last take it kind of all came together and...I stayed in frame, and got the lines in right order, the camera operator didn't fall down backwards, and all sorts of things that were happening to screw it up didn't happen, and we got a good take.

Amy do you have any similar stories of just trying to work through the...what could be a jumble, I guess, of the Bard?

Amy: We did have a couple of weeks that we got to rehearse, and since it was all shot in Joss's home, the set was there and we were able to meet up with each other and go, so I think we had the advantage of, kind of, the sort of play rehearsal that you don't usually get in TV or movies, where you show up, and they're still painting the set. So we were...

Just hanging out.

Amy: It was nice, yeah. We got to figure stuff out a little bit in advance, and when people were shooting other things we could go and work on another scene in another room.

Well, I had a blast watching it and I'm familiar with the play and I liked just getting a new angle on it. I was laughing at jokes I've heard dozens of times before. So for me it really was a fresh experience. I was like, "Oh, I really want to see more of this...." I hope this becomes a "thing," that after every Avengers movie we end up with a new Shakespeare. I feel like we're all benefiting from Joss Whedon's vacations.

Alexis: Yes. For sure.

Amy: We definitely did.

Alexis: We certainly are...but I think you're right. I think we were all hoping for something that would be fun and accessible and...not intimidating, not overly sophisticated and complicated, but just had a lot of life and lot of love in it and fun and passion, and that people would feel was an accessible entry into Shakespeare whether it was your first time, and you can leave the theater and say, "Wow, I actually understood a Shakespeare play and I had fun," or it's your 100th time and you think, "Gosh, I've never seen it done that way, how exciting."

I think that's what this movie offers. You don't have to love Shakespeare, you don't have to know who Joss is, or who any of this cast is. It's the first -- and probably the greatest - romantic comedy ever written, and for that reason alone I think it will appeal to everyone.


Many thanks to Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof for their time. Much Ado About Nothing started a limited engagement in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York yesterday, and will begin a national roll-out on June 21.