Alexis Denisof has come a long way since playing Wesley Wyndam-Pryce on Joss Whedon’s cult classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer and spin-off series Angel. In fact, he’s come so far that he’s back where he started – working with Joss Whedon on his new microbudget Shakespeare adaptation, Much Ado About Nothing, playing the impetuous, sardonic Benedick, who carries on a “merry war” of wits with the similarly cynical Beatrice (Amy Acker). Next up, Denisof can be seen running behind a life-size replica of Jabba’s Sail Barge in this year’s Course of the Force as a celebrity runner. But before he can carry the legendary lightsaber for a quarter-mile, I sat down with Denisof to discuss his meaty Much Ado role, his DCU animation work, and what’s next for the multitalented leading man.
(sirens in background)
Alexis Denihof: This is how we shot the movie! Exactly what it sounded like!
Nerdist: Yeah, Amy [Acker] was saying you guys had to contend with quite a bit of lawn mowing.
AD: Lawn mowing — that’s what happens when you’re near a golf course!
N: Demolition, helicopters…
AD: Night terrors. Joss didn’t know that he was on the flight path for Santa Monica Airport until we shot outside his house!
N: The more you know – it’s a fun little factoid that can go in the IMDB trivia section. So first and foremost, I want to say that I really enjoyed the film, and I really enjoyed you in particular.
AD: Oh, thank you.
N: Benedick is certainly not a cake walk of a role, but it’s a lot of fun.
AD: It is a lot of fun — it’s a meaty part. It comes with a responsibility that I tried to duck. (laughs)
N: Much like Benedick himself.
AD: I mean, there’ve been a lot of great Benedicks on stage and screen, so there’s a certain intimidation, but I tried to forget all of that and figure out what I could do. What could I bring? What hadn’t I seen? So I started with, what does he do? He’s a soldier. So I really wanted, I felt like so often in Shakespeare’s plays and movies, the guys, to me, sort of constantly appear as poets, you know? As these extraordinarily sophisticated, poetic creatures, and I just wanted to see a guy. Like, could you be a guy, just a guy’s guy in a Shakespeare play and get away with it? Just a little bit of that prick that we all kind of know and have seen, and you really think more of yourself than you actually are, dude. Calm down, you’re not as hot as you think.
And then he falls in love, and he’s just a clown. It turns out he can’t handle feelings at all, and now we know why he’s been avoiding them for so long, because they make him into a complete idiot. And it’s only when he commits to the feelings and he commits to the woman that a real man does appear, and I felt like that was the story, that was the journey that I wanted to bring to this, but always going back to what does this guy do? He’s a soldier, and at the end of the day, that was where I tried to place him.
Also I would say that this is not one of Shakespeare’s poetic plays. This is in prose, not iambic pentameter. We’re not speaking in rhyming couplets; there isn’t a specified meter and rhythm to the language. We are free to riff, and put our own rhythms and our own juju on it, and I think we did that.
N: I think it was certainly very effective. There’s always a certain amount of trepidation that goes into things, when you’re sitting down to see Shakespeare on film, and they’re keeping the original language intact, it’s a bit of a challenge.
AD: I know, you’re like, “Oh, god, here we go! How am I going to stay awake?”
N: Yeah! It’s a bit jarring, the first time you hear it, but then immediately, you just roll with it — this is what’s happening. I think you guys did a good job of making it feel very naturalistic, despite obviously being Shakespearean English.
AD: That’s what we were hoping for, and what I felt watching it, and what everybody has said to me that has seen it, that after two or three minutes, they had no idea it was Shakespeare. They just understood it, and even more, by the end had enjoyed it, and were completely surprised by that, that they understood and enjoyed a Shakespeare play, so that’s the greatest compliment we could get, because if you’re a Shakespeare expert, and you would prefer your plays performed in the authentic Elizabethan style (and who knows what that really is), then this is definitely going to be a fresh interpretation. But I think that it’ll win you over. It’s cool, it’s sexy, it’s hip, and it’s something you haven’t seen before, and for that alone, I think it’s worthwhile.
N: One of the things that I really enjoyed about it is that it’s a film, so it’s beautifully shot, very elegantly staged, but it also has that sensibility of a play. Part and parcel, I would imagine, because of the compact shooting schedule, but it has that sort of crackling energy that I think really propels the language.
AD: Yeah, there was a necessity, as Joss said to me when he pitched this insane idea to me, the last thing he said was, “We’re starting in a couple of weeks and since we only have 12 days, you’d better learn your lines.” So I did! I learned them backwards and forwards and knowing that I didn’t want to waste any takes on getting lines wrong, because there would only be a couple of takes.
But there was a necessity for a longer, more flowing shooting style, but that was also a conscious decision on his part, because he did want to capture performances, he did want to capture relationships as they were happening, as the interactions were going on between the speaking and even the non-speaking characters in the room, to let all of that come through the lens, and there’s a lot to look at in each frame. There’s a lot to watch. I think this is as close to theater as film – as I’ve seen film get, in a great way. If you just set up a camera and shoot a play, frankly, it’s just boring as hell!
N: Yes! (laughs)
AD: There is nothing, I mean — it’s more tedious than reading Shakespeare in a high school English class, is watching a play that’s been videotaped from the 15th row of the theater.
N: Exactly. You’ve got the dad in the audience with his little flip-cam. It’s painful.
AD: Oh, god, yes! So we all know that deal, so when I say that this is close to theater, it’s not that! It’s just that you get the energy and the sparkle and the roughness and even some of the little mistakes. There’s a scene — do you want to hear specifics?
AD: There’s a moment, Fran [Kranz] and I are wrestling on the bed, and I’m teasing him, because he seems to be falling in love, and as we finished wrestling, we knocked the bedside table that has Joss’s daughter’s musical ballerina figure, and it started playing — a completely impromptu moment, it was an accident, but we stopped mid-sentence, stared at the thing, and I could telepathically hear us asking each other, “What do you think? Do we just wait?” And then both of us are just saying, “Yeah, let’s wait.” And then it stops playing, and we start speaking again. It’s just one of those happy accidents that actually makes the scene look real. It’s just what people would do!
N: You wouldn’t just keep going on if you just knocked off this ballerina. It would be weird not to acknowledge it.
AD: Yeah, and it would have been a shame to say “Cut! Cut! I knocked the thing, it screwed me up! Let’s start over. Wah, wah, wah!”
N: One of the things, the language in this — and especially your interactions with Amy as Beatrice — you’re like two fencers, you have these barbs that you’re throwing back and forth, with these lightning quick ripostes.
AD: Well put!
N: It’s got this real sense of movement to it, but what I also enjoyed was how much physical comedy was in there as well. In particular, the scene where you’re out in the garden, while Don Pedro and Leonato and Claudio all are obviously trying to taunt you with their knowledge – that seemed like a lot of fun to just really get in there.
AD: Yes — beating the fish. That was a hoot to film, and it makes me smile when I watch it. We definitely felt free to bring the physicality to it, in the same way that, going back to a stage production, a lot of what you see in a great play is how people are moving and reacting physically with each other. That’s what brings it to life. The actor’s instrument is partly voice but also partly body and you don’t want to have one without the other. I think we’re all inhabiting these scenes in a very natural and authentic way, and the little physical things that go along with that are part of what helped tell the story, and they’re part of what helped people understand what’s going on.
Because occasionally, you will hear a word where you go, “What the fuck? I’ve got to dig my dictionary out for that.” But if you’re feeling the sense of what the actors are doing in the way that they tell the story physically and the way that the scene has been flowing, then you don’t freak out. You go, “I think I know what he’s getting at.” And you just move on.
We did have a lot of fun with the physicality of it. There’s a point in the play where you feel like you just have to let it rip a little, and it is a comedy. It is romantic comedy, so we went for it, you know? The ideas are kind of preposterous. Two people being tricked into thinking the other one loves them, and therefore they start eyeing each other up, and eventually decide that yes, I’m going to fall in love because I hear that you like me — it’s kind of true, in a very juvenile way, but it’s also kind of absurd. And so we took our cue from Shakespeare himself, and felt like, I think it’s OK for us to get a little absurd.
AD: And eventually we’re going to arrive at Dogberry. If you haven’t allowed people some real laughs, and some really zany stuff before you meet Dogberry, then it’s hard to get on board and love how crazy he is, and how wrong everything that he’s doing is, but how wonderfully wrong it is, how funny it is. That’s where we were at with the kind of physical, the slapstick of it all.
N: This film ostensibly got started in the Shakespeare brunches that we’ve all heard so much about. Did you have any sense of what the film was going to be?
AD: I’m happy to say I had no clue! Had I known that he had either had us in mind for these roles all along, which I have subsequently been told, after we shot it—I’m very glad I didn’t know that! Had I known that it was going to be a theatrical release, again — very glad I didn’t know that, because both of those would have hindered my relaxation, my ability to just say, “WTF! Let’s do this thing!” With 12 days, you can’t really do anything but say “WTF,” and let it rip. There’s no time.
N: No time to psych yourself out.
AD: No. And even if you leave a scene, wondering, “God, I think I could do something else with it,” if Joss gives you the nod, you just trust and move on. He’s never been wrong.
N: What was your experience with Shakespeare prior to this? Had you done much Shakespeare?
AD: I had experience with Shakespeare. I’ve always liked Shakespeare, even before, going way back, I had always liked Shakespeare. I studied acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, LAMDA, so I had a classical background there. Then after three years there, my first professional theater job was a production of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, so I was honored to be a part of that, and to watch the extraordinary Mark Rylance rehearse and perform the role of Hamlet every day. I learned so much watching his utter mastery of not just acting, but of Shakespeare, and also his freedom with it; his ability to inhabit it in his own way.
From there I had a couple of other run-ins with Shakespeare, either on stage or on film, over in Britain. And then not much once I was here, it’s not nearly so frequently attempted in America, but Joss is a lover of the Bard, and he concocted these readings that go back even to his childhood, and so he wanted to start those up again because he remembered how much he enjoyed it as a kid, and I’m so glad he did. I’m so glad he did not because of this movie, although this is a wonderful fruit that is borne of those readings, but just for the readings themselves. They were such good fellowship, and such a fun way to fool around with Shakespeare, and such a great way to have an afternoon with your friends.
N: These are pretty daunting roles, but when you have a low-pressure scenario, it’s really awesome.
AD: Exactly. Thank you for supporting the movie! It’s just a little indie, so we appreciate you giving it the attention.
N: Getting off topic slightly, who do I need to bribe to get a Flash movie fast tracked with you as Mirror Master? Because I really enjoyed the voiceover work in the DC animated universe.
AD: Oh, thank you! That was cool! I loved that. I would love to do more. They haven’t called. I was like, “What happened? Did I blow it?”
N: I think they’re waiting for Man of Steel. Once the Justice League hype starts, we’ll be sure to slip your name into the Dream Cast article.
AD: Could you please? Let them know that I’m still alive, because I was wanting to — I’m a fan, I’m a fanboy, so to me, that was so cool. To be in there, it was almost hard to do, because it was like, “Wait a minute, we’re doing this? This is for real? This is happening right now! This is going to be… I’m doing it!” It was awesome! It was kind of a fun, interesting, intriguing character, too. So thank you — I think you complimented me.
N: I did!
AD: Even if you didn’t, I’m going to pretend you did.
N: So what else, apart from this, do you have coming down the pipeline?
AD: I need a job! My trouble is, if Joss doesn’t call…I don’t know. I would love it if Sandy Rivers came back at some point in the final season of How I Met Your Mother, because I adore that character.
N: He’s a real hoot!
AD: He’s so — he’s such a libertine, this lecherous news anchor — so that would be fun. I did what I thought was a very cool, genre web series, called “H+.”
N: Oh yeah! Is that the Tom Hanks produced one?
AD: No, this is Brian Singer.
N: I knew it was a big name.
AD: It’s a big name. Warners online physically produced it through his company, or financed it, and it was distributed through Google and YouTube, and I just thought that was so freakin’ cool, and so interesting, and so current, and so relevant. A non-linear narrative, so you can piece it together how you want. The production values were phenomenal, and I loved the themes. They’re working on season two.
N: Oh, awesome!
AD: I’m looking forward to that coming back. Otherwise, I’ve got a couple of little things that I’m going to do for myself; a couple of little “home grown” things. Otherwise, I need this movie to do well, so that somebody gives me a job!
N: The reviews I’ve seen so far, I think it’s going to be A-OK! A little off topic again, so bear with me: what would be inside your idea burrito?
AD: Hmm… probably Joss and Amy!!
N: (laughs) To scale, or are they shrunk down?
AD: To scale — and I might wiggle in with them!