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Will star Laurie Davidson on giving Shakespeare a rock 'n' roll makeover

‘You will throw all your ideas about Shakespeare out the window,’ the actor says of the new TNT show

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TNT

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name William Shakespeare?

Most likely painful memories of assigned high school reading and the grainy black-and-white image of a balding man wearing a huge ruff — not exactly the picture of sexy, even if you’re a devotee of the playwright’s work. But TNT’s Will is here to change that.

The new series, premiering July 10 at 9 p.m. ET, follows a young Will Shakespeare, an upstart glove-maker trying his hand at playwriting in a version of London filled with intrigue, sex, torture, murder, and the Clash. Using the metaphor of rock stars and a soundtrack laced with punk rock, the series gives Elizabethan London a modern edge while maintaining a deft eye on historical accuracy.

At the heart of Will created by Craig Pearce, whose credits include Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! — is Laurie Davidson, an actor fresh out of drama school (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) tasked with bringing the most famous writer in history to life. EW spoke with Davidson about the pressures of picking up the world’s most famous quill, what it’s like to turn poetry into rap battles, and why the Elizabethan theater was more sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll than you might think.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So this is your first major role out of drama school and it’s the lead on a TV series. That in itself must be daunting, but was it overwhelming to play William Shakespeare — a man so beloved and well-trod in the public eye? 
LAURIE DAVIDSON: So, first of all, it was my first job, like, ever — my first professional gig as an actor. And to play such an iconic figure, someone whose name I’ve heard my whole life and whose plays I’ve grown up watching and studying… I think it would’ve been very easy to just think, “oh my gosh, how am I going to do that? It’s so much pressure.” What I was really interested in doing was taking away the 500 years of history that we have of reflection with his plays and this man’s work and take it back to Shakespeare before any of that happened, when he was a 25-year-old man. He’s still making gloves. He isn’t the great playwright that has blessed our stages for 500 years. He’s a young man trying to make his way in an already saturated industry with the likes of Christopher Marlowe.

So, he was just a normal person in that regard, with clearly a gift, but not the William Shakespeare that we now know. He doesn’t know that he’s going to write the greatest plays. And all we actually have to go on this man is his plays — we don’t know that much about him. There are a lot of theories and a lot of historians have different hypotheses and what I had to do was just look at his work and from that, work out what kind of man he was.

RELATED: Young Shakespeare Looks to Make a Name for Himself in ‘Will’ Premiere Clip

A lot of men have played Shakespeare before — probably most memorably in recent memory was Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love). Did you take any inspiration from him or other previous iterations of the character?
I didn’t. I was sort of starting with my own version of it and then working together with Craig and Shekhar to create something new from scratch. So little is actually known about him that, for me, to watch someone else’s dramatization wouldn’t have been useful in any way. We really wanted to create something current people could connect with instantly — a lot of people are turned off by Shakespeare because they feel like it’s something for intellectuals or just for upper-class people. Certainly, the theaters are still dominated with one sort of person. The theaters today aren’t as diverse as they used to be. In the Elizabethan time, you would have had people from all echelons of society going to the theater. We were really excited about trying to create a show which made Shakespeare accessible to a much broader audience, and that’s the beauty of television, is that you can reach out to a much wider audience than you can in something like theater, so that was really exciting.

TNT

Like you mentioned, we don’t know much about Shakespeare as a person, and what we think we know is often hotly contested anyway — for instance, the question of whether or not he was Catholic. The show comes down very clearly on one side of that argument. How much research did you dig into before going into this? 
When you’re handed a script, that’s the vehicle. It doesn’t matter what the history books say. For me, that’s what I have to go on. The answers, in all good scripts, are there. Obviously, then you look to fill in the gaps and your own understanding of who this man was when you’re dealing with a historical character. With Shakespeare, there is so little concrete evidence on him. Craig worked incredibly hard on trying to create a character within the realms of the possibilities of the history book. There’s no one historian he favored — he’s taken what he deems is the most interesting and most plausible theories of who this guy was.

In terms of his religion, it is a really hotly contested subject. People say Will couldn’t be Catholic because of the themes that are in his plays. They’re not very godly, a lot of the things that he says, but actually, you can be a Catholic without necessarily believing in doctrine. And I think maybe for Will as he gets older, he starts to lose his connection with God, but he still considers himself a Catholic. Obviously, Christopher Marlowe is a self-professed atheist, and as he enters that world, theater becomes his church really.

It was a really interesting decision from Craig to make him Catholic in a time where there’s so much religious persecution going on. The Protestants have just come into power. It’s a dangerous place after much religious persecution the other way. To be a Catholic man, especially when you’re trying to write, to be a playwright, to be in the limelight of London surrounded by the politics of the throne and of the court — it’s really dangerous for Shakespeare to have this much attention. That’s something we really explore is, how did he balance his own ambitions and struggle for fame when, if people know too much about him, he could be killed, and he could certainly be arrested? It’s an interesting choice, and it creates a lot of drama and tension and intrigue and entertainment.

I love this mix of careful attention to biographical detail with this more modern, edgy vibe of the show with Will and especially Marlowe having this kind of rock star vibe. There’s almost a rap battle in the first episode. As a performer, was it challenging to square those two approaches in your mind?
It was entirely necessary. People’s idea of the Elizabethan world is this stuffy, dusty place where everyone talked in silly, old-fashioned language. But actually, Elizabethan London was crazy. People slept with who they wanted. Life was short, so the speed in which things happen is so accelerated. People fall in love much quicker. The days are full with, you’ve got to get things done, you’ve got to achieve things. Your life is so much shorter. And because of that, it’s a really exciting, vibrant time.

We have this idea of the Elizabethans as being really well-behaved and proper, but the theater was debauched, it was like a rock ’n’ roll mosh pit. People having sex in the back. Not the well-behaved theaters that we know today where if you sneeze, the whole audience will shush you. It’s not that at all. There just wasn’t that kind of respect for the performers. You had to go out there as an actor and get everyone to shut up. If you weren’t interesting, if you were rubbish, people wouldn’t shut up. There wasn’t that assumed thing that we’re going to clap at the end. Lots of people say the first page of a Shakespeare play is literally just to get everyone to shut the hell up. Because they were raucous, and that’s what people don’t really immediately know about that era. We wanted to give the show a currency in the modern era with the soundtrack, with the clothes, the skinny jeans, the pointy rock ‘n’ roll boots. Walking down Shoreditch, London in 1589 would’ve been like walking down the street in Camden, London with posters of bands with an eclectic mix of people with piercings. This is the kind of image we wanted to create because it’s so much easier for an audience to understand what it would’ve been like and so easy to distance people from Shakespeare. And we really wanted to give people an instant access into this world and to this man and to the world of theater in London.

TNT

What were some of your favorite moments on set?
There’s a party at Francis Bacon’s house in episode 4 and it’s just crazy. You will throw all your ideas about Shakespeare out the window. It’s total anarchy. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s just not what I expected when I thought of the Elizabethans. It’s just so cool and current, like a rock star sex afterparty in Elizabethan London, and that was incredible. We literally filmed it in this stately home. It was a bit of an overload for the senses, which will make sense when you see it. And the other things — the rap battle was so fun, the guy Bruce [Mackinnon] who plays Robert Green is incredible. He just brought so much energy and fight to that scene. It was so much fun just ribbing each other and really getting to bounce off another actor. For that scene, it’s integral, you have to have that energy between two people. And we shot that all day, and he was giving it as much take 1 as he was take 100. It was a lot of fun to shoot that.

Why do you think Shakespeare endures the way he does?
Well, mystery is always intriguing to people. There’s so many theories and there’s so much hype around who he was that that creates interest. And historians want to always speculate and discover. I think that’s what we’re doing. But I think what makes Shakespeare so unique and why he’s different to other playwrights is because he was coming to the world of theater from a different place. He wasn’t a university-educated man. He was a glove-maker who had a passion for writing, for plays, for words, for poetry. He understood to be the best you had to write love stories that could connect with aristocracy at the same time as breaking the heart of a homeless person. And he was able to do that. He was able to write jokes that brought people together, that transcended class, that transcended gender and everything. He was a humanist. He really understood people. He cared enormously about people. He really understood character and emotions. To write such full, emotive plays with such passionate characters, he had to have that inside him. He was a lover, he was a father, he was a fighter, he was all these things, which gave voice to his characters. And from that, one incredibly exciting character. I’m so grateful to have been given the chance to play him and show a different side — the Shakespeare before the history books.