Much Ado Denisof
Credit: Image Credit: Rhythm & Hues

A man in a pool donning a snorkel and grasping a martini doesn’t exactly shout Shakespeare.

Yet that image is becoming ever more closely associated with William Shakespeare by Bardolaters and Browncoats who are eagerly anticipating the June release of Much Ado About Nothing as interpreted by a modern bard, Joss Whedon. The image of a party-ready and dive-ready Fran Kranz (Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods) was originally seen on a mysterious website that first hinted at the existence of the production, and now it’s on the film’s newest poster.

Shakespeare’s comedy about the “merry war” and reluctant romance between his wittiest couple, Benedick and Beatrice, made its way into Whedon’s home about a decade ago, at one of the Firefly and Avengers maestro’s famed play readings among friends. There, Amy Acker (Angel, Cabin in the Woods) and Alexis Denisof (Buffy the Vampire Slayer,Angel, Dollhouse) took on the roles of Beatrice and Benedick, the same parts they play in the film, which Whedon shot over 12 days at his Santa Monica, Calif. home during what was supposed to be his post-Avengers vacation. The stealth production for Much Ado rallied together many actors familiar to fans of the Whedonverse, including Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Clark Gregg (The Avengers), and Tom Lenk (Buffy, Cabin in the Woods).

Here EW exclusively debuts the new poster for Much Ado About Nothing, which features Kranz as Claudio — one half of the play’s other central couple — taken from Whedon’s interpretation of a key scene featuring Claudio and the villainous Don John (Firefly’s Sean Maher). It’s a poster that evokes more of Much Ado’s comedy, while the international poster was more about the romance, with Benedick and Beatrice locked in each other’s gaze. Underneath the title is the first tagline for the film: “Shakespeare knew how to throw a party.”

Indeed, watching any of Shakespeare’s comedies — Much Ado very much included — is a lot like being part of some great merrymaking and reveling or, in more modern terms, partying. Denisof describes the film, which embraces all the comedy, mischief, and even darkness of Shakespeare’s play, as “one big party — except some of it goes horribly wrong.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you participate in the play readings that Joss Whedon had done at his house for several years?

ALEXIS DENISOF: Yes, I had. I admit to being a Shakespeare nerd. I have always liked Shakespeare. I had done some Shakespeare in my professional work. In fact, Hamlet was my first paying theater gig at the Royal Shakespeare Company. So when Joss started putting these [readings] together, I would always put my hand up and say, “I’m in.” We worked through a few of the plays. A couple of them came up two or three times, the crowd-pleasers like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We read Much Ado maybe 10 years ago now, and Amy and I were in the roles that we played in the movie. Joss had talked from time to time about trying to find a way to film one of the readings, but he’d never come up with a clear idea of how he would do it until this. Boy, he really came up with a clear idea.

Did I read correctly that when you did that production of Hamlet, you were a fight choreographer?

I was. My speaking role was Fortinbras. I understudied Laertes, and I also choreographed the big duel between Hamlet and Laertes at the end of the play. Mark Rylance played Hamlet, who was then and ever since has been one of my favorite actors, so it was a real pleasure to watch him rehearse that role and play it every night.

How difficult was it to keep this Much Ado project a secret during the stealth shoot?

It was easy to keep it a secret while we were shooting ’cause we were so crazy busy shooting it and trying to get it done in 12 days, so nobody really had time to go onto Twitter and Facebook and leak it. But afterward when it was done, Joss said, “Hey, please keep it under your hat for the time being,” because he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with it. Even from the outset he wasn’t quite clear about what it would be. I think once we got into filming, he realized he had something special and that this was going to be more than an Internet or straight-to-DVD release. And when it was seen at Toronto, I think it was clear to everyone that that was the case. We worked as hard as we could to make it greater than the sum of its parts. Watching it, you don’t see the hard work or the short amount of time to make it. You just see actors who have great chemistry having fun in a play that has been interpreted in a very exciting and contemporary manner by the director. Joss’ take is fun, and it’s lively, and it’s unconventional, and it’s very immediate. We weren’t trying to make something that would freeze in time as a sophisticated, academic version for historians. We were making something that was fast and enjoyable for an audience to really get the laughter and the poignancy of the play. While it is a lot of fun as a play, it also has some dark themes and credit to Joss — he wasn’t afraid to go to the dark places. It switches from light to dark throughout the story and he does that really confidently.

He’s done well with switching smoothly between dark and light in his past work.

Yeah, you could say that’s a theme of his work. There are moments in this movie that are pure slapstick and it’s hard to believe that they could be contained in the same story that has moments of dark tragedy as well.

Benedick and Beatrice are known as Shakespeare’s wittiest couple. “Witty” is also a very apt word for Joss Whedon’s humor. How did it work, bringing the wit of Shakespeare’s words and the wit of Joss’ direction together?

Beatrice and Benedick stand on their own. They need no improvement. You just enter the relationship and bring it to life with as much empathy and pathos and comedy as you can. They stand out in the play, so Joss’ strength and interpretation was to find all of the other pieces that make it an ensemble and bring the entire world to life. Sometimes the mistake productions make is putting all their eggs in the basket of the leading man or leading woman or leading couple at the expense of the rest of the story. Then [the audience is] having fun when the main players are there and doesn’t really understand what’s going on otherwise. And that’s not the case with this production. There are many stories that you care about. There’s the story of Claudio and Hero, which is a very different story than Beatrice and Benedick but just as important. And there’s the story of Hero’s father Leonato, and there are the clowns, Dogberry and his crew of detectives that Nathan Fillion brings to life in an utterly hilarious way with his sidekick Tom Lenk [as Verges]. I think that’s where the movie accomplishes something special – creating a whole world, and within that world you discover Beatrice and Benedick having their “merry war” of wit.

How would you describe your interpretation of Benedick?

My take on Benedick was to make him a real guy. A lot of real guys don’t know themselves as well as they think they know themselves. So he starts out thinking he’s John Wayne and then falls in love and, in so doing, becomes Jerry Lewis and when he comes to terms with being in love, that’s when he becomes a real man. So that’s the evolution I tried to find in the play with this particular character.

How does the image on this poster capture the feel of the film?

I love this poster. I think the image really captures the spirit of this movie. It’s amusing and unique and eye-catching. I think it was a good image to choose. This image of Fran [Kranz] in the pool with the snorkel mask and a martini glass just sums up the quirky, fun easiness this movie has.

In which scene does this moment with Claudio in the pool appear?

There’s a very well-known scene about halfway into the film in which Claudio is approached by the bad guys, and he’s fooled into believing something that isn’t true. So this image is taken from that scene, and I don’t think that that scene has ever been placed in a swimming pool. I don’t think it’s ever been shot or directed or acted in the way that it is in our movie, and I think it’s fantastic. It’s one of many scenes that people will be surprised and excited at Joss’ interpretation.

Image credit: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis[/caption]

What was it like working on a set where you already knew most of your cast members through other Whedonverse projects or other get-togethers with Joss?

There was a special understanding, a special rapport that the cast brought with them because we had either worked with each other or we had hung out with each other or, at the very least, we knew each other’s work because it’s Joss, and we all sort of tend to keep track of each other. I had never worked with Clark [Gregg], although I had a tiny part in The Avengers and he had a big part in The Avengers, but I was a fan of his work. And I’ve never worked with Nathan [Fillion], but I am also a fan of his work, and I know him ’cause we’d spent a lot of time just hanging out. So that familiarity and comfort with each other sped up the process, which frankly, was necessary because we didn’t have a lot of time to get to know each other. It was a good thing that we could hit the set running. The only challenge was learning the lines for the speed of the shoot because we really were knocking out just one or two takes and moving on, and before you knew it you were into a whole new scene and a whole new batch of lines, although Joss cut the play a little. Shakespeare writes a lot of words! And sometimes it’s hard to get past that, but with this one, after a couple of minutes, you don’t even hear Shakespeare anymore; you just hear these people talking and you get it. You understand it.

How much time did you have between getting the call when Joss said, “We’re making this movie!” and the start of production?

Just a couple weeks. The day that he asked me to do it, the last thing he said was, “You might want to start learning your lines.” Normally you’d have quite a few weeks to prepare for something like this, whether it was stage or film. So the lines was probably the biggest challenge. There were a lot of actors walking around the set murmuring to themselves.

So if Joss decides to take another “vacation” after Avengers 2, would you be on board for another Shakespeare movie?

Are you kidding? I’ve already started begging him to do another one. It was just so fun, and I think this group is special, and I think this movie is special. If he put this together again, I’d be the first one to say I’m in, definitely.

Which other plays by Shakespeare do you think would be a good fit for Joss?

I think he’d do a killer version of Hamlet. I know that he’s got that movie in him. That’s the first one that comes to mind. And then if he doesn’t do that, maybe take a really boring history play that everybody hates and then Much Ado will look really, really good. [Laughs] But he’s got this little movie to make called Avengers 2, so I don’t know how soon he’s gonna need another Shakespeare vacation. But if he does, I’ll make the tea for production. I’ll do wardrobe. Anything.

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing opens in U.S. theaters on June 7. A U.K. and Ireland release is set for June 14. The release follows last year’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the U.S. premiere at South By Southwest last month, and next month’s opening night screening at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome

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