THURSDAY MAY 25, 2017
 
Blog TALKING TO
ALEXIS DENISOF
Alexis-Denisof.jpg

Alexis Denisof made buddies with Joss Whedon back in the ancient days of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and since then whenever Whedon has pointed a camera at something, there's been a good chance that Denisof was somewhere in the frame. The classically trained stage actor played Wesley Wyndam-Pryce on Buffy and Angel and subsequently popped up in Dollhouse and The Avengers when he wasn’t performing live theatre elsewhere or making countless TV and film appearances.

This week, Denisof gets his first starring role in a Joss Whedon joint and it’s a bit of a weird one. Inspired by a series of live Shakespeare readings in Whedon’s home amongst friends, the filmmaker created a zero budget version of Much Ado About Nothing … in his home amongst friends. It’s one of the more bizarre and unexpected Shakespeare films in recent years and also one of the finest and funniest.

TORO recently got a chance to chat with Denisof about the whirlwind 12-day production, finding loose 'n' casual ways to spit out The Bard’s words, as well as his longstanding relationship with (and the possible insanity of) Joss Whedon.

So, how was this idea first presented to you and was there ever a moment when you thought Joss might be insane?

[Laughs] I definitely thought that he was more than slightly insane. But I already knew that he was slightly insane, so that wasn’t really a surprise. I love the ways in which he’s insane. He presented it to me in the kitchen of my house having just come off the huge shoot of The Avengers, in which I had a small role. I actually thought he was coming over to tell me in person that the footage was terrible and he cut me out. But he surprised me by pulling a script out of his pocket and saying, “I’ve got a little time off and instead of going on vacation, I thought maybe I’d shoot this play at my house.” I jumped at it and luckily didn’t have time to think that this wouldn’t be possible.

I gather this came out of Shakespeare readings at Joss’s house. What were those like and did this movie feel like an extension of that?

Joss would have informal gatherings going back to fairly early Buffy days of people who share an interest in hearing a Shakespeare play read aloud. It was a mix of actors, friends, writers, you know, whoever was available and into it. They were always very relaxed and very fun. And I think “relaxed and fun” is what came from those readings into the shoot of this movie. [Laughs] Although with a 12-day shoot, I wouldn’t say it was relaxing to do. It was manic and more of a madcap sprint. But it was relaxed in the sense that it almost felt like we stood up from a reading having learned our lines and just shot it. We tried to keep that feeling because that was what made the readings so fun. People weren’t shoving it down your throat, we were just trying to have fun and play around and I think that spirit is in this movie.

I enjoyed how loose and natural the Shakespearean language was played. Is that difficult given its theatricality?

It was a little tricky. There’s a certain pressure that comes with Shakespeare to stand and deliver. You want to give that grand poetic recital that you’ve seen before but frankly found slightly boring. We tried to really let go of that as a parameter for us and go absolutely in the other direction. We wanted it to feel natural and authentic and let the language speak for itself. We didn’t want it to be spoken at you but show that what it’s really about is people talking to each other and this is just how they talk. I think that’s what makes it appealing and fun. I think it’s why when people watch it after a few minutes, they forget its Shakespeare all together and just see the characters relating. Even if you don’t understand every single word because good old William Shakespeare has a pretty phenomenal vocabulary, you certainly understand the meaning behind it. People are saying to me, “I’ve never really liked Shakespeare before, but I loved this and I understood it.” That tells me that dialing down all of the pompous pedantic poetry of it is actually helping people understand it and appreciate it the way that we do.

So given that style, when you started working on your performance did you try to imagine Benedict as he would exist now or try to find a contemporary spin on the traditional presentation?

For me to take it on, I really want to find what I can do and bring to it that I feel is unique. I tried to let go of all previous performances. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, but you’ve seen some great actors do it, so you don’t need to see me do my version of that yet again. The point was to find something new and fresh. I really tried to forget everything that came before with this play and tried to discover what I wanted to say about Benedict. I really wanted to make him as real as possible. I really felt like he had a pair of balls and a shot glass of whiskey in his hand and a gun in his holster. He’s a soldier and I wanted him to feel like that. And he’s arrogant and full of himself. He thinks he’s hot shit. But when he falls in love, he’s just a clown and it isn’t until he comes to terms with those feelings that he becomes an authentic man who can be relied upon to do the right thing rather than just being a self-centered oaf. So I tried to track the journey through the story and tried to play it real, but also have fun.

Well, it is a comedy ...

It’s a romantic comedy, possibly the first one. And that was important. I wanted to play off those interactions and enjoy the classic screwball comedy qualities. It was important that there be room for that so that there was a good counterpoint between who this character was and how he was behaving. It’s that disconnect that brings the comedy out.  

I enjoyed all of the physical comedy that was tucked in around the edges. Was that sort of stuff developed as spontaneously as it feels?

We mapped out that physical stuff pretty quickly. Joss knew where everyone would be and we’d toss out ideas of where the funny would come from. It was very free. Some came during rehearsal and some just popped into our heads in the moment. There were certain scenes where you could be free and loose with it and we’d try. Joss would raise an eyebrow occasionally and say, “Really?” [Laughs] But we’d always try it. In the end, I think we’re glad most of it stayed in because it worked and I don’t think it stretched it too far. It was a great chance to just come at it from a fresh angle and try to see what we could do differently.

Did you and Joss click immediately when you started working together back on Buffy or Angel and did you have any idea you would still be working together after all this time?

I guess we did. I was a little bit intimidated by him because he’s a super intelligent guy and very clear about what he was looking for both in a scene or in the entirety of a story. So I had huge respect for him from the moment I worked with him. I didn’t really know anything about him because I wasn’t living in America at the time. It hadn’t aired yet for me, so I was catching up with Buffy when I got that job. I had no idea what our future would be, just that this guy was funny and smart and knew what he was doing, but also had a goofball nature about him that resonated with mine. We had a similar sensibility about that character right away and we had some similar tastes in our experience in terms of what we watched and loved in the past that we could reference with each other. So yeah, we got off to a good start. The character was temporary to begin with, but that grew and gradually we a friendship did as well. So yeah, I’ve got undying love for Joss and everything he’s done for me on and off screen. I hope that’s mushy enough for you [Laughs].

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