Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, shot in 12 days between the principle photography and the post-production of The Avengers with a cast of friends and colleagues old and new in Whedon’s own home, was the opening night film at the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival. It was a testament to the commitment of the cast to Whedon that four of the film’s stars came with Whedon for the opening gala and sat for interviews with the local and national press.
I was lucky enough to get a few minutes with Nathan Fillion (Dogberry) and Clark Gregg (Deonato), better known to Whedon fans as Captain Mal Reynolds of Firefly and Agent Phil Coulson of The Avengers. No more preamble necessary, but just allow me to point out that the transcript cannot accurately capture the joking byplay and easy laughs shared between these two actors. They had not worked together before Much Ado yet come across as old friends, or at least newfound best buddies bonding over shared love of comic books, affection for Whedon, and mutual respect for their respective talents. I was honored to be welcomed into this little club even for just a few minutes.
Much Ado About Nothing opens in multiple theaters in the Seattle area on Friday, June 21.
I know that the roots of this production come from Joss Whedon’s Shakespeare readings, where he invited members of his TV show casts for brunch at his house and read through a play. Clark, were you a part of that group?
Clark Gregg: (deadpan) Sore subject.
Nathan Fillion: (laughs) I did two of those and Clark… We didn’t know Clark then. Had we known, we probably still wouldn’t have invited him. Because he’s a little too good, he would have raised the bar.
CG: Joss would ask me to drop by some bagels but not come in. No, I didn’t meet Joss until The Avengers. Actually, I met him during Comic Con after Thor, a year before The Avengers, and he came up to me and said, “I want to introduce as part of the cast of The Avengers. I want to use Agent Coulson in The Avengers, is that okay with you?” It was the quickest head nod anybody has ever done. And then after The Avengers I was just kind of brought in, I think, because several people got jobs or passed away and suddenly I was in this movie. But I wasn’t in the brunches though they sound fantastic and I hope we do one in the future sometime.
Much Ado About Nothing was like a 12-day-long brunch, wasn’t it?
CG: It was a brunch, a dinner, and a hell of a cocktail party all rolled into one.
It looked like a hell of a cocktail party. Was there a scene where nobody had a drink in their hand?
CG: Boy, there was a lot of cocktails. Yes, when things get a little testy with all the scandal and the libeling of my daughter, I don’t think there’s a lot of drinking there.
I just want to go on record and say how that was very mean of them.
CG: I’ve never been a fan of people libeling my daughter on her wedding day.
NF: Isn’t libel in print?
CG: Is it like dictation?
(both start laughing)
NF: I remember in Spider-Man where J. Jonah Jameson says, “No, print is libel.”
And that’s where you get your legal expertise, from Spider-Man movies?
NF: Yes, well, there you have it.
CG: (after checking his smartphone) It’s written! Libel is only written! (Turns to Nathan) Thank you for calling me out on that.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare famously gives acting advice: “Speak the speech I pray as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue”
NF: Well, we threw that out.
Did you trip over any of this? It must be hard enough playing Shakespeare, but playing Elizabethan language in modern dress, bringing classical speech and contemporary culture together, must be a different kind of challenge.
CG: It’s a take, you know what I mean? People are so worried that…
CG: Slander! That’s it. [continues] People are so worried that Shakespeare won’t be accessible because the language is ye olde, and at the same time the themes and the emotional content of so many of these plays, there’s so many parts of it that could happen today. And so very often, for God knows I’m sure at the turn of the century it was considered so radical that they were doing these plays from the 1600s in 1890s dress. I walk in and I’m wearing a Dolce and Gabbana suit and holding an iPhone and the first thing I say, “As I see from the message that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this day to Messina.” And all of a sudden I think it gives the audience a little bit of a way in and pretty soon you aren’t really noticing the language other than these are people who speak in a very poetic way. But what they say rings very present and very true.
I think you’re right, but as an actor, there’s also the challenge of bringing that language to the modern day and making it flow as if you are a couple of guys on the street having a conversation and yet make it perfectly understandable to an audience unfamiliar with the language.
CG: Oh, I should have done that. That’s a good idea.
NF: I think Shakespeare done well, that’s what it is: it’s making it conversation so people can understand. I think that’s been done very well here. People have said, and I’ve heard this more than once, the first two minutes you have to listen very hard, after that you can relax because you understand everything. Shakespeare is loaded with meaning and in the right hands, in capable hand, I’m gesturing toward Gregg Clark here…. (stops, turns to Clark) I just messed your name up. That’s the problem with having two first names.
CG: It begs for that.
NF: My dad said never trust a guy with two first names.
CG: So did mine. And I said, “You gave them to me, you bastard.”
NF: … is that you understand the meaning that you want them to glean from this play.
CG: Yeah, I gotta say, though, that this play in particular lends itself to that, its prose, and at the same time I think when people just try to make it purely naturalistic, they miss the boat, and I don’t think that’s what we were after, though this is the most naturalistic of all of them. This is written language that is heightened and it’s people who use tremendously evocative language to further their ends, their conspiracies, their love, and that’s one of the things that’s special about it so I don’t know that one’s task is really to make it feel like contemporary spoken English but to make it feel grounded in something that you’re willing to go to that heightened place. You buying that?
I’ll go with it, and I think it’s true. The greatest Shakespeare movies for me are those where you understand immediately what they’re saying by their performance, the way they make the poetry of it accessible.
CG: I love parts of the Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet a lot but one of my favorite lines from that play, when Romeo says “I am fortune’s fool,” it has a completely different meaning in Shakespeare and it’s not anything anyone walking around the street today is going to say, and yet that’s what makes it so evocative, so powerful. It’s not real life, it’s not supposed to be. It’s poetry.
[To Clark Gregg] Congratulations on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
CG: Thank you so much.
And for coming back to life.
CG: I can’t say no to that.
Do you get one of those Iron Man hearts?
CG: I can’t reveal that.
NF: Aaaah. That’s a yes.
[To Nathan] Do you get one of those Iron Man hearts?
NF: I have two.
I knew it!
CG: You must have mine.
[To Nathan] If DC reboots its onscreen universe, do you get to play Green Lantern?
NF: I would leave that to a younger man. I really would.
You were terrific in the DC Animated Original Green Lantern film.
NF: Yeah, I’ve done some voice work for Green Lantern. There are a couple of heroes left that I can manage to play. I would really like a crack at The Greatest American Hero. I think he’s due for a reboot.
CG: That’s nice.
NF: Remember that one?
CG: Yes. I think there’s a number that you could do. I think you’d make a bitchin’ Bruce Wayne.
NF: Batman? Really?
CG: Yes! Hey, I’m a little biased, but I feel there is a place for men over 30 in the superhero movies.
NF: (lowers voice to a gravelly growl) “I am the dark knight!”
NF: Deadpool is… that would be fun, that would be fun. I think the unprepared hero is a niche I can easily fill. Thrust into circumstances beyond his “I can’t handle this!”
[To Clark] What does it feel like now being a part of the Whedonverse, as they call it?
CG: It’s doesn’t suck. I was thrilled to be part of The Avengers. When I was first approached by Joss I figured I’d probably be walking through handing somebody some super-powered Jamba Juice and instead I had the best stuff that Agent Coulson ever got to do, including one of the great death scenes in modern film, in my opinion, so I was proud to go out that way and considered myself lucky. I was looking at the next pastures and then I go over to Joss’s house for a little cookout and find myself suddenly doing a Shakespeare movie in his house. Even then, it would have been enough, but then to get a call saying that maybe Agent Coulson wasn’t 100% dead and we might be doing this pilot, and that pilot got picked up. If this is the Whedonverse, I’m liking it so far a lot.
So, [to Clark], you came to Much Ado About Nothing direct from The Avengers and [to Nathan], I’m just guessing, but did you come in on weekends between shooting episodes of Castle?
CG: He did.
NF: They were kind enough to shoot weekends for all my scenes.
Is that stressful or relaxing or some combination of both to squeeze a movie into a busy schedule like that?
CG: I would say it was a combo platter. It was really stressful, really frightening…
NF: … very challenging…
CG: … and I found I couldn’t wait to get back the next day because those scenes are so damn meaty. There’s so many levels of stuff going on. Did you find that?
NF: You’re on your own, you’re very afraid, am I prepared? Am I getting it? What’s it going to be? And you get there and you’re amongst friends and talented people and you’re just swept up in this torrent of talent. I loved it, and I feared it.
Is that something that Mal once said?
NF: I loved it and I feared it?
It just sounds like something that could have come from a Joss Whedon character. But maybe it’s the way you deliver it.
NF: I’ll take that as a compliment.