Alexis Denisof has an extensive stage and film résumé, with recurring roles in the Sharpe’s TV series, How I Met Your Mother, and Bryan Singer’s webseries H+, among other things; he started his acting career with a role in a George Harrison video. But his career has been defined by his work with Joss Whedon. He had a prominent role as straitlaced Watcher Wesley Wyndam-Pryce in Whedon’s breakout TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the character continued into the spin-off, Angel, becoming a core cast member. Denisof also wound up with a key role in Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse, and he turned up (unrecognizably, behind makeup and a mask) in Whedon’s superhero blockbuster The Avengers, playing the mysterious alien entity The Other. He even met his wife, Alyson Hannigan, through a Whedon project: They started dating while he was working on Buffy, where she starred for seven seasons as Willow.
Being part of Whedon’s inner-circle acting ensemble also meant getting invited to his periodic Shakespeare house parties, where friends would gather at his home to walk through the Bard’s plays. Out of those parties came 2013’s Much Ado About Nothing: While taking a break after shooting The Avengers, Whedon quickly directed a black-and-white version of the play, using his own home as a backdrop, and casting many of the actors he’s worked with over and over. Denisof co-stars as Benedick, a soldier who sneers about love and marriage, but has an ongoing relationship of defensive banter and mutual hidden longing with Beatrice (played by another Whedon ensemble regular—his Angel love interest, Amy Acker). Denisof recently spoke with The Dissolve to commemorate the film’s release on DVD and Blu-ray.
The Dissolve: You’ve done other Shakespeare plays on TV and onstage. What did you find unique about Joss Whedon’s take on Shakespeare, or on how actors should work with the material?
Alexis Denisof: How unconstricted we were. Which isn’t to say we were disrespecting the source material. But we felt very free to make it authentic, and personal, and not feel constrained by hundreds of years of historical or academic interpretations of Shakespeare’s writing. The spirit of that came out of the play readings we had been doing at Joss’ house for many years, in a spirit of play and freedom and fun. That carried into the manner in which we interpreted this film.
The Dissolve: What was the history of Much Ado About Nothing with his Shakespeare-reading group?
Denisof: We had read this particular play once before. It could’ve been 10 years ago—I’m terrified to guess. But it was one of many that over the years we have read. Joss said after completing the film that when we read it all those years ago—and Amy [Acker] and I were in the roles we’re in in the film—he became convinced that if he ever shot it, he wanted us to play those parts. I’m glad I didn’t know that beforehand, because I would’ve been even more nervous than I was. [Laughs.] And given the constraints of pulling off the whole play in 12 days, there was already a lot to think about. So I’m glad I didn’t know he was harboring this particular dream in there.
The Dissolve: Did he talk to you about why he chose to film this one play, out of all the ones he did at his house?
Denisof: There were a few reasons, some of them technical, and some of them interpretive. On the technical side, it all takes place in one location. It’s a few days spent in one house with a group of people. And of course one long party with highs and lows that unfolds over the course of those few days, or a week maybe. So given the zero budget we had to work with, having one location was helpful. And his house happened to be a magnificent candidate for that location—that was more incentive. But also, the themes of the play: exploring love from several perspectives. The naïve, advertised version of love vs. the more mature, authentic version of love, and how we come at these ideas of love at so many directions, some of which are perceived, and some of which are genuine. I think he wanted to explore that. And I think he also saw this play as being a comedy, definitely, but a poignant comedy. He saw elements of darkness that had not been explored in this particular play, and he wanted to look at that.
The Dissolve: Not being bound by centuries of Shakespeare scholarship is one thing, but what about being aware of all the other productions and performance takes on these characters? Was that something you had to think about, or to avoid thinking about?
Denisof: I would say we did avoid it. Of course, there’s the magnificent Ken Branagh version that precedes ours most notably on film, and there have been many definitive stage productions of this play. It’s popular; it’s well-known. It isn’t, perhaps, his best-known play, but it’s certainly one of his beloved plays. So there is an expectation for the audience, and for the performers going in. But we did try to leave those expectations at the door when we arrived at work, and find our version of it. There’s no need to shoot another beautiful version set in Tuscany with flowing shirts, and horses, and grapes ripening on the vine. That’s been done perfectly in another version. That left us free to make something smaller, more intimate, and more personal.
Many of the people involved have had experience in Shakespeare, so we’re not unaware of the heritage that comes with attempting a Shakespeare play. But at the same time, you don’t want to be saddled or constrained by that. So often when I see Shakespeare performed, you can sense the fear of trying to get it right, somehow, rather than just making it yours. I think our goal was to bring the characters and the scene alive in a very immediate, contemporary, and personal way that made the play fresh. As if this particular story hadn’t been seen before, when in fact this is the template for all romantic comedies that followed. But you’ve got to leave that outside the scene. If you start to sense that you’re playing an important scene, or you’re shooting an important play, that seeps into your work, or into the film. And I think we all find that a little bit alienating and a little big smug, too. We wanted anything but smugness.
The Dissolve: Because it’s a very small-scale film—the single shooting environment, the long takes, the long speeches—sometimes it feels more like a roving stage play than like a movie. In performance, did it feel more stage-like, or more like doing theater, than films normally do?
Denisof: Definitely, it did. The closest experience on film I’ve ever had of being in the theater, I would say this did straddle both. Exactly as you say, the takes were long, and there were very few of them. Whenever possible, Joss wanted to let the scenes play out in their entirety, shoot them in their entirety. We really had a chance to move around the room and block the scene out the way we would for a stage production, almost. The freedom to play, and be followed by the camera, and not worry too much about blue tape on the floor. And we had an incredible crew that could roll that way, too. It was a very loose, flowing style of shooting, but also of performing. If the scene came alive, we moved on. We didn’t have time to stop and pick it apart and try to refine or re-sculpt something. If it worked, we moved on ’cause we had to. On the one hand, that left me feeling like, “Oh yeah. There’s a couple of pieces here and there I would love to go back and do in a completely different way.” But on the other hand, there was something very freeing about it, of having this enormous landscape of this text to run through. It was liberating.
The Dissolve: When you’ve talked in other interviews about the anxiety induced by that rush to get it all done fast, you’ve said that sometimes, you had to decide very quickly whether something was working, and discard or replace it on the fly. Do you have an example of a specific case where that happened?
Denisof: That’s a great question; I’ll have to think for a second. I’m going to start talking and see if something comes up. Because of the time constraints of the shooting, and a severe lack of rehearsal, we all brought a high level of instinct to each scene. And of course Joss had his incredible insight and interpretation. With it being his home, he’d visualize really powerfully how he wanted the play to move through his house, a place that he knew so well. So he solved a lot of problems in advance, as he always does.
A lot of things came to us as they were being shot. Like that silly scene where I’m doing calisthenics to impress Beatrice—I remember that coming to me very late in the day. In fact, we rehearsed it, and Joss stepped away, and we were just about to shoot it. And I got this sense that, “Oh, there’s another level of comedy to this scene.” And I tried it out with Amy, and we were laughing about it. Right before we rolled, we said, “Joss we’re thinking about this,” and showed it to him. He was very unsure, but he said, “Well, if you’re sure, let’s give it a shot.” I think we’re now glad that it stayed in, and that’s how we did it. The same thing with Joss—we would be in the pivotal scenes, like “Oh, that I were a man,” and he would come in and say something as simple as, “Make sure you move across the room with her.” And sometimes a slight change in blocking, or just an adjustment he would make with the line-reading, would open up an entire scene for us. And although it would’ve been fun to have kept on exploring, we had to go on and shoot the next scene.
I do remember some unforeseen things. Early on, the three guys [Denisof, Fran Kranz as Claudio, and Reed Diamond as Don Pedro] go into the girls’ bedroom where we’re going to be staying, and I have a diatribe about marriage. In the course of that scene, Claudio and I do a little bit of wrestling on the bed. We were trying to have fun in that scene, and we flop onto the two beds to continue the dialogue. And as we did it in the take, we knocked the side table, which had Joss’ daughter’s musical ballerina on it. And it started to play in the middle of one of my lines, so I stopped. Normally in a film, either the director would shout “Cut!” or sound would say, “Oh, we’ve got music across the dialogue.” Or the actor would say, “Sorry, I knocked the table, and that thing is playing.” And you’d stop. But we felt this sense of “hell or high water, just get through each take, get through each scene.” So the thing started playing the music, and I listened to it, and Fran stopped, and we stared at each other, and we could see we were kind of internally asking each other, “What do we do? Do we continue?” [Laughs.] And then it stopped, and we continued on with the dialogue.
It’s a tiny moment, but when I see the film, I love the authenticity of that. It’s one of so many rough, unforeseen moments that we ride through, or over, but that are the texture of life. And they brought life to this film. I think another, more expensive version of this movie would’ve stopped, and cleaned it all up, and made it tidy, and maybe made it more beautiful. But I think ours stays more real, and for all of us, that was our preference.
The Dissolve: Joss Whedon has always had a reputation for being very exacting about what he wants, particularly about hitting his dialogue—or in this case, Shakespeare’s—exactly as written. In your experience, is he often that loose with actors, in terms of letting you experiment, try comedic business, or take command of little accidental things that happen?
Denisof: Well, both are true. Yes, he is very exact and very specific. He’s incredibly visual. He’s incredibly musical. He has a director’s eye, an editor’s eye, a writer’s eye. There are so many things going on in his huge brain while he’s making a movie that he can solve problems from many different angles, and he can also create opportunities for those around him, in lots of different ways. For sure, if you’re shooting an episode of Buffy with Joss, he might have a very specific way he wants a line spoken, or a specific time, or he might want you to wait this specific time before saying something, or have an interpretation, or whatever it might be. But on the other hand, he always loved it if we would say, “I was having an idea. Can I just show this to you?” It wouldn’t always be in. Sometimes he’d say, “No, that’s not it.” But often, he’d say, “Yeah, I like that. Let’s go with that.” Yes, he has a plan A, but he loves being brought a plan B. And I think that’s the fun of him, and I think he likes actors who are always looking for stuff they can bring him.
People have said, “Is it difficult to shoot someone else’s language when you’re so used to shooting your own dialogue?” He is an absolute, passionate lover of Shakespeare, and always has been. I think if you know his work well, you can see how it’s influenced him. The script was locked, which for him was a relief. All he did was cut it down, and make it a little quicker than it would be in its entirety. And he didn’t ever worry about if the dialogue needed fixing, which in some ways left him a little more free. He could put that hat away in the hatbox and just be the director. He loved bringing interpretations for the lines and scenes, but he also loved finding that with the actors. Part of that was because it wasn’t his material, so he wanted to hear what we had to say about the scene, what we thought about it. It not being his own words did allow a little more room to just play with the material. I’m sure he felt the pressure and expectation of taking on Shakespeare, but he managed to not let that get in the way of us shooting the movie.
The Dissolve: One of the ways he plays with the material is by inserting action that has no dialogue. The case that changes the story most is the scene that makes it clear Benedick and Beatrice had been lovers. What did that scene mean for you, as far as developing the character?
Denisof: [Whedon] brought that idea to Amy and I, and it felt like a no-brainer. In this version, we’re old enough that we should know better, right? We really should have figured out our relationship, or our ability to love another person, sooner than we do. In this case, if you don’t have that scene, you think, “Well, these are just supremely emotionally stunted people.” I think that scene is important for creating a texture for why they’re where they are with each other. And then add that to their own obstacles and immaturities of development, and it all makes sense.
That scene supported very much my view of Benedick. I wanted a classical Shakespeare male to feel like a real guy. I didn’t want him to feel like a frilly shirt, or a pompous poet, which is so often the case when you get into these verbose, leading Shakespearian men. They can stop feeling like they evolve. I wanted this guy to have a good pair. When he pulls out a gun, you want you to feel like, “Oh, he knows how to use that. Yeah.” To have a feeling that you could be in a bar with this guy. He’d be slightly obnoxious—you kind of love him, you kind of hate him, he’s a little too pleased with himself, more than he should be, and clearly hiding some deep insecurities and vulnerabilities. That was my starting point, and that prelap really fed into the identity of the particular Benedick I was working with. It set that up very well that he wasn’t able to make that step with her in the first place. That’s why, when you pick up the relationship later, they are where they’re at.
Then as the story unfolds, this proud, boastful guy, who thinks he’s much hotter shit than he really is, once he starts coming into contact with feelings, he’s completely undone by them, and becomes a clown. It isn’t until he can commit to those feelings and this woman that the authentic Benedick emerges at the end of the film: the man who can be still, and be at peace with his feelings, and be trusted. Not that he isn’t necessarily trustworthy in the beginning, but he becomes a real man. I would say that’s what I was hoping to find through the journey of that character.
The Dissolve: A recent piece about you compared Benedick and Wesley from Buffy and Angel by saying Benedick is a hero who becomes a fool for love, and Wesley is a fool who becomes a hero. Do you ever analyze your characters in relation to each other in that way?
Denisof: I certainly see an evolution of character in both Wesley and Benedick. That always appeals to me, and I’m always looking for that. If you get the opportunity to do that as an actor, it’s hugely satisfying. Also, it’s reflective of us as human beings. A life without change and growth is a life not lived. In the case of Wesley, we had five years to make incremental changes episode by episode. Did we know by episode one of Buffy or Angel where Wesley would be in season five? No, definitely it was a process, and each step took us further and deeper. That’s what was so exciting about it. There were times where maybe Joss and [producer] David Greenwalt knew the bigger picture, but I didn’t. Then we would have a meeting and talk about some of the bigger issues and arcs, but I didn’t know how we were going to get there. In this case, I can have the entire play in front of me. I don’t have his entire life, but that’s what is enjoyable—I get to write the story of Benedick up until the point Shakespeare takes over on page one of Much Ado About Nothing. Then I get to write the story of Benedick when Shakespeare finishes it on the last line of the play. Why is this play important to the life of this character? Well, because it’s when he has his greatest and most satisfactory change in his life. That’s what I found exciting about it. It’s a change that happens through love, and I think that’s what makes it a wonderful story. I think that’s reflected in Beatrice as much as it is in Benedick.
The Dissolve: Are the Shakespeare gatherings still at least theoretically going on?
Denisof: Well, they are remembered fondly and yearned for deeply by all of those who were fortunate to be part of them. As we know, Joss is busy with his other little movie. So it’s hard to say when it will take place, but I believe it will. I do. There was a very special group that came together to make that movie. Of course, chief among them is Joss, but he gathered such a fantastic crew and cast. Just the whole thing had a little magic in it, and I think all of us who worked on it have said that to each other. This one was special. Maybe it’s because going in, we didn’t even know what it would be. It seemed preposterous to shoot a movie of this kind in 12 days. None of us knew whether we could do our parts, let alone whether it would all come together as a whole. That was the shooting of it. And the editing process with Joss, finding this extraordinary score inside himself for it, and the beautiful music, and Danny [Kaminsky] editing it on laptops on weekends… Suddenly, it’s at Toronto, and people are jumping out of their seats, and distributors are bidding on it, and then it gets released. It’s been an amazing, validating journey for anybody who has a strong feeling that they want to do something, but they’re not sure exactly how to do it, or if it will work out. I would point them to this and say, “Just do it.” If ever there was a passion project, this is the passion project of all time.
The Dissolve: Have you found out yet whether you’re going to be working with him on Avengers 2?
Denisof: I don’t know. I truly don’t know. [Laughs.] I have no idea. I know he’s been in London scouting a lot, and I know he’s working hard on the script. I’ve sort of avoided the subject, because he has filled my bowl so many times, I hesitate to stick my hand out again. If I am asked, I will always say yes. On the other hand, if I never get to again, working with him has already been the highlight of my career.
The Dissolve: If he went back to Shakespeare after Avengers 2 for another “vacation project,” what would be your ideal role?
Denisof: Any guy probably wants to take on Hamlet, and I’m not different. There’s so much there, and no two Hamlets are alike. That would be wonderful. I’m possibly aging out of that one, but it’s a hard one to let go of. Then there are some villains: Richard III is kind of appealing. That’s a tough call. I love playing the minor characters, too. We’ve had a lot of fun at the readings over the years, because sometimes you go in and you’re reading the part you’d hopefully be cast in. Sometimes you play the absolute opposite. I’ve played crone-y old women and silly, pompous young men—well, actually I could be cast as that. [Laughs.] Anyway, you get my point. It was sort of a workshop of character acting in those play readings. And Shakespeare plays are so rich with character, I wouldn’t say no to any of them.