An interview in the Sunday, June 16 Oregonian....
It was a reasonable expectation.
After all, the plan was to shoot the movie digitally over 12 days at Whedon's house, while Whedon was on a two-week break in the middle of directing "The Avengers." And the idea grew out of a series of low-key "Shakespeare brunches" Whedon held at his house, where his actor friends would come over and read aloud from the Bard's plays. Fillion had attended a couple of them.
"I was around when Joss said, 'I think we should film one of these,'" recalls the "Castle" star. "And, being the stupid guy that I am, I thought he meant.... film us reading it.
"But," he says, deadpan, "I was wrong about that.
"When we got there," recalls Fillion, "the shock for a lot of people, and myself, was that he'd said, 'Oh, we're gonna film it in my backyard' -- but it was a production by anyone's gauge. You've got three cameras rolling, and lights ... and the catering was some of the better I've seen in my career. Joss said, 'Yeah, I can't do anything small.'"
Whedon's "Much Ado" opened in Portland on Friday (June 21) at Cinema 21. It's a charming black-and-white confection that gathers a team of all-stars from Whedon's various TV shows and movies (including Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, Sean Maher and Fillion) to interpret the play in modern dress. Its unforced confidence is impressive, given that the production was squeezed into Whedon's house on a microbudget during the two weeks he wasn't making one of the biggest blockbusters in movie history.
One of the film's highlights is Fillion, who plays "Much Ado"'s clown, the idiot constable Dogberry, as a straight-faced wannabe cop who can't conduct a linear interrogation to save his life. Fillion's deadpan, Caruso-esque approach (more on this in a second) is hilarious, and the polar opposite of Michael Keaton's barn-broad, Python-inspired interpretation of the character in Kenneth Branagh's much-loved 1993 version.
I talked with Fillion about "Much Ado"; how he learned to like the Bard; how he's dealt with fans in a long TV career that includes "One Live to Live," Whedon's sci-fi cult fave "Firefly" and the smash hit "Castle"; and the advantages of Twitter, where at last count his followers at @NathanFillion numbered nearly 1,800,000. An edited transcript follows after the jump.
MIKE RUSSELL: I really enjoyed that you went in a seriously deadpan direction for Dogberry.
NATHAN FILLION: Oh, thank you for that.
Q. There are a million ways to play Shakespearean clowns -- back in '93, Keaton went in a big, totally insane direction, and audiences loved it. You played it as this really dumb but officious cop who's quietly insane, and audiences are loving that, too. What led your approach?
A. Well, first of all, I made sure not to watch anyone else's Dogberry. I didn't want it to be tainted by anything else.
But you have a guy who's stupid but doesn't know it. Which is, I think, true for stupid people: Stupid people don't know that they're stupid -- they think they're the smartest guy in the room. So number one: Play it smart.
Number two: This is a guy who probably couldn't become a cop, so he's a security guard instead -- but probably loves to play cop. So I made sure to put in some heavy overtones of "C.S.I. Miami" David Caruso.
Q. [laughs] Slowly taking off your glasses while you say one of Shakespeare's puns.
A. That actually made it into the film. A couple of times.
Q. One of the big pleasures of the film is your relationship with Tom Lenk as Verges, your second-in-command. He worships you, he's hyper-enthusiastic....
A. He is a comedic dynamo, that guy. You cannot be in a scene with him and not be funny. You don't even have to try -- all you have to do is be around him and you're the straight man to his Costello, essentially. I called him my "comedy crutch" -- all I had to do was lean on him, and I'm funny.
Q. With "Firefly" and "Serenity," you had the task of interpreting some of Joss Whedon's most technically complex dialogue.
A. Oh, yeah.
Q. I interviewed him in 2005 about "Serenity," and he talked about how the future-dialogue for that was this liquid mash-up of Western, Indian, turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania Dutch, and John Wayne, salted with the occasional Chinese. How did the challenge of saying that stack up against the challenge of delivering Shakespeare?
A. We called it "Joss-speak" when we were on "Firefly." There was certainly a challenge to it, but there was a real poetry to it. And the first step in mastering it was knowing what you were saying -- understanding it.
I think that's true to an even greater extent with Shakespeare. I was trying to memorize my dialogue and I was having night-terrors because it was so difficult. So I went back to basics. I started doing my homework, finding out "What am I saying here? What am I really saying here?" And that was the secret.
Q. One of the actors in the film who's really good at that is Reed Diamond as Don Pedro. He says the lines like's he's chatting over a cup of coffee.
A. I agree. In the right hands, and deftly handled, Shakespeare can be understood by every man -- and when I say "every man," I mean me.
I always considered Shakespeare to be a little hoity-toity and snotty and requiring a higher education and really not my cup of tea. "Oo! Shakespeare! I'm a big fan!" -- I'm not that guy. But thank God that Joss Whedon is, and thank God that he included me in this project, because now I get it. Now I get why people love Shakespeare. Now I get why the themes he's talking about are so relatable.
Q. You talked about getting back to basics. What is the best bit of acting knowledge you've carried from soaps to your career today?
A. First of all, soaps taught me how to break down a scene.
Q. Yeah. Fast.
A. Fast. Yeah. The turnaround in soaps is incredible. So it taught me how to break down a scene very quickly.
One of the most fantastic things I got from my soap-opera experience was standing next to people who had been in the business for 10, 15, 20, 35 years, and who were so generous when I turned to them and said, "I don't know what I'm doing. I've got no clue what to do."
And they would say, "Relax. Don't worry. Here's what's going on. Here's what we need. Here's how I do it. Here's how he does it. And [lowers voice] here's a shortcut if you really don't want to do the work." They would help you -- and they weren't stingy about their expertise and their wisdom. I was in very good hands over there, and I'll never forget them for that. I learned how to be technically proficient.
You can act onstage all your life and be a fantastic actor and fail miserably in film and television, because it's a different animal.
Q. It's smaller, yeah. More subtle.
A. It's smaller, and it's incredibly technical. It's not "Stand over here on the stage." It's "If you don't hit this mark, you're blocking his camera, you're not in your light, and we don't have a shot on you." It's technical for a lot of reasons. And then you shoot the same scene over and over again with different blocking because the camera angles change and so you have to change what you do as well. So it's technical to the point of distraction sometimes. So I carried that with me from the soaps.
And maybe the most important thing I learned from the soap operas is: At the end of a scene in a soap opera, they'll do a slow close-in on your face. You'll be hanging there after the last person says the last line -- and the camera will do a slow push on your face for what seems like forever.
I never knew what do during that -- what seemed like 30 seconds of a push into your face.
So a friend of mine told me, "Oh -- what you do during that is you make three internal choices -- you have three thoughts internally, and let them kind of come out as they will on your face. And the choices are: 'Did I leave the stove on? I did leave the stove on. No, I turned the stove off.'"
He says it works for anything. And he's right.
Q. [laughs] I want to talk about these "Shakespeare brunches" at Joss Whedon's house that led to the movie. How long had they been going on?
A. Oh, it had to be more than five years, because I did it years before I did "Castle." Seven or eight years ago was probably my first one. I'd only done two of them, but I think they were doing them even before I came on board, so there's a lot of history there.
Q. And then he makes a movie version on his vacation in the middle of making "The Avengers."
A. What does that tell you about a man's love for what he does, and his love for Shakespeare, when his idea of a vacation -- a two-week vacation -- is to shoot 12 days of a Shakespeare movie?
Q. And no doubt sleep 48 hours for the remaining two. What were the evenings like during that 12-day shoot?
A. I didn't have a lot of evenings there.... I was very fortunate -- my schedule was great.
But there was a party scene for the very end that Joss had invited friends and family to: "We're gonna have a party, and you're gonna be in the movie as partygoers. You have to be here between this time and this time, and you have to stay." And there were a lot of people who came to this party and were enjoying it and having a great time -- and realized they were in for the long haul when they'd been drinking heavily earlier in the evening and had to be there until 3 a.m.
Q. You've had a fascinating career in that you've enjoyed what I imagine are three very distinct types of fans: soap-opera fans, sci-fi/Whedon cult-hit fans and the fans of a TV show that's a huge mainstream hit. How do those fandoms differ -- and have you ever been stuck in a situation dealing with all three types at once?
A. [laughs] I had some weird experiences when I was first on "One Life to Live" with fans. I found -- and rightly so -- that when a television program has longevity, people can get invested. "One Life to Live" was on TV over 40 years. People grew up on it. When they see you in their living room once a day -- not once a week, once a day -- they feel they know you. That can get weird.
Strangers coming up to me on the street like they knew me? That was a little shocking; that was a lot at the beginning, I'll confess. And when I was doing "One Life to Live," I was living in New York, so that wasn't just any stranger coming up to me -- that was a New Yorker.
"Castle" fans? That plays into the longevity, as well. People are able to invest in characters and invest in story. They can't help themselves -- they start to care. And that's what keeps them coming.
Joss Whedon fans? That's the fan that will find you in whatever project you're doing, whatever you're up to, and they'll watch it and support you. I've never known a fan like that until I became a participant in the Joss Whedon-verse.
Q. Although it sounds like soaps were kind of a nice warm-up for that.
A. Yeah. But there were some times -- and not all the time -- but sometimes there were uncomfortable situations with the soap fans where they couldn't draw the line between reality and television. To them, you are Joey Buchanan, and that is all, and Joey did something, and they need to say something, and you are responsible.
Whereas Joss Whedon fans actually could be from all walks of life, from homemakers to rocket scientists, who are incredibly talented in one field or another -- be it knitting, crocheting, making fiberglass armor, blacksmiths, computer geniuses -- and pour their passion into what they're passionate about.
And the art I've seen inspired by "Firefly" -- the costumes, the replicas I've seen of guns or outfits -- it's incredible how these people share their talent with the world, based on something they're passionate about. I find that to be very satisfying.
Q. You really embraced social media as a way to connect with viewers and also to do a bunch of cool stuff. What is the coolest thing that's happened to you because of Twitter? I've got to think the time you used Twitter to link to a startup company's cool-looking electric car and then got invited to test-drive it comes close.
A. The electric car is close. I will say the coolest thing that's happened to me via Twitter is traveling to another country -- traveling to a place where I am a stranger -- and saying, "I'm looking for a place with great food, quiet ambiance, and good beer." If 50 people say the same place, that's where I go, and that's been really helpful. It's kind of like being able to crowdsource with a crowd that kind of has an idea what I'm looking for ... and is excited to help me out.
Q. You have like kingmaker status on Twitter now.
A. "Kingmaker"? Hilarious.
Q. You can kind of change someone's life with it to a degree. Do you take that responsibility lightly, or....?
A. I take Twitter lightly. And I think everyone should.
Q&A with Nathan Fillion (The Oregonian, Sunday, June 16, 2013)