Virtually everyone who appears in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing has travelled to the Toronto Film Festival for its world premiere - and that's made for a hell of a press day, as a handful of increasingly frazzled U.S. publicists send the director and his cast through a gauntlet of interviews and TV stand-ups, hustling each of them off to the airport as their schedules demand.
In the middle of the frenzy, Alexis Denisof is an oasis of calm. A long-time member of Whedon's repertory company, he's appeared in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, had a recurring role in Dollhouse and turns up as an evil alien in The Avengers. (He's also married to his Buffy co-star Alyson Hannigan, which keeps him in the family in a different sort of way.)
In Much Ado, Whedon casts him as Benedick, the swaggering ladies' man tricked by his friends into revealing his true feelings for eternal sparring partner Beatrice (Amy Acker). It's a leading role - Denisof's first - and the actor is clearly enjoying his time in the spotlight. Plopping onto a couch at the Maison Mercer as the PR guys start boxing up the movie posters around us, he's happy to squeeze in one more interview before heading out.
You've been a part of Joss Whedon's repertory company since the third season of Buffy. That's a lifetime in this business, isn't it?
Oh, god, I guess it must be. That's 98 or 99. It's been amazing to grow and learn from him, and watch him grow and learn. Looking back, I'd say he's the most influential part of my career, -really - in terms of volumes of work, but also in terms of my own development as an actor.
I just talked to him a moment ago, and the thing that came through most vividly is how much love he has for the people he works with.
Joss is a fanboy. And that's part of why fanboys and fangirls around the world love him - they see a kindred spirit. And one of the things he's a fanboy about is the people he works with - it's like this little fan-fest. There he is getting really excited about you and your work, thinking of ways he can challenge you and find other things for you to do and discovering hidden talents that you didn't even know you had.
You'd need that sort of enthusiasm to make a movie in your own house for no money.
Yeah, yeah. It was a high-wire act, and we didn't know if we'd be able to stay up on the wire, or if the wire would hold - it was high risk and low expectation. Which is kind of a great way to go to work, because you're excited to try. But it wasn't like some big studio had a lot of money at stake and if we didn't get it right we were gonna be given our marching orders. It was, "Hey, can we all do this, do you think? All right, let's find out if we can."
I find it amazing that he chose to make a Shakespeare movie as a counterbalance to The Avengers.
Yeah, definitely. You know, a Shakespeare play doesn't have any special effects. In its time there was one stage, and you maybe had a hat or a cloak, and the people enjoyed it or didn't enjoy it based on how you delivered the lines and how you brought the story to life. Which for me is the core of this whole business: can you bring a story and a person to life in a believable and interesting way? Now, somewhere along the line it was discovered that if you spend a lot of money and went into a room with lots of computers, you can also tell a story in a completely compelling and fascinating way without a human being involved at all. I admire that, but it isn't necessarily better, and I think moviemaking by committee can be very dangerous. That's what a big budget means, because there's a lot of people whose money is at stake.
This movie had no money, so it's a collaboration, and what we all get to bring is our creativity and our energy and our interest. Whether he's making a $200 movie or a $200 million movie, he's still showing up to find out what's the most creative way to solve a problem, and what's the creative way to tell this story.
The modern-dress context allows you to put some interesting spins on the text. Was that something Whedon encouraged on the shoot?
You do get an opportunity now, because of the progress of language, to tweak some of the interpretation. Look, Shakespeare's an entertainer, he's not an academic. He was hoping people would pay money to come and see his shows because they were fun and enjoyable - you know, tragically fascinating or hilariously enjoyable. Or both. So that was our commitment, to find a way to tell this story that is real and believable and also hugely enjoyable.
In the past, some filmmakers have suggested the language might be an impediment. And then Baz Luhrmann makes Romeo + Juliet and no one has any trouble with that.
There are times for anybody watching a Shakespeare movie - even this Shakespeare movie - when you might think, "I'm not entirely sure I understand those words, in that those words in that order are not completely making sense to me. But I absolutely understand what he's saying, and I know exactly what he feels." That was something that was developing as we were shooting that was very exciting. And you could feel this very truthful, edgy, gritty reality developing, and also having the room that Shakespeare invites you to have, which is the room for almost high farce.
And you get to do stunts.
[laughing] Yeah! There's some crazy physical comedy, and then next comes a poignant love scene with nothing farcical about it. That's the genius of Shakespeare, and then Joss's ability to release that, both in the actors and in the story, is what's so exciting for us.
I have to admit, I loved seeing you back with Amy Acker. The two of you had that amazing romantic arc as Wesley and Fred on Angel, and just seeing the two of you again was so satisfying to my little geek heart.
Aw, that's nice. Yeah, that's a very interesting relationship [on Angel]. I don't know if there's been a relationship quite so longed for and unfulfilled - and then once fulfilled, so brief. Joss had balls the size of cannonballs to do that to the audience, but that's where he's not like other men. He's brave. But it is great for Amy and me to get to be back together, working with Joss. The three of us always have great chemistry that we enjoy hugely, going back to the Angel days. You know, we got the cancellation [in season five], which is part of what truncated the relationship for Wesley and Fred. It took a storyline that would have probably been explored over a much longer time period and forced a quicker resolution.
With the exception of Firefly, you've been in everything Whedon's done. Has he changed as a storyteller? Is he essentially the same guy?
I've seen a tremendous evolution. When I first met him on season three of Buffy, he would say that he didn't always know what he was doing. You know, he'd been given a show and was just working it out on the fly, discovering what worked and what didn't. Luckily, he can do that so quickly that you don't even see it yourself. He's a quick study, so he can master something very rapidly. I've seen him grow a great deal.
He's also a sponge; he absorbs so much around him, in all of the arts and media, and then it finds a way into his being and comes out in his storytelling or in his directing or in his style. He's been devouring art and literature and movies and ballet and opera since he was a child, so there's a vast backlog of references and idioms and styles and techniques that he wants to try, experiment with or use in a new way or interpret for a new generation.
That's why I think we're lucky to have him. He's bringing things to us as actors, but he's also bringing things to us as an audience and a generation that otherwise might go away.