Joss Whedon, Clark Gregg talk ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ Whedon fans

June 05, 2013 | 6:00 a.m.

Joss Whedon has long had an appreciation for the Bard's work, embodied in the upcoming “Much Ado About Nothing.” (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Clark Gregg is part of the Whedonverse, with roles in “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Avengers.” (Angela Weiss / Getty Images)

Joss Whedon, left, and Amy Acker on the set of "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof in "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Tom Lenk, left, and Nathan Fillion in "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Amy Acker, left, and Jillian Morgese in "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Ashley Johnson and Joshua Zar in "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Aerialists on the set of "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Joss Whedon has spent the last 15 years writing and directing tales of teen vampire-slayers, demon detectives, space cowboys and superheroes, but all the while, Whedon and his wife, producer Kai Cole, have nurtured a love for Shakespeare. The couple hosted Sunday gatherings for the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” cast and other friends to perform Shakespeare’s plays, and for years Whedon talked about maybe, someday, directing a Shakespeare film.

The opportunity came after “The Avengers,” when the couple chose to forgo their vacation time and instead invited dozens of actors, many of whom had appeared in Whedon’s previous undertakings, to film a modern take on “Much Ado About Nothing” in their home. Among the recruits was Clark Gregg, fresh off his Agent Phil Coulson role in “The Avengers.” Gregg plays Leonato, father to Jillian Morgese’s lovestruck Hero.

Much Ado About Nothing” arrives in theaters Friday. Hero Complex sat down with Whedon and Gregg to talk about making the film, the endurance of the Bard’s work and what it means to be part of the so-called “Whedonverse.”

HC: So Joss, why Clark as Leonato?

CG: [Laughs] Everybody else was busy! Everyone else in L.A.!

Clark Gregg plays Agent Phil Coulson in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (Bob D'Amico / ABC)

Clark Gregg plays Agent Phil Coulson in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (Bob D’Amico / ABC)

JW: No, I called people from England as well [laughs]. No, I went to Clark, and he was like, “No I’m doing ‘Trust Me,’ and we were shooting in that time frame. … And then I ended up getting Tony [Anthony Stewart] Head, and then he had to drop out, and then Greg Jbara, and then he had to drop out, and then I called Bradley Whitford, and he couldn’t do it. And I was like, “How’s your schedule on ‘Trust Me’ going?”… He was the guy for me because I wanted somebody who would keep the ethos of this thing that everybody’s kind of cool and sexy and funny, and Leonato’s often played very old and sort of doddering, and that’s not the guy I wanted.

CG: Though I brought some of that too.

JW: There was an occasional doddering moment.

CG: Want to see me dodder? Give me a big part two days out.

HC: Clark, had you done Shakespeare before?

CG: I had a little in college, a little bit after my 20s, I had a theater company in New York called the Atlantic that did new American plays for 10 years, and every once in a while, we’d do a little Shakespeare, a little weekend things to tell ourselves we could do it. But not in 15 years had I tried to even say that stuff out loud, although I had a dream a couple of days before Joss’ first call where I was doing Shakespeare and unlike almost any other acting dream, it wasn’t a nightmare. I thought it was odd. And it ended up being that fun.

HC: Joss, you filmed the movie in your home. Was that a strain on your family?

JW: Occasionally, my kids were like, “Where are the people we know?” But it’s part of how my wife designed the house so it would be a place for the arts, for dance and for theater and for film and for pottery and crocheting and everything. We really want our children to be around that as much as possible. It’s a wonderful energy. It both has a romantic aspect and takes away some of the romantic aspect — they go, “Oooh. Acting is like work!” But you know, you have to manage it. Everybody was very respectful. But for me, rolling out of bed, grabbing a cup of tea and saying, “Action,” that’s not a bad commute, downstairs.

PHOTOS: Joss Whedon and Kai Cole’s home

Aerialists on the set of "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Aerialists on the set of “Much Ado About Nothing.” (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

HC: Did your kids participate in the film?

JW: They were at the time 6 and 8. We talked about having kids just sort of running through frame occasionally, but we felt like this is a grown-up party, and kids eat up schedule time on their best day, and I don’t put my kids on the camera.  If they decide that’s what they want, that’ll be a different story, but they’re not gonna have greatness thrust upon them.

HC: Clark, you play a father in the film. What did you draw from?

CG: I have an 11-year-old daughter.

JW: And you often tell her not to live, right?

CG: She often shames me at the altar. It’s actually just a matter of time [laughs]. No, you know, the first thing I ever did was “Much Ado About Nothing.” I was playing goalie in this Division 3 soccer school in Ohio, and I dislocated my thumb. I was like, “What am I gonna do now?” And I was walking past the theater and they were having a production. I saw this beautiful woman walk in, and I said, “OK, that’s gotta be a sign.” And I went in there, and they gave me Benedick. I played that role, didn’t know what I was doing. I was so out of place. The theater people thought it was like a wildebeest had wandered in. I was in a fraternity, and it was hell week during the production, and part of hell week was you had to carry a brick, a gold brick, with the letters of the Greek fraternity — I can’t believe this was a part of my life. I left this college right after this. If anyone took your brick, then you had to carry a cinderblock. I had a place in the theater where I could leave my brick, and these poor theater people were like, “Who is this ridiculous frat boy in our play?” And then somebody took the brick. There was a girl on the crew whose boyfriend was a Beta and they took it and smashed it to pieces, and I had to walk around campus with a cinderblock. I don’t know. That’s really tangential. And thus a career was born!

JW: And so that’s how you make waffles!

CG: So where I was really going to go is I remembered that production and how Leonato was this doddering, helpless old guy watching chaos around him, and that’s kind of what I thought I was going to do. And then I got into it, and now that I have a daughter, the minute that people started besmirching, it was murder. Somebody had to go down, and at first I didn’t know if it was gonna be her or them or what. It brought up a lot of really powerful stuff I was surprised by, which kind of made it more compelling.

HC:  Shakespeare can be so modern.

JW: That’s why I love it. Because it’s still so relevant. Actually, I would say that’s exactly half of it. I love it because it’s so modern, because there’s still so much to learn and say and think through in the text, and every time you see a good production, or do a reading, or really read through it, you find something you didn’t see before. Every now and then, I’ll just memorize a little bit from something just to sort of feel it out, just to sort of live it for a little while. And then I’ll forget it, but it’s amazing how much you learn just from that one little exercise. On the one hand, yeah, it’s so accessible, and on the other hand, there is a remove. There is musicality in the language that is largely lost. When you hear it, you’ll hear something like “Glengarry Glen Ross,” where the language is about the music as much as it’s about the meaning. And it works, it doesn’t take away from it. Or the Coen brothers, whose language I think is well or better than anybody, certainly in film. And the distance between you and it is what makes it transcendent, but the connection is what makes it worth that.

CG: I gotta say, if you ever have any doubt about how powerful words are, you just start saying this stuff, and magic happens. Things are evoked that you weren’t even thinking about. When you go back to some stuff that isn’t like that, you really feel how much more you have to bring to that, and how much less evocative some stuff is.

JW: I thought we weren’t gonna talk about “S.H.I.E.L.D.”

CG: Aww, hey-o!

Joss Whedon, left, and Amy Acker on the set of "Much Ado About Nothing." (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

Joss Whedon and Amy Acker on the set of “Much Ado About Nothing.” (Elsa Guillet-Chapuis / Bellwether Pictures)

HC: For this film,  you plucked so many young actors and comedians. What was it like to be a pair of veterans in the mix?

JW: It’s fun. Every now and then, I realize, “These guys are in their 20s. I need to lie down.” They never get tired.

CG: What do you mean? You can keep up with them. You’re the one dancing at 4 a.m., going, “Come on guys! We’re still dancing!” I’m asleep by then.

JW: Well, I have a dancing problem. But that energy has been a very new thing for me. They’re young. A lot of them are comedians, like comics, and that’s a huge subculture that I’ve sort of been looking around in, and I’ve learned a lot. About life. They’re like funny gurus.

HC: Joss, people come to conventions and say things like, “Buffy saved my life,” or they call themselves Browncoats. What’s that like for you to have that sort of devoted fan base?

The cast of "Firefly." (Fox)

The cast of “Firefly.” (Fox)

JW: I feel gratitude. Every artist wants to reach people and move them and help them, I think, on some level. Everything I write about is about gaining strength, finding strength, becoming less helpless. I feel like that’s something I wanted very much in my life and didn’t find, so I keep writing about it all the time. And when somebody says that they connect with that, they’re not just connecting with my work, they’re connecting with the exact need that I had when I wrote it, which is why it helped them through that time, because it was helping me deal with mine. So it’s not just a great feeling of having helped somebody, it’s a connection. I can’t really describe how powerful it is for me.

HC: Whedon fans are sort of a community.

JW: That’s the thing that’s surprised me the most from the start — the community. Because I understood the idea of fans. I love the things I love, and a geek is basically an enthusiast, and I am that. I hadn’t expected, like, all the money that the Browncoats have raised for charity, and  how many people reach out to each other and the way that they connect, not just romantically, but as communities, that was very surprising to me. I think it’s easier now with the Internet for people to do that, but also there’s so much goodwill in that community. It’s not a bunch of people arguing about where the holodeck is. It’s not that I don’t think those fans are caring and loving too, but there is an element of fandom that is about exclusivity, and then there’s an element that’s all about inclusivity, inclusiveness, and that’s what I keep seeing from these people.

CG: If there’s an ethos that partly comes from [Joss], it has always been about bringing people to the floor who are different, and giving women a chance to not be limited by barriers, and that within that, that struck such a nerve that I kind of suddenly found myself in this family.

JW:  When we’re the veterans, I don’t feel that way. I feel like I’m the guy who’s trying to find out what’s going on from everybody else. I think, “My family — you’re not trying to ditch me, right? You guys?” Because I’m so amazed by everybody around me. That’s kind of why I made the movie. I’m like, “Look! Look what these guys can do! Isn’t this nuts?” And I feel like I’m just starting to figure it out.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark


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