06 June 2013
There are a lot of exciting films coming out in 2013 (here’s looking at you, Catching Fire!) but none of them have us as psyched as the impending release of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. The My Cinema staff is excited, the My Theatre staff is excited, the My TV staff is excited- the film, which finally hits wide release this Friday, is the combination of So Many of our favourite things (Shakespeare! Whedon! Denisof! Acker! Maher! Fillion! Kranz!). So our celebration will be four-fold, including THREE exclusive interviews and our review of the film from its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
On Monday we kicked things off in Part 1 with Amy Acker, the Whedon regular who the director hand-picked to play the witty but lovelorn leading lady Beatrice. Click Here to read Amy’s full interview from the 2010 My TV Awards and Here to read her thoughts on Much Ado the week the news of the film broke.
Today is Part 3, the last in our mini-series of interviews with the cast. When the film came to TIFF for its World Premiere, Much Ado‘s gracious villain Sean Maher was kind enough to meet me for a one-on-one at The InterContinental Hotel downtown. I was beyond thrilled to meet the man who brought my favourite Firefly character to life and Sean was even more dashing in person than expected. In the crispest of blue suits and armed with a giant bottle of coconut water, the thoughtful and charming former Dr. Simon Tam proved as personable as they come as he brightly recounted his time on that legendary series and took us behind the scenes of Much Ado‘s top-secret 12-day shoot.
Keep your eye on the site tomorrow as we conclude Much Ado-a-palooza with our review of the film!
How’s Toronto treating you so far?
Toronto’s been great. You know, it’s my first time at TIFF, so, I’m a TIFF virgin, but I’ve been to Toronto many times. I have very, very, very fond memories of Toronto. I shot a movie here years ago called Brian’s Song, which is one of my most wonderful experiences, professionally, and then I was here with [Firefly co-star] Jewel Staite, shooting Warehouse 13, which was like a reunion of sorts. And then last time I was here—actually, sitting in this hotel—was with Amy Acker. We came for… WizardWorld? Like a Comic Con-type thing.
I would imagine Firefly people are royalty there.
Yeah, actually, it’s amazing. What, ten years we’ve been cancelled now, and it’s like [mimes being overwhelmed].
How was the experience doing the 10th Anniversary Comic-Con panel?
It was crazy. You know, there were 20,000 people or something like that? Trying to get in, and obviously, they couldn’t let everyone in. I don’t remember, actually, how many people were in the room, but people just swarmed outside. It was overwhelming, but it’s amazing. I mean, I never thought that ten years later I would still be [recognized for that one show].
Did you have any idea, when you were first doing the pilot, that it was going to have an impact at all?
No. God, no.
I mean, I thought it was something— we all knew it was something special. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but the cast, we are like family. We clicked, like, instantaneously, it was a very sort of organic meshing of people. It was wonderful. We all respected each other as actors and as people, and there really wasn’t one missing link, and that’s what I think people responded to, so while we were working on the show, it felt special to us, and we didn’t want it to end, of course, because we just loved coming to work everyday— and that’s not always the case in Hollywood. But I did not think that ten years later—ten years after the cancellation- that I would still be talking about it, or being celebrated for it, you know? It’s amazing. It’s humbling and it’s flattering, and it’s everything.
Do you still keep in touch with most of the people from it?
We do. We all keep in touch. I just saw Jewel last weekend, and saw Nathan not too long ago. We all have little dinner parties.
The Much Ado cast seems to be assembled from everything Joss has touched- there’s a little Buffy (Tom Lenk), a lot of Angel (Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof), some Dollhouse (Fran Kranz, Reed Diamond), some Avengers (Clark Gregg), but you and Nathan Fillion are the only ones from Firefly. Did you know all the others going in?
Yeah. Amy and I are dear friends, I had met Alexis, I knew Fran. I had not met Reed, Ashley Johnson and I had not met. But you know, when he handpicks—I had a similar experience on Firefly, because when we came together on Firefly there was this extraordinary camaraderie within the crew. Joss had taken the crew from Buffy and Angel, and assembled this wonderful crew who already knew each other, who already gelled, who already had a rhythm. There’s something to be said when you bring together people who you’re loyal to and who are loyal to you. Everybody shows up to work. You can have a good time. It’s extraordinary energy to be around, but when it’s time to work, everyone works. Which was the case with Much Ado.
We had very little time to shoot it. We had twelve days to actually shoot it. I mean, we had a ton of rehearsal beforehand, but, you know, it’s a Shakespeare play, it’s crazy that we were meant to do this in twelve days but everybody showed up with 150%, everybody knew their words, everybody was ready to work, and I think that’s what was so exhilarating about it. It was essentially like you were shooting live theatre. There just happened to be a camera in the room, you know? But we were using the space as the stage and it was just really extraordinary.
When were you approached about the film?
It all started with an email. I was working on another show in Chicago, I came home at the end of the night. There was an email from Joss—at like, two o’clock in the morning—and he said, “This is what I’m doing, I’m throwing together this film. I need a sexy villain, what sayeth you?” [Laughs]. And then I emailed him back saying, [mimes typing] “Aw, Joss. Does this mean you think I’m sexy?” And that was it. I actually was worried because I was working on a series; I was worried about being able to get out to shoot the film, but my wonderful manager worked a bit of magic and next thing I knew, I was heading to LA to shoot Much Ado. And then the show got cancelled.
You mentioned there was a lot of rehearsal before the shoot-
Yeah. Everything was shot at Joss’ house, so we held all rehearsals at his house. And it’s wonderful because, as actors, you don’t always have a chance to be on set. Especially if that set is supposed to be your home or something and you’re unfamiliar with the ins and outs of your kitchen drawers and you’re supposed to have lived there for ten years— it’s really hard. So what was wonderful about this was that we were given the space so early on, and we were allowed to explore, as actors, and get 100% familiar with what [would be] happening when we were shooting it. And then we got to go away and digest that—and then come back and shoot it. So it was fast—the 12 days is extraordinarily fast—but to be able to have that time on the set, and to be able to have that time to rehearse and then to be able to go to sleep with that, you know? And let it sort of sink in, I think, is a wonderful gift.
Apart from being sexy, what about you do you think made Joss go, “he’s my villain”?
Oh gosh. I don’t know. It’s funny because I’ve never been cast as a villain before—
– Except for the first fifteen minutes or so of Firefly-
[Laughs]. That’s true; when you don’t know what’s going on.
But we were shooting a scene—myself and Reed and Fran—it’s a pretty heated scene, one of my favorite scenes in the film—and when we cut, I was standing off on the side, next to Joss. And we were both in our own little worlds, I was sort of, like, trying to stay in the actor’s zone, or what have you, and he turns to me and was like, “you’re such a dick.”
[Laughing as he recounts the story, fondly imitating Joss on his lines].
And I was like, “thank you!”; I was beaming, I was just overwhelmed with joy. I was like, “I am having so much fun being a dick. I’ve never been a dick.” And he was like, “you’ve never been a dick?” And I was like, “No, I’ve never been a dick.” And he was like, “You should be a dick more.” And I was like, “Okay. This is getting awkward. Let’s just move on.”
I just had so much fun with it. No one had ever given me the opportunity. I don’t know why he thought of me for it [but] I’m so happy he thought of me for it. It was just so delicious to sink my teeth into something I had never done. What I loved about Don John is that he wasn’t like, “Mwah ha ha ha ha,” [classic evil hand gestures]—just your standard villain who’s just mean—he’s so calculating and manipulative and just so complex in his ways with his victims. He’s so seemingly earnest to your face while he’s, you know, screwing your life. He’s very intelligent in his villainy. I loved doing that. I loved playing that.
Were you familiar with the play at all before you started?
I had read it. It had been a long time since I had read it; I remembered the basic gist of it. I couldn’t remember specifically Don John. You know, I was like “Don John, Don Pedro?”—I was having a little trouble with it—but when he said “villain” it was like, ding ding ding! But it was actually my first time doing Shakespeare, so I was terrified. [Laughs]. Terrified, terrified. But again, this fear turned into, just, one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had working in a long time. It was really—it was wonderful. And again, because of the set, it really just felt like we were doing the play and they happened to be catching it on film.
Don John’s one of the few Shakespeare villains who doesn’t have a big speech explaining his motivations—what did you do to try and humanize him? Or did you just have fun with the pure villainy?
You know, I did have fun with the pure villainy, but I kind of felt bad for him, he just sort of felt… lost, to me. Like, he almost felt bored in his, “oh, who am I going to screw over today, I’m so bored,” you know? I think deep down, actually, I felt bad for him. I think having sympathy for him is maybe what brought my humanization to him.
Did you see the movie with Keanu Reeves as Don John?
I didn’t. I just hadn’t seen it, and then when I was told about it, I specifically didn’t see it because I didn’t want to say, “I’m not going to do that,” or “Oh, I’m going to do that.” I just wanted to come at it internally, and not from any external influences, so no.
What about this interpretations do you think is going to surprise people who know the play really well?
Oh gosh. Well, I’ve never seen any other interpretation. You know, it’s Joss, there are some Jossisms in it. He didn’t change the text, obviously, but he obviously sprinkles his magic on it.
First of all, the tone of the film—it all being in black and white—and the bits and pieces that I’ve seen are just aesthetically extraordinary. I mean, his home is beautiful. Not ostentatious by any means, but it’s just the perfect environment for this play that takes place on this one estate. And Joss’s house is all different floors and different rooms and mazes and bathrooms that lead to other bathrooms, and it’s just sort of the perfect place for this cat-and-mouse game that happens in the play.
I think, in terms of overall direction, he brought it down to be as intimate and conversational as possible. He didn’t want it to be like, [uber theatrical] SHAKESPEARE!, which I think works well with Much Ado because it’s not in iambic pentameter, and it’s, I think, probably the most successful and most timeless of Shakespeare’s comedies.
Say that these Bellwether Pictures Shakespeare films become a regular thing. Do you have another Shakespearean character you’d love to play?
Oh, God. [Pauses to think]. Richard III.
That’d be fun. Weird for him to be sexy, though.
He’s a hunchback.
I know. I know. Yeah, I guess I could go down the cliché route as well. Like, Hamlet.
[Richard III] was actually the first time I experienced Shakespeare, which is probably why I say it. I was in London, in college, studying abroad, and I saw Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I just remember being like—I didn’t know the play, and I hadn’t read it—but I was like, “Oh my god. This is what doing Shakespeare right is. Because I don’t know what anyone’s saying, but I’m feeling and I’m getting.” [Laughs]. I compare it to opera. That was my goal with Much Ado, because it was my first experience with Shakespeare.
I have an incredible voice and speech coach- Shakespeare is her forte, she had played Beatrice and she knew the play in and out- and I just worked with her for hours and hours and hours, breaking down literally every single word, every line. Going over different interpretations—because there are so many interpretations for like, one line— and just kind of breaking it down. I found, with Shakespeare, that if I didn’t know what I was saying, if I wasn’t specific exactly with my thought on every single line, I forgot the words and got lost. It’s like the most challenging way to keep you present as an actor. That was my goal, for all the people who don’t know what happens in this play, I just want to be able to convey the story to them. They don’t need to know exactly the words. Again, I keep comparing it to opera. You go to the opera and you’re sobbing. It’s in Italian—I don’t speak Italian—but you know what’s going on because it’s done well. And I think, I hope, that’s what people get from this film.
Can you tell us something about Joss or one of your co-stars that most people don’t know?
Does everyone know that Joss is a really good dancer?
No, I find that surprising.
Loves to dance. Loves to dance. Will dance for hours on end, and is a really good dancer.
Yeah. Like, club dancing.
And he’s got a fear of game nights.
I don’t know.
He seems like he’d be good at game nights.
Well, this is the funniest thing, because you know the Much Ado idea was birthed out of a Shakespeare Sunday [Whedon’s famed get-togethers where friends and co-workers gather to read through a play]. Well I, a New York transplant in LA,- especially [during] Firefly and shortly thereafter- when I would get the invitation to a Shakespeare Sunday, I’d be like, “Oh… I’m so busy,” or “Oh… I’m actually going back to New York,” [Laughs guiltily]. So I’ve actually never been to one because of my fear of Shakespeare. I’m terrified to do that. But in my defence, whenever Joss is invited to a game night, we can never tell him it’s a game night. We’re like, “Oh hey, we’re getting together at Nathan’s house for a barbecue, just casual, you know, we’ll just hang out.” [Laughs]. Then we’re like, “Game Night!” and he’s like, “Oop. Gotta go.” For some reason game nights just terrify him.
I mean, game nights make me nervous too, but like, give me a couple of glasses of wine and I’m fine. [Laughs].
So are you going to go to Shakespeare Sunday from now on?
He hasn’t had one in a while—obviously, he’s been busy—
Making billion dollar movies and whatnot.
Yeah, just little piddling here and there. But yeah, I think probably the next one.
Let’s go back to Firefly for a minute: how often do you get called Simon on the street instead of Sean?
I was just called Simon twenty minutes ago, upstairs.
Actually, “Dr. Tam”.
Usually, it’s Simon, or Simon Tam. But never Dr. Tam. I know that’s a true follower.
You and Summer Glau did a great job of making your brother-sister dynamic feel very honest. How did you approach developing that so quickly?
That was literally one of those [snaps fingers] instantaneous moments that I talk about with these cast members that were so remarkable to be around. It was Summer’s first job. Or, she had done [one episode of] Angel, and this was her first big thing and she was nervous and- I hate to use that word— green. I think there was an inexperience to her that, for me, as a person, I felt very protective of her, and I wanted to help her. What was so funny about Summer was the work that she was doing was beautiful and every time I got to work with her it was just, it was so easy because she’s such a gifted actress. And then there was sort of this caretaking [side] of Simon, and also this caretaking [side] of Sean that were kind of the same thing. Because she was kind of insecure, like, “Oh, is what I’m doing–?” And I was like, “what you’re doing is beautiful. Let’s do it again”. So it was probably the easiest of some of the relationships to find.
And then, Jewel [who played Simon’s love interest Kaylee], of course, would be another one that just came… [waves a hand] ba-dump. [Laughs] You know? But everyone always asks me what my inspiration was for that sibling [relationship] and I have two siblings that I would do anything for, so I think it was easy for me to kind of evoke that sort of commitment and the sacrifices that Simon made for her. But again, it really was Summer, as well.
What was one of the hardest things to pull off as Simon?
I think sometimes the special effects and the green screen were a little tricky. And suturing as fast as I can— [Laughs]— under a great deal of time pressure, pretending I know what I’m doing while I’m speaking all this crazy super space doctor stuff! You know, he was a remarkable surgeon—all that stuff should have been second nature to him, he could suture in his sleep—but that was tricky for me. But we had a technical adviser on set, so, especially the days that I had to do something like that, every time I wasn’t working, I was with her practicing on a piece of leather, because that’s reminiscent of skin. I would suture. Suture, suture, suture, and just do it and do it and do it til I could get it down. I still never felt confident in my suturing abilities.
Did you have a favorite memory from the show or the set?
So many, for so many different reasons. I always laugh—I don’t know why I laugh—I always think of Morena [Baccarin]. Morena got some sunburn on her cleavage once.
Because of her costume [as Inara, a “registered companion”]?
Yes! When we’d land on a planet, we’d go to like Santa Clarita, which is north of LA and it can be 110 degrees, and like, we’re out “on a planet” in the middle of nowhere. And poor Morena got burned on her cleavage. And Jewel and I thought it was the funniest thing in the world.
I have wonderful memories from “Safe”, shooting that stake scene [where Simon and River are almost burned alive], as an actor, was one of my favorite moments to get to play. And then “Jaynestown” was another— oh my God I had so much fun shooting that, because I felt like it was fun for Simon—or me—to be a little more comedic, and not as stuffy. And then “Ariel” was also my favorite, favorite, favorite. Because, as the tone goes, I felt that that was sort of what I always envisioned the show being; especially when I saw it [on TV]. And it’s wonderful because Simon was finally taking control and taking risks and getting his hands dirty.
What was it like to comeback and do Serenity?
Oh. It was magnificent. I mean, I didn’t believe it until the table read. I had been on so many cancelled shows, and you always get that whole “this isn’t the end, we’re going to go somewhere else,” you know, “another network is interested in this,” and it just all fizzles, and you just have to get other jobs and you move on. When we were cancelled, it was devastating, and Joss was like, “I’m not done with this. I’m not done with this.” And part of me was like,“Yes you are”. You know, “thanks, fearless leader, but it doesn’t work out that way. You don’t know, you come from Buffy and Angel and never get cancelled. I get cancelled all the time. This is what happens.” Then Summer and I were having dinner- Joss was cooking us dinner then he was leaving for Cape Cod, and he was like “I’m off to go write the script”. And I was like, “What?” and he was like, “Oh, yes. It’s happening.” Well, I knew it was like, [air quotes] happening, I didn’t know it was like… happening. [Laughs]. It was just, wow. And even then, it was like, “There goes Joss,” and when I’m doing the negotiations and I’m doing the deal with my agent, I’m still like, “is this really happening?” and then it was the table read when we all sat down and I’m just looking across the table and just seeing these people that I love speaking the words of these characters that I loved, and that’s when—I mean, I get goosebumps just talking about it—I think that’s when I was like, “wow, this is really happening.”
Speaking of sadly cancelled shows, I was really actually enjoying The Playboy Club.
Oh, thank you. Me too.
Did you have a lot of faith in that show, or did you think it was dead on arrival?
I did have a lot of faith in that show. Apparently everybody had a lot of faith in that show.
NBC seemed to be behind it, they aired the episodes in the right order and everything—
I know. It was crazy! Who would have thought the network would do that? [Laughs]. You know, the network told us they were behind us, up until they cancelled us.
I loved that show. I mean, I’m not a marketer, so I’m not going to attempt at calling fault—but I don’t think people knew what the show was about. I think they thought, “Oh, Playboy Club, it’s about Playboy Bunnies and it’s about sex.” But it really wasn’t about sex. It was actually about a time period, and it was about these women trying to be independent women surviving in a time period when women didn’t survive. And everyone was like, “I didn’t know there was singing” and I was like, “Yes! Laura Benanti, Tony-award-winning, she sings in every episode”. I think there was a lot to that show that people didn’t know.
But I loved my storyline, and the writers—everyone was responding a great deal to the storyline with myself and my wife, so, unfortunately, we were doing a lot, there was a lot that we were working on that never got to be seen. I loved the direction it was going.
So, it’s a shame, but it’s one of those experiences. I have wonderful relationships from the show, especially Leah Renee, the girl who played my wife is a dear, dear friend. Everything happens for a reason.
If you could resurrect one cancelled show —other than Firefly—to see what happens to your character, which would you pick?
What do you think happens to Sean?
I think there was still a lot down the pike with the Mattachine society—I know there was stuff coming.
Because we live in the future.
[Laughs]. Yeah. I would like to have seen a sort of gay rights history—where that went. I think there was a lot going on in terms of his sexuality being found out, and then how do people react to that in the sixties? What I was hoping for with that character, as a gay man, was sort of shedding a light on where we’ve come from. And I think when you expose people to bigotry, it causes them to take a step back and go, “Oh, wow, is this really something that’s going on?”. The evolution of rights for the gay community is [something] I was hoping to see more of.
You have two kids at home. Does that change how you approach getting jobs and what jobs you take?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.
Do you prefer TV over film or vice versa?
It depends on the story and the script. I have an amazing partner who is incredibly supportive so if something resonates with me, and I want to go for after it, he’s behind me 150%. Every single time. I took two years off with Sophia my daughter, she’s got such a strong sense of herself, and she’s so confident, so independent; so, leaving this weekend—and she just started kindergarten- normally, a child would be out of sorts starting a new school and “oh no, one of my dads is leaving,” but she’s just like, “are you bringing me a present when you get back?”
Well, are you?
Of course. [Laughs].
But I think there’s a lot to be said for when you put in the hard work of parenting, it’s okay to say, “Okay, I’m going to let my energy go a different way just now,” and she’ll be fine, and I’ll just come right back to her when I’m done.
You’ve been on the festival circuit with Much Ado. What’s next now that the film is opening?
I wish I knew more. I just did a new play by a remarkably gifted young playwright, so we’re workshopping that. And I’m also trying to write [an independent film], which I’ve never done before, so I’m in that process.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Yes! One of my friends wrote a film. It’s called Best Friends Forever. Brea Grant is one of the writers and Vera Miao- they are friends of mine- and it’s sort of an apocalyptic Thelma and Louise. It’s two girls on a road trip, at the time of the apocalypse. But I think what’s so wonderful about it is, it’s such a small film, so the apocalypse is all happening off-screen. They don’t know. It’s sort of like this coming of age experience for these two girls. So I have a small role in that.