Nathan Fillion On “Much Ado,” “Monsters U.,” Reboots, and More
by Dan Casey on June 27, 2013
Nathan Fillion is a man of many talents, least of which being his immense charisma and all-around likability. Even when he’s playing a monstrous frat boy in Pixar’s Monsters University, you can’t help but enjoy his work. In Joss Whedon’s recent microbudget adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, he brings the comic relief to an already sidesplitting script as Dogberry, the hapless constable who keeps order in Padua despite himself, a Shakespearean Chief Wiggum, if you will. Along with his sidekick Verges, played by Tom Lenk, the duo steal the show as their Abbott and Costello-worthy antics find them in one of the most unorthodox instances of police work since Carrie Mathison discovered the color wheel.
At a recent press day in L.A. for Much Ado, I caught up with Fillion to talk to him about taking on the Bard, the awesomeness that is Pixar, and what superhero franchise he’s most jonesing to take over. And, no, it’s not Captain Hammer.
Nathan Fillion: Didn’t I just see you?
Nerdist: You did! I was at Pixar for the Monsters University press day!
NF: Yes! That’s it. What did you think of Pixar?
N: It was awesome. I’d never been there before, and we all rode there on a bus, so it felt like going to summer camp for journalists.
NF: It’s the closest thing I can imagine to virtual Disney — virtual Disneyland.
NF: So much of what they’ve created — none of it is present. It all exists….
N: It’s self-contained. There’s so much happening under the lid, but it’s still really cool.
NF: What a game town!
N: It’s definitely an impressive place to walk around, especially that building they had us in, with the open atrium.
NF: Very impressive. Have you heard that they have Pixar University?
N: No. Is that…?
NF: If you can gather five employees that have the time, they can go over to Pixar University, and they will teach you anything you want to learn.
NF: You want to learn advanced chemistry? They will teach it to you. Archery, pottery, karate, jiu jitsu — whatever it is you want to know, they’ll teach you. If you can get 5 people together, they’ll bring someone in.
N: I wonder if there’s a list somewhere of all the esoteric classes people have taken?
NF: Oh, that would be neat!
N: Well, speaking of impressive, I really enjoyed Much Ado, you in particular.
NF: Thank you.
N: It’s interesting when you’re comedic relief in what’s already a comedy.
N: My first question is, who do I have to pay to get a spin-off Bad Boys of Padua with you and Tom Lenk? Because I really would love to see that.
NF: (laughs) That was a lot of fun! Here’s something I learned about working with Tom Lenk: If you want to be funny in a scene, stand next to Tom Lenk. I’m not a prop actor, but if I had to work with a prop, it would be Tom Lenk.
NF: That guy cannot help but be brilliant and hilarious, and the more understated he is, it seems like the more hilarious he is. That was a real treat. I’ve known him a long time. I’ve known that man over 10 years, and respect his talent. So when I got to work side-by-side with him, and just be witness to his process, it was an education, for sure.
N: There are certain people, that when they walk on the screen, you just can’t help but crack a smile. In your scenes, you guys definitely had that going on. So tell me a bit about how you got involved — how did you wind up as Dogberry? What was that like for you?
NF: I got a call from Joss Whedon — you always say ‘yes’—
N: Of course!
NF: Then I found out I was playing Dogberry, and I said, “Great!” I was very excited at first, then terrified. Joss set me at ease, a friend of mine helped me out; Just memorizing the dialogue was very difficult, it presented a real problem. But I got to a place where… you know what it all stems from? Understanding. When I watch these people, when I watch Clark and Alexis and Amy, I understand the pictures Shakespeare is painting. I get it, and I feel very smart, because I’m not a Shakespeare guy! I’m not a guy who goes out, “I wonder who is doing the next adaptation, I wonder what it will be like” — I’m not that guy. I found Shakespeare to maybe be a little snooty, and now I’m embarrassed for that, because when you see Shakespeare done well, now I understand why people are a fan. It’s not snooty; it’s brilliant, and it’s truth. I’m just so flattered that he would invite me, and so pleased to be a part of it.
N: I think one of the challenges, especially when you’re seeing a Shakespeare adaptation of any kind, is the language. It’s not what we’re used to hearing, Shakespearean English is a beast of a different color, but I thought that you guys did a very good job of making it seem natural, making it seem current. When you hear it at first, you’re like, “OK.” And a couple of minutes in, you don’t even notice.
NF: It takes a couple of minutes, and that’s not a lot, to dip into it. I’ve seen the movie five times now, and it still takes me a couple of minutes. They’re still speaking English, but it’s such poetry, that you are forced to listen. You have to — I squint, I frown, I lean in with one ear, but then you hit the gear. You hit the right spot, you mesh, then you relax into it, then you’re involved. You care about what people are saying, you care about what people are doing, you care about the choices they’re making and how they feel, and it’s a very satisfying experience.
N: Yeah, your brain sort of turns off those mental subtitles and just opens up and you get it. One of the things that I really enjoyed about the film as well is that it’s a film — it’s very well shot, it’s very beautiful, it’s very wonderfully staged, but it has that sort of live theater sensibility, it has that crackling energy.
NF: It feels a bit like a play.
N: Yes! And I think that really works to its advantage, because normally you would just see a live theater tape, and it’s terrible, if it’s too stilted, it’s going to be bad. But you had that natural, grounded feeling, but also that energy that you don’t find in other productions.
NF: I find myself, the last time we watched it, which was the premiere just the other evening – I think it was the fifth time I’ve seen the movie, maybe even the sixth — I find myself thinking about different things every time I see it. The other night, I was thinking about, “this was really well-staged, this person overhears this bit, I wonder how Shakespeare staged it?” The entrances, the exits, the “while someone is hiding and yet they’re talking” asides that the main characters can’t hear. I’ve been to the Globe….
N: The new one? They had to move it a couple of blocks.
NF: There’s a bridge right there were it was supposed to be. But they rebuilt the Globe, and it’s an impressive piece. It is a very impressive piece, and the history of it, and how it works, and how it was dressed up, and how it’s made. When we say “upstage” and “downstage” now, it’s because of how these stages were designed.
N: Like the proscenium.
NF: Exactly! There is a lot going on.
N: You kind of want to see the original rehearsal script with all of the blocking notes.
NF: I wondered a lot, how would he have possibly staged this? Because THIS is good, this to me makes perfect sense. How would he have managed back then?
N: You guys had such a compacted shooting schedule, 12 days. That sounds insane to me, because you hear about these other films that take years to produce, or at least they have more than 12 days. Do you think that helped with the looseness, that sort of sense that you’re watching a play unfold?
NF: I do, and Alexis and Clark were talking about this the other day, and I hadn’t put a finger on it, but they had, and they expressed it very well, and I’m going to try to do it justice now: When you have such a, it has to be very condensed shoot, we didn’t have a lot of time, we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal: This is how it’s going to go, this is really important, what if we try this?, sounds good, Action! That’s the gist of it. When you only have a couple of shots at it, there is a freedom in that if I am going to try something, I have to do it now, and the people next to you are doing the same thing. You have to be in tune, you have to be participating. There’s a wonderful moment in the scene where Benedick and… forgive me, he married Hero….
NF: Claudio, yes. They are wrestling on the girl’s bed. When Reed Diamond comes in, and they settle to their respective beds, and they’re still talking, but they’re knocking and jostling, and set a ballerina music box off, and that wasn’t planned. They stopped, looked over at it, it played itself out in a couple of notes, and then they continued talking. That kind of real life, that kind of happy accident, that kind of presence of mind to make this work, it has to work from the top to the bottom. Nobody stopped to say “Cut.”
N: Yeah, “Cut, can we get the music box back to one?”
NF: Right, which I think is the practice. There’s a safety in that, being able to say “Let’s do it again.” When time is not an issue, when money is not an issue — we did not have time, we did not have money, we had a deadline, it has to work, that attitude, trust and count on everyone around you really built that. People say, “Oh, look! A family!” I trust my family. I trust these people.
N: Yeah, that was one — Alexis [Denisof] actually brought up that exact same moment, and that’s really cool, because it builds that reality, because when a music box falls, you’re not going to just keep talking with your monologue, you’re not going to keep lecturing or doing an aside, you’re going to stop and acknowledge it, and that really grounds this. You’re hearing the language, and that takes you out a little bit, but when you see that moment, it sort of sucks you back in.
NF: It looked to me like an incredibly brilliantly choreographed moment, when it was not. It was real life, which I find so satisfying.
N: Exactly. That’s the perfect kind of happy accident. So what was your experience with Shakespeare prior to this? Had you performed much Shakespeare?
NF: Reading it in high school, seeing Hamlet on Broadway, standing room only, Ralph Fiennes.
NF: Right? And Shakespeare brunches at Joss’s house. That was my experience, the extent of it.
N: Did you have any sort of sense going into this, when he said he was going to be filming one of the readings, that it was going to be a movie on this scale?
NF: I literally thought, when we used to do brunches, he kept saying, “One day I want to film one of these.” I naively thought he was going to film us sitting around reading Shakespeare at brunch. That was not the case! I got to his house, when he said, “We’re going to film it!” – Hello! We’re actually going to make it into a little movie. I got to his house; I had pictured maybe hand-held cameras and iPhones. I got there, there were big screens, lights, boom operators, three cameras going, cables running, a power box, some kind of editing on the fly to condense the material that worked. There was a script supervisor there, there was catering — the best catering I’ve ever experienced! And all in this casual environment of friends at a friend’s house. I looked around, and said “We’re just going to film a little something???”
N: (laughs) Just a lark!
NF: He said, “Oh, yeah. I can’t do anything small.” But as far as movies go, this is laughably small. As far as what I was expecting? It’s big!
N: Yeah, especially compared to, he was just coming off of The Avengers. The scale really worked to its benefit, because you guys really got to the core of the performances. Unlike the other big adaptation this spring, The Great Gatsby, this I thought was done well — a good adaptation, and it was everything that I wanted from Gatsby that wasn’t there.
NF: Thank you, I’ll take credit for that.
N: By all means!
NF: That was mine.
N: I have you personally responsible in the review. So after this, what do you have coming up next? What can we look forward to? Obviously you’ve got Monsters University on the table.
NF: I’ve got Monsters University, I’ve got Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, I’ve got a DC Superhero movie, I’m the Green Lantern again — they’ve been so kind to me, those guys! All in all, I’m trying to take over summer.
N: That’s a good goal.
NF: Thank you.
N: I was just mentioning to Alexis, I was asking who I have to talk to to get him as Mirror Master in the Flash movie. What do I have to do to get you as Hal Jordan on the big screen? Because as much as I enjoy Ryan Reynolds as a person, I really enjoy your performances in the DC animated universe.
NF: Thanks! I’ve got to look at that honestly and say, first of all, it’s been done, and second of all, I think I’m a little too old to start playing Green Lantern. I think it’s a younger man’s game.
N: There’s the thing in the comics, he’s got the little white streak in the hair after being possessed by Parallax.
NF: He’s older. That’s true, that’s true, actually. That would be the direction I would have to go. The superhero I have my eye on—Greatest American Hero! I think he’s due for a re-do, it’s a role I’m comfortable in, as far as a “fish out of water” guy not prepared for what’s ahead of him, lots of heart, no strength, no plan, no experience, not the — doesn’t have the make-up, the genetic make-up, to do what’s ahead of him, but has to find it within himself with a tool he does not know how to use in this super-suit. I think Greatest American Hero is due for a re-do, and I want to do it.
N: I think you’re the man for the job.
NF: That’s why we’re bringing back The Rockford Files.
N: I’ve heard that they’ve been trying to bring that back for a while now.
NF: I’ve heard so, too, and I’ve been secretly praying that it doesn’t work out until I get offered the role.
N: Well, I’ll keep up with the voodoo doll for Rockford.
NF: Thank you.
Catch Nathan Fillion in Monsters University and Much Ado About Nothing in theaters now. You can also keep up with him on Twitter.
What superhero would you most like to see Nathan Fillion tackle? Let us know in the comments below!