With some not-so-sparkling Hollywood scripts, actors often fall back on the notion “It ain’t Shakespeare” to get them through.
Not so with director Julie Taymor’s adaptation of “The Tempest,” penned by the Bard himself. The intimidation factor when tackling an esteemed work by arguably the greatest wordsmith in history was high, but the actors came from different directions to shove aside academic pretensions and connect to its timeless vitality.
“This is the thing that you need to know: Shakespeare's f--king brilliant,” insists Russell Brand, who plays Trinculo and was drawn to the enduring dynamics of the story. “Like in the old days when it was on, he was put on opposite dogfights and cockfights and bear-baitings. So he couldn't be boring. He had to be exciting!”
Helen Mirren, a Shakespearean veteran who headlines the film in a gender-switch from the original text by playing Prospero as a sorceress named Prospera, says she enjoys the process of transforming esteemed Elizabethan stories into something cinematic.
“It's always rare to make a film that's [pure] Shakespeare, anyway,” says Mirren. “And that's what's exciting about it, because it becomes a thing that will last for a very, very long time – for 40, 50, 60 years they'll still be watching this movie. But to radically change the character from a male into a female is quite a bold move, especially, in film. It will give people a lot to think about for the next 40 years.”
Chris Cooper, who plays Antonio, says his first experience with the Bard was while he was taking college courses. “It was, frankly, pretty daunting, he says. “Thank goodness I had enough time to bone up on this character and the dialogue.”
Alan Cumming, the film’s Sebastian, has a history with Shakespearean works, but it took a little local pride to really get him hooked. “I remember doing 'Macbeth’ at school and I was so excited because it was set in Scotland and it was actually an ancient story that kind of had some relevance to me, because the place is a mansion quite near where I grew up. Then the very first play I ever did as a professional actor was 'Macbeth.’ And I played 'Hamlet'. So yeah, Shakespeare is quite peppered throughout my resume.”
Taymor, who frequently mounts inventive interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays on stage and screen, thinks the magical elements of “The Tempest” make it all the more alluring for modern audiences raised on Harry Potter and superheroes.
“I thought, what better play to bring to a wide audience and when I did it in the theatre, I did it for young people,” says Taymor. “And they loved it – teenagers would drag their parents. So that was a clue to me that if we do this properly, then maybe they'll be an audience that will say, 'You know what? Shakespeare's cool. I get it. I'm not so dumb. It's not so hard. I actually enjoy the language.'”