SAN FRANCISCO — Actors Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof knew when they got the call from director Joss Whedon to star in his film version of William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" — available on DVD Tuesday — that this wasn't going to be a costumed tale taking place in a time long ago.
"It was more like bring your own clothes and it's being filmed at your buddy's house," says Denisof. "It sprung out of the readings we had been having at Joss's house for many years. Actors and non-actors will get together to read plays and this is very much in the style of that."
Whedon — the man behind "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "The Avengers" — opted to give the Bard's romantic comedy a more contemporary feel by setting it in present day and filming at his own home. Except for the dialogue, that generally stays true to Shakespeare's original text, and the black-and-white footage, the film could have been a well-produced home movie.
Both actors stress that the intent was to try to do the play justice for a modern audience, while honoring the time frame from when the play was written.
The focus of the tale is two couples: Beatrice (Acker) and Benedick (Denisof) along with Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). Beatrice and Benedick engage in a vicious battle of words as a means of masking their true feelings. Claudio and Hero are more reserved, but their quiet ways scream the love they have for each other.
"Much Ado" was familiar to Acker, whose first acting job after college was playing Hero in a stage production. Since then, the Texas native has become better known for fantasy and science-fiction projects like "Dollhouse," "Happy Town" and "Alias."
Acker and Denisof already had chemistry from starring on the TV series "Angel" for five years.
"Everything really had a shorthand from being able to rehearse at any time because the sets were right there to having a trust with all of these people, but especially Alexis and Joss," Acker says.
The instant chemistry meant the actors felt more free to try different things with their performance.
Acker says that when you get a Whedon script you would never think of making a suggestion about changes because you know Whedon selects words that perfectly set the scene for what he's doing. Denisof adds that Whedon's body of work is so good because he's been influenced by Shakespeare and writes about many of the same themes.
The actors would love if their take on "Much Ado" had an influence on those who tend to shy away from Shakespeare.
"We would love for this film to be an introduction to those people," Denisof says. "We wanted it to accessible, easy and fun. We didn't want it to be intimidating and sophisticated. There are plenty of interruptions that are extraordinary and beautiful while having ruffled shirts and tights. We are trying to do something different. We wanted to make it visceral, alive and be understandable.
"We want to invite everyone into this party and it not just be sacrosanct for the intellectuals."
And speaking of inviting people in, Whedon shot the film at his home to keep the budget tight. That meant the actors had access to every room — for long periods of time.
"I'm not saying anything except they are missing a lot of underwear. I'll leave it at that," Denisof says with a smile.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.