News Column

Discovering Shakespeare

June 18, 2013


Any Joss Whedon project, even if it's "Much Ado About Nothing," is much ado about something.

"For me, the whole experience was a dream," says Jillian Morgese, 23, a Fair Lawn native who can be seen in her first major film role in a funky new version of the Shakespeare comedy, opening nationwide on Friday.

This might seem like unfamiliar territory for Whedon, the visionary cult director, producer and screenwriter whose projects like the TV shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly" and mega-movies like "Marvel's The Avengers" have won him a huge following and clinched his reputation as one of the gods of the geek- o-sphere, along with J.J. Abrams and Judd Apatow.

But in fact Shakespeare is absolutely in Whedon's line, Morgese says. Almost to the same degree that The Bard of Avon is not in hers.

"I have no Shakespeare background," Morgese says. "Actually, I spent most of my life as a gymnast. But [Whedon] always loved Shakespeare, he loved to read it. In his 'Buffy' [and 'Angel'] days, he used to have the entire cast over for Shakespeare brunches, and they would have drinks and sit outside his house and they would just read Shakespeare plays. One day he did 'Much Ado About Nothing' with Amy [Acker] and Alexis [Denisof], and he loved their take on it so much that he said, 'One day I have to film this.' "

It helps, of course, that Acker and Denisof were playing two of the juiciest roles in Shakespeare: Beatrice and Benedick, the wisecracking, quip-trading couple whose repartee is considered not just one of the high points of stage comedy, but also a model for a thousand screwball-comedy romances on TV and movies. Shakespeare's 1598 comedy was last filmed in 1993, with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in the leads.

In this new version, Morgese has the contrasting role of Hero, the younger, more conventional ingenue whose love for Claudio (Fran Kranz) is technically the motor of the plot. But here, as in his black and white photography and modern-day clothes (the film was made over 12 days at Whedon's house in Santa Monica), Whedon showed his innovative style - helping Morgese to mine things out of the placid character that haven't been seen before.

"A lot of times, 'Much Ado About Nothing' is done as the Beatrice and Benedick story, but [Whedon] made every person special," Morgese says. "Beatrice is very much the voice of the independent woman. She's interesting and fun to watch. Hero is kind of the representation of the girl who is not allowed to speak up. Joss directed me to put strength behind it."

Morgese (pronounced "More-Jesse"), now a California resident, found her way into the movies almost by accident. She had dreamed of being an Olympic athlete in school (Fair Lawn High School, class of 2007), and then studied merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

But her older sister Rachel had introduced her to Joss Whedon's TV shows, and she had become a big fan. So when the opportunity came to audition for a bit part in "Marvel's The Avengers" -- a waitress who flees from a superhero free-for-all in New York - she couldn't resist. She got the role. Though Whedon did, in the event, have a bone to pick with the way she sprinted nimbly over obstacles as she fled the disaster. "When I finished the take, Joss asked, 'Were you a gymnast? Because you made that look a little too easy.' "

When she filmed her bit in September of 2011, Whedon was already looking ahead to "Much Ado About Nothing," due to begin filming shortly after. On the "Avengers" set, Whedon had noticed Morgese's resemblance to Acker (the two are supposed to be cousins). So he invited her to audition.

"This was my first big role, my first time doing Shakespeare, a lot of firsts for me," she says.

Luckily, Whedon runs a very relaxed ship, ideal for a nervous first-timer.

"It wasn't a normal set where you just did a scene and you went home," she says. "We were encouraged to stick around. We had cast dinners. We helped each other learn lines between takes. Cast dance parties were a big thing. We would make a lot of excuses to hang out. You would wake up and there would be people on the couches."

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