During a short break from writing and directing installments of the Avengers franchise, instead of taking a relaxing vacation, Joss Whedon (The Cabin in the Woods, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) assembled a team of familiar faces from his previous works and filmed an entire Shakespearean film over the course of just 12 days, using his own home as the backdrop. Set in the modern day and filmed in black and white using the original text, it’s definitely not what you would expect from Thor’s boss.
When Whedon asked if I wanted to be in his movie, I immediately said yes, and decided to hold off on telling him about that C I got in my senior-year UCLA Shakespearean acting class. (Shhhhhh! Secrets!). He partnered me with Castle’s Nathan Fillion (dreamy!) and let me live out my cop show fantasy of sporting my first-ever legit moustache.
I pulled Whedon away from his duties on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers 2 for a phone chat about Much Ado.
Joss Whedon: Really quickly, are you wearing a hat with a card in it that says "Press"? And a pencil in your ear?
Tom Lenk: Yes, but I’m not wearing pants. That does bring me to the fact that I’ve never done an interview before, so this is like playing football for the first time — at the Super Bowl. I’m really excited. OK here we go. Hello, Joss.
You’ve been a trailblazer for the LGBT community through your characters and story lines — thank you for that, by the way! Shakespeare never gave us any obviously gay story lines, but from what I can see on my Facebook newsfeed, the gays are very excited about Much Ado. Do you think that’s because it’s originally a theater piece?
I think there’s an element of theatricality that comes from…well, it’s a play. [Laughs.] There’s just a smooth kind of old-fashioned, timeless elegance. Like Rosalind Russell might pop up in it — and then there are some extraordinarily gorgeous men.
[Blushing.] Well, thank you. I wasn’t going to mention it—
When I say some, I mean one, and I’m talking to the ’Stache.
Do you think there are gay themes in the play?
There are a number of characters that you could interpret as being gay. Reed [Don Pedro, played by Reed Diamond] was number 1. There was a moment where I considered playing his character as openly gay, because he really doesn’t woo for himself; he just sort of likes to play the game. I did notice Verges’ [Lenk] hand lingering on Dogberry’s [Fillion] shoulder…
That may have been less Verges and more actual Tom Lenk coming through, due to my everlasting mancrush on Nathan Fillion. Did you have any mancrushes [on set]?
Well, my mancrush on Reed is not small.
The man does like to take his shirt off.
Yes bless his heart. When we start talking about Sondheim or Shakespeare, I’m just like, Oh, he’s dreeeeeaaamy.
Is there a Shakespeare play that comes to mind that you feel is ripe for a gay adaptation?
There are so many. First of all, there’s a lot of cross-dressing going on…Like Twelfth Night, the woman falling in love with the other woman because she thinks she’s a boy. Oh, really? Hamlet doesn’t exactly have the most fulfilling relationship with a girl. And he’s all about the classic teen existential alienation — part of why Shakespeare works now is that he’s so open to interpretation. It all comes from a time when men could talk about their feelings and love each other, which has sort of fallen out of the vernacular.
So you’re back in college. You decide to star in your own self-produced, one-man production of Shakespeare’s…fill in the blank.
Sorry, first of all I’m just playing with all of my hair. So exciting, whee, so much hair! OK. I’m done. And it’s Hamlet.
I just can’t believe you decided to “relax” and make this movie. Is there anything you do to actually wind down?
I don’t know how to relax. It is an actual bad thing, because I have trouble relating to the world when I’m not creating something. It was a great vacation — I was never happier than when I was shooting Much Ado — but that was partially because I was creating something. It was the same thing with the readings [Whedon hosted backyard and living-room readings of Shakespeare's plays]; I couldn’t just have had Sunday brunches where everybody comes over and we hang out and then they leave. That never occurred to me.
I'd just delivered a draft of The Avengers 2. And to celebrate that same night, I go on Twitter and get my own account, because I think I can get some followers and drive some business to the movie, and it’ll be fun. And then the moment I went on — a wave of incredible panic. Oh my God. People are going to read not only what I say, but the first draft of what I say?
I remember getting a signed permission slip to watch the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet in my freshman year English class. I’m excited that there may be some permission slips for future English classes to see [Much Ado]. The sexual charge that the film has — was that a conscious decision?
It was a very conscious decision. There’s a great deal of sex and innuendo, and it’s tied up in romance — it’s not all about love, it’s also about sex. I wanted to evoke one of those debauched weekend we-can-do-anything-we-want parties that I never seem to get invited to.
I'm just looking at your schedule — film festivals, speaking engagements, and I think you’re doing Fallon next week? Do you enjoy the performance aspect?
I’ve never been on a talk show before and I’m scared like a little girl — and not a brave little girl like the ones I write about. I’m nervous as fuck about it. I like public speaking. I like Q&As because then I don’t have to prepare something, I can sort of wing it. And usually at Q&As it’s the fans, so there’s a comfort zone there. And I love teaching — I was a TA for a couple of my teachers in college, and giving lectures was among my greatest thrills.
I’ve noticed that when your fans are up at the mic [about to ask a question], if they’re having a silent meltdown and are overwhelmed to be talking to you, you always seem to make the situation easy and talk them down off that ledge.
People say, “You helped me through a dark time,” and I used to think, “Oh this is why we connect so well.” They love the work. I love the work and I’m trying to write empowering stories. And I really didn’t understand for a long time that my entire career has been a 20-year cry for help. The only person I was trying to help through a dark time and empower was me, and that person who’s shaking and crying at me is basically me. So when they’re in that space, I’m right there. It’s difficult at a Q&A; you’re 200 feet away and how many arm gestures can I comfort them with? But I absolutely empathize with them.
Well…that just blew my mind. Thank you so much!
Thanks, Tom. You were a very fun reporter.
Thanks for being my first.
And thanks for not asking, “Why Shakespeare?” “Why Much Ado?” “Why black and white?”