When Amy Acker landed her first major TV role, as demon hunter Winifred "Fred" Burkle on the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spin-off "Angel," it came with an unusual perk: an invite from the show's producer, Joss Whedon, to read Shakespeare.
"He saw that I had done Shakespeare before, and he asked, 'Would you ever want to come to my house? We read plays and drink wine.' I said, 'Sure,' " Acker said in a recent phone interview.
At one reading, Whedon had Acker and her "Angel" co-star Alexis Denisof portray the lead roles in Shakespeare's comedy "Much Ado About Nothing." The actors sparked as the shrewd lady Beatrice and the perpetual bachelor Benedick, who engage in "a merry war" of insults and name-calling.
Denisof learned, long after the fact, that "Much Ado," was the one play Whedon wanted to shoot, "and he wanted us to play these roles."
"Luckily," Acker said, "he never told Alexis and I, or we probably would have called him every day, bugging him to make it."
Eventually, the movie came to pass: a modern-dress, black-and-white version of "Much Ado About Nothing," starring Acker and Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick. It debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and is now rolling into theaters across the country. It opens Friday, June 21, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City.
The movie was shot in about 12 days, in the same Santa Monica home where the readings took place a house Whedon shares with his wife, Kai Cole (one of the film's producers), who designed it.
Shooting took place in late 2011, right after Whedon finished principal photography on his mega-budgeted action movie "The Avengers." According to Denisof (who has a small role in "The Avengers"), Whedon had planned to take a family vacation while the "Avengers" special-effects crews went to work, but was persuaded against it.
"What Joss really needed to clean up his mind was to shoot the little Shakespeare movie he'd always dreamed of doing," Denisof said.
Then Whedon called Acker to invite her to play Beatrice. "For about a week after that, I said, 'That's never going to happen,' " she said. "On the first day, I showed up and there were camera trucks and catering and a wardrobe person steaming our clothes for us. I thought, 'Oh, a real movie.' I think I thought it was going to be Joss and his iPhone, filming us reading the play in his backyard."
The cast includes many actors familiar to Whedon fans: Clark Gregg ("The Avengers") as the patriarch Leonato; Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz (both from "Dollhouse") as Benedick's compatriots Don Pedro and Claudio; Sean Maher ("Firefly") as the villain, Don John; and Nathan Fillion ("Firefly") and Tom Lenk (who was featured on "Buffy" and "The Cabin in the Woods") as the play's comic-relief constables.
"He pulled together a group that knows each other and likes each other," Denisof said. "You always know in Joss' hands, you're safe."
"Anyone who works with Joss has a deep trust for him," said Acker, who also appeared in "Dollhouse" and "The Cabin in the Woods." "He'll just come up and give you something that takes you in a different direction, and opens up a whole new aspect of a character, or takes a scene to a place you didn't see it going. And he allows your ideas to build on that."
Denisof imagined Benedick as "a real guy not a fancy Elizabethan or medieval poet," he said. "He thinks he's John Wayne, but then he falls in love and he's more like Jerry Lewis."
"Much Ado About Nothing" was the first play Acker ever performed professionally she played Beatrice's cousin, Hero, the younger ingenue. Even then, Beatrice was "the perfect leading woman to me," she said. "She has the strength and the wit, and she also has these amazing emotional scenes."
And then there's that Shakespearean dialogue, which took some practice, she said. "Having that rich dialogue, to use those words that you could almost chew on them, it makes the emotion and the humor come out so much easier."
And Shakespeare's language is with us even today. For example, the lyrics of "Sigh No More," the title track of Mumford & Sons' 2010 debut album, stem mostly from "Much Ado About Nothing."
"You hear almost any one of his plays, and you go, 'That's where that comes from,' " Denisof said.
In terms of emotional range, Acker said, Shakespeare's dialogue matches Whedon's TV scripts. In both, she said, "you've got moments that are hilarious and moments that are tragic."
"Benedick and Beatrice are the original romantic-comedy couple," Denisof said, citing examples from Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in "Moonlighting" "anywhere you can think where the guy and the girl should be together, but start out arguing."
'Much Ado' on screen
Director Joss Whedon, of "The Avengers," makes a movie version of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."
When • Opens Friday, June 21
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.