In blockbuster director Roland Emmerich’s (Independence Day, 2012) latest film Anonymous, he gets to the heart of a question that has been a fiery rumor for centuries: Did William Shakespeare really write all that masterful work? In Anonymous (check out the Anonymous trailer), actor Rafe Spall is charged with playing Shakespeare and in our exclusive interview, the actor reported his utter delight playing a UK legend.
Spall did extensive research on playing the Bard and shares with Movie Fanatic a few things he’s noticed about the legacy of Shakespeare, what the blockbuster director Emmerich was like to work for and how his latest film, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, is coming along.
Movie Fanatic: What is it about Shakespeare’s story that we still find so compelling after four centuries?
Rafe Spall: I think one of the reasons that this film was made and that there is such a controversy that surrounds who wrote these plays is because it’s so extraordinary that one man could have written this volume of varied, extraordinary poetry. That’s so much to get your head around, that the same guy who wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream wrote Julius Caesar and wrote Macbeth, such different plays. His mind-boggling genius is so mind-boggling that it’s taken us 400 years to mull over, to try and register and process because it is so great. His plays are done around the world all the time and non-stop, every city you go to, because of the way it touches people. I don’t know why it does. It was written 400 years ago, it’s hard. You can watch a Shakespeare play and not understand a word that’s being said, but it still really hits home. It’s an amazing experience.
Movie Fanatic: Between bestselling books and high school and college courses and stage plays, Shakespeare seems to remain in the public consciousness…
Rafe Spall: It’s everywhere. It’s in the fabric of the world.
Movie Fanatic: As an actor, especially a UK actor, did you have any reservations about stepping into the Bard’s shoes?
Rafe Spall: No, because, brilliantly, I play Shakespeare who didn’t write the plays. Fakespeare, I like to call him [laughs]. It was a tantalizing prospect in that if you close your eyes and you have an image of Shakespeare in your mind, we wanted him to look like that as much as possible. But then we wanted to avert that and have him be a different character than you imagine him to be. So our Shakespeare is a drunken, womanizing layabout.
Movie Fanatic: Was that difficult in that you had to sort of unlearn what you knew about the man?
Rafe Spall: Absolutely, but it was great. It’s from scratch; it was a pure creation. And that’s another reason why the film was made is that what we know about this guy William Shakespeare from Stratford, an actor, exists on page. There’s so little that we actually know that is fact. So I used those few facts that we know about him -- the fact that he was working class, the fact that he was an actor. And being an actor, my experience of actors is that actors love to drink and actors like girls [laughs]. There was lots of stuff for me to draw on and it’s all those things but essentially a blank canvas for us to make him however we wanted to. Roland (Emmerich, director) had clear ideas about what he wanted him to be in terms of our story and how best this character served our story.
Movie Fanatic: How was Roland Emmerich (Godzilla, The Patriot, The Day after Tomorrow) as a director to work with?
Rafe Spall: I’m a big fan of Roland’s movies and I think films like Independence Day, they’re amazing films. People can be snobby about them but they’re amazing films. And you don’t make movies that make that sort of money without being a very smart guy. So I knew that he was going to be visually brilliant. But what was brilliant to me is that he is extraordinarily good at speaking to actors, getting the best out of actors. Everything he said to me was gold, he really helped me. It’s rare actually to get a director -- it sounds silly -- who really understands the nuts and bolts of acting and how to speak to us. Because actors are an insecure bunch and if you send them in the wrong direction, you’ll get trouble. But also, his energy is infectious, the way that he’s so dynamic and in it, in amongst it, he really gets his hands dirty and he cares about it. The director sets the tone on a movie and it was a tone of fun and discovery and freshness. It’s a fresh movie even though it’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. These period pieces don’t really get made anymore, they don’t want to pay for them, so it takes someone of Roland’s weight in order to get a movie like this made. There are very few people in this world who could get this film made and he’d been trying to get this made for a long time. So he cares about it and he’s invested a lot in it, literally and metaphorically.
Movie Fanatic: How much did the costuming influence you on Anonymous, and was that a fun aspect to playing this character?
Rafe Spall: That’s a big part of the process. I never really know what I’m going to do with a character until the first costume fitting, regardless of if it’s set in the 1600s. That’s always a big help for me. You get in the shoes and you’re halfway there. These costumes were extraordinary, handmade, beautiful clothes. If you put on the starch, the wig, and Shakespeare’s clothes, it’s pretty hard not to feel like Shakespeare. It gives you a certain swagger and it makes you stand up straight. The way we dressed then and the way we dress now, I think we’ve lost a lot of power. Dressing gives you a lot of power. You put on a shirt and suit, and you feel great. The way we dress in modern times now, I think we’ve lost a little bit of that. Then, that was bold statements. You’re rolling with a codpiece; you back yourself [laughs].
Movie Fanatic: Your Shakespeare had some serious swagger…
Rafe Spall: That’s what we wanted to get across was swagger -- and confidence and balls. You put all that gear on -- it’s pretty hard not to feel that.
Movie Fanatic: In the past, you’ve worked with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on Hot Fuzz. What was it like to work with those guys?
Rafe Spall: Also, Edgar (Wright) who directed and wrote the film with Simon. I just think those three guys are extraordinary to work with because one, they understand what is funny. But the thing about those films is they’re really plot-driven movies actually. Hot Fuzz, there were 60 principal characters in that and that’s serious work. So they’re really intelligent guys to work out all those different strands. I think they’re some of the foremost, eminent comedy writers in the country, in the world. And also they make you laugh and they pull your heartstrings at the same time. Those are just brilliant sets to be on.
Movie Fanatic: How is your upcoming film Prometheus, and working with director Ridley Scott?
Rafe Spall: Prometheus was pretty dope [laughs]. Prometheus was amazing. Another big-time director, he’s one of our genuine talents. With Alien and Blade Runner, they’re not just the best sci-fi films ever made -- they’re some of the best movies ever made. So it was an extraordinary, humbling experience being part of movie history.
Movie Fanatic: What first struck you when you read the Anonymous script?
Rafe Spall: Aside from the subject matter we’re dealing with, aside from the controversy surrounding it, it’s a cracking good yarn. It’s a good story. It’s a thriller. Regardless if it’s about Shakespeare or it’s about aliens, is it a good story? Then I don’t want to be involved in it. But this was a page-turner -- I wanted to know what happened in the end. And that’s what’s great about this film. I think it holds the attention. You want to know what will happen, you engage in it. I think one of the best things this film can do is that it will reignite people’s interest in Shakespeare. It will make people look at Shakespeare plays in a different way.