Nathan Fillion Pulls Double Duty in ‘Much Ado’ and ‘Monsters U’

Movie Talk
Nathan Fillion
Nathan Fillion

Nathan Fillion first broke out as the captain on Joss Whedon's short-lived but much beloved space/Western hybrid "Firefly." Since then, both he and Whedon have gone on to mainstream successes - Fillion on TV's "Castle," and Whedon with "Marvel's The Avengers" - but the old pals stayed close and have a new collaboration, the low-budget, black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation, "Much Ado About Nothing," which expands nationwide this weekend.

And if that wasn't enough, Fillion lends his voice to Johnny, the B.M.O.C. at Disney/Pixar's "Monsters University," which also is in theaters now. Fillion sat down with Yahoo! Movies to discuss fitting these diverse movies into his busy TV schedule. He also revealed how his only training in Shakespearean acting was done in Whedon's backyard, and his devious plans to one day take over the lead in the upcoming Marvel series, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

If I were to tell you five years ago that you would be in a Shakespeare adaptation and a Pixar movie on the same day, what would you have said?

Nathan Fillion: Who do I have to kill? I would be pretty excited about that.

Who did you kill?

NF: The last hiatus [from "Castle"], I did two days in Vancouver for "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" which comes out next month. I did probably less than eight hours of work for "Monsters University" for Pixar, that's coming out. And I did three days of work on "Much Ado," which just premiered.

It may look to the outside world like I've taken over summer in some way and that I've been incredibly busy. But really I've just been fortunate enough that people have allowed me to participate in projects that don't interfere with my "Castle" work schedule. They allow me to work on weekends. They allowed me to slip in and do something and run back out and everybody is giving me a nice piece. I'm getting nice pieces of some beautiful projects.

Back in the day, did you have this sense of confidence that eventually Joss Whedon would be running Hollywood?

NF: [Laughs] Good question. I never thought of it like that. Here is what I have thought about: I knew Joss was talented when I saw "Buffy." I started to understand firsthand how talented when I got involved with "Firefly." Since "Firefly," I think it's fair to say I've had a really sharp eye on him. I know he is genius, and I don't use that term loosely. The man is a genius, and I know he loves to tell stories, and I know he's passionate about it. And I know in his hands that things go well.

It's nice to know now that everyone knows. Now, everyone knows what I have learned, what this core group of fans that used to be a cult sensation [knows]. I don't think he qualifies anymore as a cult. I think he is, can you be this mainstream and still be cult? I think it's opposite.

The only director whose films have made more money is James Cameron.

NF: Is that true?

The top three movies worldwide are "Avatar," "Titanic," and "Avengers." So that's good company.

NF: It is a good company. And it's also just very telling as far as what's possible when you hand Joss Whedon a project and then just back away. Just take your hands out of the mix and just let him do what he does. This is the result: "Avengers."

What's impressive about him is whether the source material is Stan Lee or it's William Shakespeare, it still comes across as Joss Whedon on the screen.

NF: The man certainly has a voice. He loves to tell stories and he is not fettered by story convention as we know it. A friend of mine once described it to me as, "We are the most story-literate society that this planet has ever seen. Between books, newspapers, radio, television, and internet, we know story like no one in this planet has ever known story.”

When the bad guy does this, the hero does this, and here is how it ebbs and here is how it flows. These are story conventions that we're all familiar with. Joss' story conventions are, he twists. This is how a story goes; this is how real life goes. I find that Joss' stories twist into: this is what would happen in real life. This is what's important. This is what's real. That's just a story; this is what's real in life. That's what I find so satisfying by his work.

The genesis of this movie where these Shakespeare readings and parties Joss had at his house. Do you remember the first one you attended?

NF: I do. I do remember the first one I attended. It was a beautiful summer day. Some faces I didn't recognize, some that I did. I remember Neil Patrick Harris was there. Alexis Denisof was there. They're both very good at Shakespeare. I remember how casual and fun it was. I remember the food was excellent. The hospitality was incredible. And a beautiful garden of a backyard. This was the house before the one we shot ["Much Ado"] at. Beautiful flowers blooming, blue sky, rich, lush grass. Sitting down in a circle, everyone reading Shakespeare, and just being able to both spectate and be a participant at the same time.

I heard Joss say that of the cast you had probably the least formal Shakespeare training.

NF: Absolutely none, so yes. My Shakespeare training was brunch at Joss' house. And high school. Reading it in front of my class in high school

With just three days to shoot these incredible speeches, what was the most difficult part about the shoot?

NF: I honestly had a difficult time just memorizing my lines, and it sounds so mechanical and it is. Memorizing is a bit mechanical. But there was a process by which I can remember dialogue. It's important. You can't paraphrase Shakespeare. It's not the point. The point is to service the words and paint the pictures that he's trying to paint.

I was having a lot of difficulty until a friend of mine reminded me, "You have to understand what it is you're saying.” That's when I sat down, stopped trying to memorize it and just studied. I studied the paintings of these words. I mean, Shakespeare, every line is loaded with meaning. I needed to understand the meaning of what I was saying before I could remember the words. It's English. You're still speaking English but not in a manner to which we are accustomed.

Most of the time when you see Shakespeare's comedies performed, they're not funny, because people are trying to play up the humor. That's not the case here. How did you and Joss come up with this tough cop interpretation of Dogberry?

NF: That's actually something that I learned a while back. Michael Lembeck, a fantastic actor and an amazing director, helped me understand a long time ago that trying to be funny and trying to make people laugh is a losing proposition. It's a desperate act, and desperation is not funny. It's painful to watch. Letting people laugh at you, allowing them to laugh at you -- and it took me a long time to figure out exactly what that meant. Now, it's incredibly clear to me.

Being vain and not knowing it, that allows people to laugh at you. Being stupid and thinking you're smart allows people to laugh at you. I can be glad it's not me being that stupid. I feel confident and superior that I'm smarter than this guy and I know what this guy does not know. He doesn't -- he's not even using the right words. There is an ease [in] being able to laugh at someone who is not aware that they are foolish.

There are lot of familiar faces for Whedon fans in this, but the new guy in town is Clark Gregg. When did you meet him, and what was your interplay on set like?

NF: I met Clark Gregg filming our first scene together. He was very busy because he had been cast two days prior. He had another engagement that did not allow him to participate that got pushed back. It was a play and all of a sudden he didn't have to do his play and all of a sudden he was available and all of a sudden, two days later, he is filming Shakespeare.

And first of all saw him, I'm a huge fan. Second of all, watching him work, watching him work his lines -- he had someone helping him run lines with him -- watching him do that, and then falling to the scene and putting all the weight into it. That was a wakeup call. These guys are good. I better bring my A-game. Do not blow this. That was my mantra for that day.

I had a lot of my plate as well -- not much as Clark -- but afterwards I think I was able to kind of relax into something, and just watching Clark work, just watching Clark be Clark. I think we all have one of these friends that if they say, "Come on over, I want to introduce you to some people,” you know they're going to be great people because they've been vetted by your one friend who only brings good people unto him. That for me is Joss Whedon. If Joss brings Clark in, I know I'm going to like Clark. I know that much. He's got that going for him.

There are several wild, drunken parties we see in the movie. How far removed are they from what one would actually see in Joss Whedon's house?

NF: I didn't participate in the party scenes because (A) I wasn't in them, (B) I actually had to work during the week. So I had essentially like a 13-day workweek because I do five days of work [on "Castle"], two days of work [on "Much Ado"], five days of work, another day of work. That was my schedule, so I didn't stay for a party. What I know is that Joss invited friends to actually be the party of the party. What they didn't realize was they had to stay all night until the scenes were shot. I think they bit off a little more than they could chew. Maybe they should've paced themselves.

When you go to Comic-Con and you're confronted by the fans who go so far as to dress up as your "Firefly" character, how do you even deal with that sort of mass adoration?

NF: The way I look at it is, "Firefly" was a big deal to me. It was a game changer; it was a life changer. I am a fan of "Firefly." When I look at the building blocks of my life, as to how I got to where I'm right now sitting across from you, I look at "Firefly" like an incredibly solid staircase. That thing built so much of what I have now. I don't know where I would be without that opportunity, for which I have Joss to thank.

What I see is, I see people who were affected by the work, and [that's] not a strange thing when you're talking about Joss' work, his words, his stories. People are affected. It means something to them. I understand that completely because I was affected by the work. It means something to me, and it's changed my life.

When someone says to me, "'Firefly' changed my life," I don't say, "It's just a TV show." I say, "Me too.” I get it. We have that much in common. And I have that in common with fans of "Firefly" because I'm a fan. I understand. I get it.

Do you think there's any chance the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will need a consult from a certain mystery writer?

NF: I've got a couple of years to go on "Castle" My hope is that "S.H.I.E.L.D." will go for a good long time. And when Agent Coulson eventually actually dies, which we know he will, because Joss kills characters, it will be me stepping in to fill up Clark's shoes. And I'm going to literally wear his shoes because we have the same sized feet.

You don't think you two can coexist?

NF: It's me or Clark. He's got to go. [Laughs]

"Much Ado About Nothing" and ""Monsters University" are in theaters now.