Like many of you, I fell truly, madly, deeply in love with Sean Maher when he played the good doc, Simon Tam, on Joss Whedon's cult classic, Firefly. Then, last year, he brought to life a powerful storyline with deep, personal resonance when Maher played a clandestine gay activist on NBC's short-lived 70's-set The Playboy Club.
Given these resolute roles I was surprised to see Maher playing the nefarious Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, his latest partnership with Firefly and Serenity boss, Joss Whedon. But as the visionary director has proven time and again, his ability to highlight previous untapped potential in his actors is second-to-none.
And Maher more than delivers in the role; breathing fiery life into the iconic villain while simultaneously showcasing Don John's soul and eliciting empathy for a classically irredeemable character. I caught up with Maher to find out how the role came to him, his initial apprehension at tackling Shakespeare and what he's learned from a decade in the Whedonverse.
ETonline: How did you come to be a part of Joss' Shakespeare Sundays?
Sean Maher: Well, Joss had been doing Shakespeare Sundays long before I got involved, where he'd invite anyone in his life to come over and put on a play over brunch and too much champagne. To be honest, it terrified me so much because it's Shakespeare, so I shied away from it. But there was a Shakespeare Sunday years ago where Alexis [Denisof] and Amy [Acker] did Much Ado with music written by Joss' brother -- I wasn't there that day, but it was apparently this beautiful reading of the play where the seed for this movie was planted.
ETonline: So how did Joss ask you to be involved?
Maher: I was shooting The Playboy Club at 2 a.m. when I got an email from Joss that ended with, "I need a sexy villain, what sayeth you?" I emailed him back saying, "Does this mean you think I'm sexy, Joss?" He told me to stop fishing for complements and say if I was in or out [laughs]. There were logistical things to work out because I was on a show at the time and was unsure of the film's scope, but my manager made me say yes and let him figure out the scheduling. Then the show got canceled my first day of rehearsals, so it worked out. I mean, it was bittersweet. Joss answered the door and was like, "Sorry dude."
ETonline: Were you game from the jump?
Maher: I was terrified. I'd never done Shakespeare and it was Joss. Both of those men are a lot to live up to. You always want to make them proud. I've never played a villain before, so he was thinking outside the box by casting me, and I'm oh-so-grateful because I loved sinking my teeth into a role like this.
ETonline: The movie is filled with actors Joss has worked with before. What's it like to be a part of The Whedonverse?
Maher: I'm forever grateful. From the first time I met Joss, I was intrigued by and drawn to him. Obviously he's an artistic genius but he's also one of the most down-to-earth, accessible bosses I've ever worked for. I just feel so safe in his hands. He creates this completely uninhibited creatively environment but at the same time knows how to steer you in the right direction. So we all jumped at the opportunity.
ETonline: Understood. And, yes, it's Joss Whedon, but you were also making a black-and-white film where the characters speak in verse. Was there ever a moment where the actors said, "Is anyone ever actually going to see this movie?"
Maher: Sure, we all had our sidebar conversations that were like, "What are we doing here? We're shooting a movie in 12 days in someone's house." [laughs] Especially right before we went to the first screening because no one knew what the movie looked like. But I almost fell out of my chair the first time I saw it, I couldn't believe how good it was. Part of the magic of the movie is he essentially caught live theater on camera. There's a scene with me and Fran [Kranz] and Reed [Diamond] that's somewhat heated, and I would have goosebumps after he yelled cut. It really reminded me of my days working in the theater. It was so exhilarating.
ETonline: What was the hardest part of this role for you?
Maher: Humanizing him. I didn't want him to just be a bad guy. I really wanted to find something sympathetic in him. I remember trying to figure out why he was so unhappy and knowing that if I could figure that out, I'd have an idea why he was behaving in so many villainous ways. That was how I could find humanity in him even though he's this bastard no-good guy. I had such a great time.
ETonline: Obviously I want more, have there been any discussions of this troupe tackling another play?
Maher: Well, Joss is obsessed with Shakespeare the way people are obsessed with him. I'm sure he'd jump at the opportunity to do it again if it presents itself, but I haven't been asked yet.
ETonline: Well since the internet has this amazing ability to make desires reality, which one of Shakespeare's roles would you like to tackle next?
Maher: I love Richard III, but in terms of a general play, A Midsummer Night's Dream has always been a big one for me. It’s just so sexy.
ETonline: You just want to frolick in the woods, don't you?
Maher: A little bit. A little bit. [laughs]
Much Ado About Nothing opens Friday.