When actresses Amy Acker and Emma Bates took on their roles for Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing," which opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas in Madison, they weren't exactly newbies to the Bard.
In fact, both actresses had appeared in a theatrical production of Shakespeare's romantic comedy before — at American Players Theatre in Spring Green.
Both Acker and Bates performed in a 1999 production of "Much Ado" at APT, playing different roles than they do in the film. Acker was the young Hero in the APT production (she has the lead role of Beatrice in the movie), while Bates, who plays Ursula in the film, had a smaller role in the play.
Bates, who studied theater at UW-Milwaukee, told OnMilwaukee.com that she had been one of several actor friends of Whedon who would gather at his house to do Shakespeare readings. Those readings evolved into the movie, which Whedon shot at his house over a 12-day period.
"We really had no time to prepare, and I don't think I even knew what part I was playing until maybe a week before," Bates said. "Luckily, I had already been familiar with the play and actually had already done the play at American Players Theatre. So that helped."
Acker told USA Today that APT was her first post-college acting gig, after growing up in Dallas and doing Shakespeare in the Park there. She said she has never had problems fusing Shakespeare's words with emotion.
"After the initial reading and going back and figuring out what everybody says, you have that poetry and the language there is almost easier," she said. "It brings emotion out of you, and it carries the scene with the poetry."
Reviewing in the State Journal in 1999, Nadine Goff said Acker gave a "fine performance" alongside APT regulars like Jim DeVita as Claudio and James Ridge as the villainous Don John.
That summer, Acker also played Hilda in APT's production of Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder," possessing "burning eyes and arch manner — a transfixing presence," according to Capital Times reviewer Kevin Lynch.
Bates got the most raves at APT for her work in two George Bernard Shaw plays, "You Never Can Tell" and "The Devil's Disciple." In an interview with Lynch about the gender relations in Shaw's plays, she observed something that applies equally well to the couplings in "Much Ado" as well.
"Men are always doing something for a woman," she snickered.