Shakespeare Two Ways

Andre Carrilho

Alan Cumming does "Macbeth" and Joss Whedon tackles "Much Ado About Nothing."

Alan Cumming

The chameleonic Scottish actor has played roles as dramatically different as the lascivious emcee of Cabaret and the shrewd Chicago political consultant Eli Gold on TV’s The Good Wife. But his latest project is an even bolder stretch: taking on Shakespeare’s doomed thane, Macbeth, starting April 21 on Broadway. Banish any thought of The Scottish Play as you’ve seen it before: Cumming tackles every major part in the story, which is set in an insane asylum. It’s the kind of performance the phrase “tour de force” was created for. He’s already completed two runs, in Glasgow and at the Lincoln Center Festival.

Q: It’s exhausting just watching you perform the play. What on earth convinced you to do it six nights a week?

A: Well, I sort of felt like I wasn’t done with it. By the end of the Lincoln Center Festival run, it was almost like I was just getting into it, even though I was exhausted and my body collapsed afterward.

Q: Do you ever see the play bleeding into your real life?

A: I just went back to Scotland for the weekend and took the train to London and tried to do some of the play. It was one of those things where you think you’re just doing it in your head; then you realize people are noticing. Someone asked, “What part are you preparing for?” And I realized suddenly, I’m crying—just sitting alone, crying. So embarrassing.

Q: Has your understanding of the various characters you play changed over time?

A: What’s interesting about going back to something like this is, I’ve seen a DVD of it. It’s really fascinating and kind of upsetting, actually. I think I understand more now the connection between the character I play, the man in the hospital and why he’s doing the play.

Q: Was it hard to watch yourself?

A: It was difficult. More than most plays I’ve ever done, I’m in a sort of bubble while I’m doing it. It’s a weird state to see yourself in, and when I saw it first, I didn’t recognize myself. Like, “He looks like me and he sounds like me, but other than that...he’s weeeeiird. Someone help him!”

Macbeth premières on April 21 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.; macbethonbroadway.com. —Rebecca Milzoff

Joss Whedon

A: Whedon may be the Hollywood wunderkind behind such hit TV shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse—as well as the director of last summer’s mega-blockbuster The Avengers—but he’s also a DIY filmmaker and Shakespeare fiend. While on a break from directing The Avengers, he transformed his home into a micro-budget film set for a hip, black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing. After a warm welcome at the Toronto and South by Southwest film festivals, Much Ado makes its way to theaters this summer with all the casual cool of a swanky California backyard wedding.

Q: How did you get the idea to present Shakespeare like this?

A: It came from readings we were doing in my house. The house itself was something I’d wanted to film since it was built. I hadn’t thought of the movie yet; then I read Much Ado again. Usually it’s like, “I have an idea. What can I put in to make it work?” This was the opposite: “I’ve got everything. I just need the idea.” The house gave us a visual coherence, but I didn’t ever say, “I want this to feel like Santa Monica.” I just wanted to have a timeless, elegant debauchery.

Q: Do you feel adapting Shakespeare will influence your writing style now—are you tempted to write more “Shakespearean”?

A: I love the poetry of words and the heightened psychology and the stage he was working on: kings and betrayal, you know? Also, his sentences are so articulate, but from left field. I think anybody who loves Shakespeare does sort of get this bug of “I want to play with the musicality of the phrase and not just say the thing I heard someone say today.”

Q: So which Shakespeare character would you most want to have a beer with?

A: Dude, Falstaff! Except that I would have to pay.

Q: Right, but everyone wants to drink with Falstaff. So aside from Falstaff...

A: I’m going to say Feste, from Twelfth Night, the fool who gets what’s going on. Of course, he would probably cut me to the quick with one line, and I’d be like, “Dude!”

Much Ado About Nothing opens in select theaters on June 7; muchadothemovie.com. —John Lopez