Growing up in Dallas, Amy Acker’s first interest in the performing arts was ballet. But after a knee surgery, she had to put that on the backburner and, at Lake Highlands High School, started doing theater. That turned out to be a fortuitous decision.
That led to her studying theater at Southern Methodist University. While there, she acted in a number of local professional theaters, including at Undermain Theatre in Therese Raquin, for which she was nominated for a Leon Rabin Award; and at Stage West in 1998, in Richard Kalinoski's Beast on the Moon, about survivors of the Armenian genocide.
After SMU—where, incidentally, she was roommates with Dana Vokolek, now with AT&T Performing Arts Center and married to local director, actor and goremeister Cameron Cobb—it was off to New York, but not before playing Hero in a production of Much Ado About Nothing at American Players Theater in Wisconsin.
Then came the big break: An audition for Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, Angel, starring David Boreanz as a brooding vampire with a soul. Acker was cast in the part of Fred (short for Winifred), who debuted at the end of season two and became a series regular. That put her in the circle of Whedon’s players, so to speak, a group that has stayed friends. One of their frequent activities, even when Buffy and Angel were on the air, was to gather for informal readings of Shakespeare’s plays.
After wrapping the 2012 mega-hit The Avengers, which Whedon wrote and directed (and is now the second-biggest box office hit of all time, after Avatar), his next Shakespeare reading project was Much Ado About Nothing, with Acker playing Beatrice opposite Alexis Denisof (Watcher Wesley in Buffy and Angel, and real-life husband of Alyson Hannigan, who played Willow in Buffy).
The Much Ado project turned into a film, which was shot in 12 days entirely in and on the property of the house owned by Whedon and his wife, Kai Cole. Several other Buffyverse actors are in it, including Nathan Fillion (Whedon's Firefly and the final season of Buffy before he broke out in Castle) as Dogberry and Tom Lenk (Andrew from season six and seven of Buffy) as Verges. The film is now open everywhere (when it opened on just five screens in New York, it set records for an independent film).
After time in the Buffyverse, as it’s called, Acker appeared in shows like Alias, Whedon’s Dollhouse and, currently, in CBS’ Person of Interest. She was also in Whedon's horror film Cabin in the Woods. She married a theater actor James Carpinello (Broadway’s Saturday Night Fever, as Tony; and the original Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages), with whom she has two kids. They spend their time between New York and LA.
On a recent press tour for Much Ado, she stopped in Dallas. We sat down with her to talk about working with the Whedon family, playing Beatrice and working at Undermain and Stage West before she hit it big. Some of that is in the interview below, and some is in the video at the end, which also includes a movie trailer for Much Ado.
TheaterJones: Was Angel your first big TV role?
Amy Acker: Well, there was Wishbone here in Dallas.
Ah, yes, there was a time when every theater actor in town had the TV credits of Wishbone, Barney or Walker, Texas Ranger in their bios. What did you do on Wishbone?
I played so many roles. I think I married him once, I was his mother once. [laughs]
Did you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer before you auditioned for Angel?
Oh yes. At SMU everybody had a Tuesday night Buffy-watching party, so if I was not in rehearsal or in a show, I was watching it.
Tell us about Whedon’s now-famous Shakespeare reading parties.
When I started doing Angel, he invited me to a Shakespeare reading at his house. The week before he had it he’d say “we’re reading Midsummer, and you’re Helena,” and he’d have copies of the play for whoever didn’t have one. We’d sit out on his patio and there’d be wine and food and we’d be dorks.
Because it was such an informal reading, did you do any wild casting? Like, did you ever play Hamlet?
No, but Joss did a really good Hamlet. It wasn’t anything crazy like that, but at the same time, the reason he killed off Fred [in Angel] and made [the fifth season character] Illyria [which Acker also played] came from one of the readings.
I think it was Romeo and Juliet, actually. He would see different things people were doing, and write an episode based on what we had done in these readings.
Part of the reason theater people love Buffy, Angel and Whedon’s other shows is because he was known to be a Shakespeare and musical theater fan, as we found out in the great Once More With Feeling musical episode of Buffy, and later, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. And yet he’s a big fantasy and sci-fi nerd.
He’s everything. You go to their [Joss and Much Ado producer Kai Cole’s] house and the Spring Awakening soundtrack will be playing. They always made the house open for whoever wants to do art. They had these friends who wrote a play, and the theater fell through and he had them do it there.
Joss had just come off of finishing The Avengers, and then he goes right into this, which I have to assume had a small percentage of an even smaller percentage of the Avengers budget.
Originally [Joss and Kai] were going to go to Italy for a two-week vacation and they decided to do this instead. Kai is one of those amazing people who, if you say you want to do something, she makes it happen.
Why did he film it in black and white?
The original concept he had for the film [is that] he wanted it to have a noir feeling. It just makes sense. It works for the movie.
Although there are suits and ties on the men, it’s hard to tell which modern era it is set in, especially with the women’s dresses. It could be the 1950s, or could be now.
It wasn’t ever something that I felt was a big deal, no one was ever talking about it being contemporary. With the exception of saying “the iPhone is here,” the time is not specific.
All of the clothes are our own clothes. The costumer, Shawna [Trpcic], who worked on Angel, Firefly and Serenity, she came over to each of our houses and put together the look of it from what everyone had. It was kind of out of necessity, but I don’t think anyone knew what it was going to be. Joss had success with Dr. Horrible on iTunes and so everyone thought maybe it would end up there.
Performing theater and filming a movie are very different, in terms of chronology. Did you shoot this in the order of the scenes, as if you were putting on a piece of theater?
No. From the day that we said yes, within a couple of days, Alexis and I had gone over to Joss’s house to read the play, or at least the Benedick and Beatrice parts, and we rehearsed it like it was a play. He’d block all the scenes, so we had a sense of all the cohesive bits before that. There weren’t lights to shoot at night, so we had one night to shoot the nighttime scene.
You have a history with working with Alexis, and several times in Angel, there was a question of whether your character, Fred, and his, Wesley, would end up together. Did your previous romantic on-screen chemistry with him help with the romance of Much Ado?
I mean, it’s Alexis. Look at him. It’s not that hard to pretend to be romantically in love with him. I think it was season four of Angel, and I thought it was obvious that my character was in love with Wesley, and then I got a script and I’m with Gunn [played by J. August Richards]. We never really got to play the lovers in that show, but we have so much fun acting it today. I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else.
Joss Whedon has such a gift for writing comedy even in dark and tragic storylines. Are Shakespeare’s comedies are a natural fit for him?
I would love to see what he would do with a history or tragedy, but for me that’s my favorite part of working on a Joss show. One episode, it’s hilarious, and the next one, you’re dying. He stretches you so much. I think he weaves that all together so seamlessly. With this film, there’s slapstick comedy mixed in with drama.
You’ve played Hero in Much Ado on stage. How did that help with playing the bigger role of Beatrice in the same play?
I would be lying if I said I didn’t always want to play Beatrice. Playing Hero in the play, you’re watching so much of it and looking up to her as a character. Alexis went to school in London and has done a million Shakespeare plays and a Shakespeare intensive, so having him as a resource, and having Joss and trusting him, that helped a lot.
Is the film getting attention from both Whedon and Shakespeare fans?
The first time it showed with an audience, at the Toronto Film Festival, in a couple of thousand seats, it was like being at Comic Con. I have heard that in New York, they had been getting Shakespeare groups [in preview screenings] to see it. Usually the feedback for those things is short. For this, they wrote like these three-page dissertations about it. I’m not sure Joss had had that kind of feedback before.
Then again, people are writing dissertations about very specific themes in Buffy and Angel.
◊ Much Ado About Nothing is currently playing at the Angelika Film Center Dallas, and the Cinemark West Plano and XD.
◊ Here's video from our interview with Acker, which ends with a trailer for the film: