Romeo & Juliet is the timeless story of star-crossed lovers from warring families. The families of Montague and the Capulet will use any excuse to publicly fight in the streets of Verona, so when Romeo (Douglas Booth) falls for Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld), it quickly receives the wrath of both of their families, when all they want to do is be together forever. Written by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) and directed by Carlo Carlei, the film also stars Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone, Ed Westwick, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Lesley Manville.
At the film’s press day, actor Douglas Booth spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about being excited for the challenge of tackling Shakespeare, having to fight for the role of Romeo, screen testing with Hailee Steinfeld, getting to work with both a younger and more veteran cast, and taking his time to wrap his head around the language. He also talked about the experience of working on Noah with director Darren Aronofsky, and just how wild The Wachowskis next film, Jupiter Ascending, will be. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
DOUGLAS BOOTH: There was definitely a bit of both. I thought, “Do I mess with this?” But then, I thought, “When was the last time that I felt like that?,” and it was when I played Boy George in a biopic about him, and that was a huge success. So, I decided to do it. I live to be challenged. I want my career to be filled with variety, and this was definitely different. This was a chance to do Shakespeare on screen, so I thought, “Let’s do it!” It’s really exciting. Who doesn’t want to play Romeo?
Did it give you the desire to want to try to do Shakespeare on stage?
BOOTH: Yeah, massively. This really had opened Shakespeare up to me. In England, you grow up with it. We’re surrounded by it, and we love our Shakespeare. I’d watched quite a bit of it before, but it wasn’t until this that I actually got in there and really invested, and took the time to understand it. When I would go see it, I didn’t really get what they said, but it always sounded pretty. But, when you actually go and listen, and you take the time to work out how he’s written it and how he’s portraying emotions and thoughts, I found it beautiful and I really have fallen in love with it. I’d love to play Hamlet, but I’m gonna wait for at least eight to 10 years. I saw Othello at the National Theatre in London and it was so stunning. I was so moved. It’s beautiful. If I hadn’t done Romeo & Juliet, I don’t think I would have been able to understand every single word now, and that’s so lovely.
It’s probably safe to assume that this was a role a lot of young actors wanted. Did you have to really fight for this role?
BOOTH: It’s interesting, I definitely had to fight for it, but I also wasn’t really aware of what was going on. I auditioned a couple of times – once in London, once in L.A. – but they were just regular auditions with the casting director, and I thought no more of it. I’d had friends that were playing Romeo at the Globe, and they went in, so I thought I was never going to get the part. But then, they came back to me and said I was on the short list, and that they wanted to test me with Hailee [Steinfeld]. I was really surprised. And then, I did have to fight for it. I had to really prove that I could do it. But, I wasn’t sitting in waiting rooms with 300 other actors, so I was very unaware. I never actually met another actor, in the process. You never know what goes on behind the scenes. I’m sure people said, “No, you can’t cast him!” I don’t know what fight went on, but eventually I was cast and I’m very thankful for that.
How was that chemistry test with Hailee Steinfeld? Did it just instantly feel right?
BOOTH: Yeah, it did. I knew I was testing a week after when I was in New York at the Met Ball, which is this big gala. My agents said, “Hailee is going to be there. Go say hi because it will be nice to meet her before the test.” It’s this big ballroom that’s so gorgeous inside, and I just saw her across the room, a bit like in the movie, and she looked gorgeous in this beautiful Stella McCartney dress. I went to say hi because I thought it was important to have that little magical moment there, which inspired it for when I actually tested in London, and there was instantly a connection. She’s so talented.
Did you ever think about doing such intense scenes with someone so young, or is she as old of a soul as she seems to be?
BOOTH: She’s an old soul, and very mature, as well. She’s so talented. I never really saw her as a specific age. I just saw her as a fellow actor and colleague, and a very talented one. It’s great that was close in age to Juliet. I was 19 at the time, so we were 15 and 19. It just felt right. There was never any weirdness about her age.
Was it fun to have the younger cast, that was around your age, and then also have some amazing older actors there?
BOOTH: Yeah, it was great. There was the group of us youngins, and then the old veterans, and we were learning so much from them and each other. I love that Benvolio was played by Kodi [Smit-McPhee]. In other interpretations, he’s been played as a goon and a fool, but in this version, he was real. You feel the love between them, and they really care about each other. It was really nice to have that relationship. Having him played by a slightly younger actor added a really interesting relationship, aside from just the relationship with Juliet. Romeo and Juliet were stunning and beautiful, but a lot of the other characters surrounding them were caricatures. I think Paul [Giamatti] brought a real heart to the movie. That relationship between Friar Laurence and Romeo, and him adopting Romeo like a son, was so beautiful in the movie.
Did you take to the language pretty easily, or was it something you had to work on?
BOOTH: You have to take the time to try to get your head around it. But once you do, it’s beautiful. You have to stop resisting it. You need to be extremely realistic because you’re not doing it as a play. The language is beautiful so, as soon as you embrace it and relax, it just comes.
Because this is a project that you can’t really improvise on, at all, did you ever find yourself getting stuck on a word or two?
BOOTH: It was difficult. I like to be free with the text, so you have to try to bring that mentality to the text and bring that energy to it. One could find it very claustrophobic and restrictive, but if you actually take the time, you can find it all in the words. In most of our other films, we spend time playing out scenes, talking about one thing but meaning something else. As an actor, that’s one of the most fun things you can possibly do. But, what’s unique about Shakespeare is that everything he writes is what he means. Everything is on the line. They say what they mean, and that brings a certain energy to Shakespeare’s work. And often, they described situations because, back then, they didn’t really have these beautiful sets on stage. It was designed to be shown in a completely different way.
So, as if Shakespeare weren’t challenging enough, you decided to take on the Bible by doing Noah with Darren Aronofsky?
BOOTH: No. Noah, for me, wasn’t a decision about taking on the Bible. It was about working with Darren Aronofsky. He’s a genius, and was definitely on my list of directors to work with. When I got the call, I was just finishing a months and a bit of shooting Romeo & Juliet. I was back in Italy, doing a couple of days of shooting of just galloping through the countryside. We just needed a few little bits and bobs. I was there in my hotel room and I got a call, and it was Darren. He said, “Would you like to do this movie with me?,” and I was pretty emotional.
Did the desire to work with Darren Aronofsky live up to the reality?
BOOTH: Yes. It was a hard job. We were up against Hurricane Sandy, and all sorts of things with the weather. With the schedule and the way we were shooting it, Darren described it as his big-budget guerrilla movie. He’d be there with the camera on his shoulder. He was in there and he was making his movie. He really knows what he’s doing. It was great fun. The cast was amazing. How incredible to have a family where my dad is Russell Crowe, my mom is Jennifer Connelly, my wife is Emma Watson, Logan Lerman is my younger brother, and Anthony Hopkins is my uncle. That’s a pretty solid family unit that you’ve got right there. It was a great experience, and I cannot wait to see it.
BOOTH: Yeah, I know! Things are going so well. I had the best time with The Wachowskis. They were also on the top of my list. They are so talented and they’ve got such originality. They’re so fascinating. I love them, and I adore them as people and as filmmakers. I adored working with them. I cannot repeat enough, how much I loved them and loved working with them. And they love what they do. They just want to play and create and be original. The movie is going to be mad, I warn you. There is nothing I can tell you about it. They keep such security on everything that they do that the script got delivered in a black towncar. But, boy will it be fun.
How do you find the next project now, after all of that?
BOOTH: After that, I did a small British film. I did two huge American films that were over $100 million budget, so I did a British film called Posh with Lone Scherfig, who did An Education, about The Bullingdon Club in London. And now, I’m deciding what to do next. I’ve got to decide.
Romeo & Juliet opens in theaters on October 11th.