Rhys Ifans on Anonymous, Second-Guessing Shakespeare, and the Intimacy of Spider-Man

rhys_ifans_anonymous630.jpgQuite likely cinema's first Shakespearean conspiracy thriller-meets-royal romance fable, Anonymous features Rhys Ifans as Edward De Vere -- the Duke of Oxford long considered a front-runner for having authored many (if not all) of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. It's a role that even the charismatic Welsh actor wasn't sure he would lock down before encountering director Roland Emmerich, the erstwhile apocalypse visionary whose boldness made a fine complement to Ifans's own.

The tale of Anonymous spans decades of the late 16th/early 17th centuries, a framework densely adorned by a love affair between young De Vere (Jamie Campbell Bower) and cougar Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson), a succession scheme guided by wicked royal counselors William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg), and the scandalous dramatic output from De Vere's own quill -- handed off to disapproving London playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) before finding a willing adopter in the roguish Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). If it sounds like a lot to process, well... It is. But thanks to both Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave's moody modulations as the older De Vere and Elizabeth (as well as Emmerich's noteworthy Shakespearean stagings), the emotional reach of Anonymous matches its narrative reach stride for stride.

Ifans sat down with Movieline recently to discuss the film, his role, his relationship to Shakespeare, the authorship controversy -- and preparing to live with a little movie he made called The Amazing Spider-Man.

So! What's going on?

Oh, you know. A lot of talk about Shakespeare.

It's funny, because this is partly a film of ideas. Did you go back and brush up at all in anticipation of this day?

No. I brushed up before and during. Actually, I said earlier, "I realize now why Shakespeare may have been anonymous -- so he wouldn't have to do press junkets." [Laughs] But in truth, it's good to talk about it. Obviously, while you're shooting, you're kind of immersed in the character. In talking about it, it kind of gives you a certain clarity around the themes that are brought to light in the film.

The Stratfordians are going to be pissed.

Yeah. Yeah... But I don't see the authorship debate as an element in the film. It's also a love story and a wonderfully populated political thriller. And there are moments of lightness and frivolity in the film, which are delightful. For me, the enduring effect it had on me as a spectator was how powerful and magical the theater would have been at that time. I think the scenes shot in the Globe in particular are just thrilling. I can only imagine if this film did for live theater what Rocky did for boxing, then we're kind of there with it.

And I do think there is a natural tendency when you're speaking to journalists for the focus to be on the authorship debate -- which, of course, is a very interesting and necessary debate. But I think the film's bigger than that. The film's about the complete works of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England as opposed to who the author was. And I suppose that's the power of the film: It celebrates this immense body of work.

When you were watching the productions in the Globe from De Vere's booth, were you thinking, "Goddamnit -- I wish I was on that stage right now"?

Oh, God. Absolutely. As would De Vere. Oxford would have felt the same. Largely, the majority of the film was shot against greenscreen or in a studio, but we actually built the theater. You did get a very 3-D, vivid, anthropological feeling from being in that space and hearing the words spoken in that acoustic. It was really, really moving, actually. The first scene we shot was when Mark Rylance walks out as the Prologue [of Henry V], and it was kind of a no-acting-required situation for me, because I was up there, and it was really so transporting, and I remember at the time thinking, "I really hope the magic I'm feeling in this space right now will translate in the cinema." And I really think it has, more than any other production I've seen about Shakespeare or that time. It just felt so alive -- and consequently really moving.

I was going to ask how those scenes were shot. Was it all done live? You were watching the performances along the way?

Absolutely. It would have been a lazy way to shoot the scenes where you just shot me out. We could have done that in the morning; Roland might say, "OK, you watching Hamlet. Now you're watching..." But no. Everyone was there for each and every performance -- the audience and the actors -- and it became something really, really exciting.

Like shooting a rock concert or something.

Yeah, absolutely.

So how did this come to you in the first place?

There's a casting director, Leo David, in London, and I was sent a script. I went to meet with Roland, and he asked the same question he asked of every actor: "Which character to you respond to in this script?" And I said, "I guess, given my past work, a lazy director would probably [expect I'd] say William Shakespeare. But a brave, courageous director would say the Earl of Oxford." And thankfully Roland was courageous, brave and imaginative enough to audition me for that part.

What do you mean by "courageous and brave"?

An unimaginative casting director in England, for instance, might say, "Oh, Rhys Ifans would be perfect to play William Shakespeare" -- kind of a lighter comedic role. I'm glad I got to play De Vere because I'm glad I got the part, but I also think that Rafe Spall has just done magic with that part [of Shakespeare]. There's this frivolous buoyancy that he single-handedly maintains. And I think that's a great foil to De Vere.

This film posits that De Vere wrote Shakespeare's plays. Assuming we accept that as truth for the story's sake, how did the spirit of having written those words affect playing the character?

That's a very, very good question. One fundamental moment for me, even though it comes a ways into the film, was sitting in the Globe and hearing the words spoken by a company of actors. Choosing -- or having -- to believe that I penned these beautiful things, and to see their effects on these people, must have been at once liberating and enlightening and crushing at the same time in the sense that we wasn't able to proclaim or announce his authorship. That must have been utterly crippling. And reading about Oxford, we learn that Oxford was a very, very interesting character in his own right -- very flamboyant, dressed differently than the rest of the [queen's] court. So I guess there must have been a craving in him for notoriety that reveals itself, possibly, in his attire or his slightly mischievous, anarchic behavior in and out of the court. I found that very interesting, because for someone who wanted to be anonymous, surely you'd be completely anonymous. There must have been a side of him that suicidally wanted the world to know. But for a nobleman to have written for the theater at that time would have been at best frowned-upon, and at best seen as an act of high treason.

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  • tom says:

    "Edward De Vere — the Duke of Oxford long considered a front-runner for having authored many (if not all) of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare"
    I`m guessing that you mean besides Shakespeare.

  • You got it! That's what "attributed" means. Jesus, indeed.

  • Tim Lea says:

    The movie addresses some very interesting points about Shakespeare being a fraud. Hollywood has its own tales of writers hiding behind hidden identities as a result of Macarthyism back in the 40's and 50's, but alas no proof has ever been found. In my novel the Pelican code, a modern thriller about Shakespeare not writing his own works coded proof is found, which if released would prove Shakespeare was written by someone else. It is the battle of the passion to prove Shakespeare was a fraud versus the need to protect vested interests. Like Anonymous it stimulates debate as all good art should - so go Anonymous it adds to the healthy debate