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Joss Whedon’s Shakespeare Fantasy League

Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Lionsgate

AUSTIN – When Joss Whedon, the hero to fanboys everywhere, gets his friends together, they don’t dissect the latest comic book. They prefer material that’s not quite so cutting edge.

As in Shakespeare.

For years, Whedon has hosted Shakespeare Brunches at his home. The actors you’ve seen in Firefly, Angel and his other television and movie ventures show up ready to read a part he’s assigned them. And then they just see where the day goes.

It’s his “fantasy Shakespeare league” as he put it Saturday morning at the Four Seasons Hotel. It started with readings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing.

“You trot out a few of the crowd pleasers when you’re getting everybody together,” Whedon said. “Before go directly to Winter’s Tale, you need to sort of get everybody onboard.”

Those gatherings are what led Whedon to make his modernized Much Ado About Nothing, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and is now playing SXSW.

He shot the whole thing at his house in just 12 days with no studio financing and no promise that anyone would even distribute it.

“This was sort of a joyful experiment, and we were accountable to ourselves and not somebody else,” says Alexis Denisof, who play Benedict and who starred in Whedon’s TV series Angel. “And I think that freed up the creative process.”

“There was something just about sitting in this backyard that is beautiful, drinking wine, reading Shakespeare,” said Amy Acker, a Lake Highlands graduate who also starred in Angel. “All the stuff we’d done has kind of accumulated to this point.”

Nathan Fillion and Clark Gregg are also among the brunch crowd who made it into the film. But lest you think the shoot was just one big party, it wasn’t. Every spare minute was spent with nose buried in book to learn that tricky prose. With such a tight shooting schedule, everyone had to be ready to roll.

Still, everyone involved had a certain glow while talking about the experience. And there’s no reason to think making the movie will mean an end to the brunches.

“It’s the kind of fun that’s fun for me. We enjoy it, we learn something every time from somebody’s performance or from our own,” Whedon said. “Plus we’re just hanging out. Then when we get drunk, it’s classy!”

Much Ado About Nothing opens in theaters in June.