You may have heard about some of the issues critics have with Carlo Carlei’s new movie version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey) has “reimagined” Shakespeare’s play for modern audiences. What? The nerve! How dare anyone tinker with this epic tragedy about the star-crossed lovers! But guess what? This sumptuous version of the enduring love story may indeed attract audiences who  have felt intimidated by Shakespeare. And it’s hardly the first time one of the Bard’s plays has been adapted for the stage or screen. Romeo and Juliet stars Douglas Booth (Worried About the Boy, Great Expectations) as Romeo Montague and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Ender’s Game) as young Juliet Capulet. It also features an excellent international cast including Paul Giamatti, Natascha McElhone, Damian Lewis, Lesley Manville, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Stellan Skarsgård. I sat down with Douglas Booth in Los Angeles to discuss the controversies surrounding the film.

romeoandjuliet-posterDanny Miller: I’ve been following the criticisms some people have of this film and admit that I was a little leery going in. I was skeptical about the idea of making the film more “accessible” to today’s audiences, but you know what? I found it way more accessible! I enjoyed the story of the feuding Capulets and Montagues more than I ever have!

Douglas Booth: It’s weird—what I think a lot of people don’t understand is that you can’t just take a three and a half hour play and put it on the screen. To work as a film, it needs to be adapted into a screenplay.

I wonder if Americans are even more guilty than Brits of treating Shakespeare so reverentially. Possibly because of our inferiority complex regarding American and English culture?

That may be true. You know,  in Shakespeare’s day, people would be sitting there in the theater for three or four hours eating, chatting during the play, getting shushed by others when someone’s favorite bits were on. And, of course, back then Juliet would have been played by a boy! Are we being scolded now because Juliet isn’t being played by a boy?

And it’s not like people haven’t been adapting Shakespeare’s works since the day he died.

Of course! I recently saw a brilliant production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in London. They turned the whole play on its head, even changing bits of dialogue. It was set in this non-time period and it was some of the most engaging Chekhov I’ve ever seen. The fact that they fiddled with it a little bit made it very exciting for audiences.

I’m obviously not a Shakespeare scholar, but I have to say this film helped me understand some of the dynamics between the characters in new ways.

I think our movie really pulls you in. And what I love about this film is that even if you  look at Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet — and I love that film, it’s amazing —  some of the surrounding characters are played like caricatures. Here we’ve got Paul Giamatti giving an amazing performance as Friar Laurence which is at the heart of the movie — creating a relationship with Romeo that you’ve never really seen before. I think Shakespeare allows for multiple interpretations of characters.

All that said, were you nervous about playing Romeo in this new version?

I did pour through the script at first to make sure that some of my favorite parts were still there. One of my favorite scenes is the one that I do with Paul in the sacristy after I’ve just killed Tybalt. It was very important to me that we had to have the speech about the carrion-flies and all that dialogue as I’m walking up the steps. I think Julian was very clever about leaving in things like that.

It was nice to see someone playing Juliet who was just the right age. I think Norma Shearer was in her mid-30s in the famous MGM version! Hailee Steinfeld is just wonderful.

Hailee is great. I think she brings a beautiful innocence to this film and to their love.

Of course, watching it at the age I am now I wanted to scream, “What are you two doing? Can’t you just wait a few years?”

Oh, absolutely. When you’re young and experiencing your first love, you’re usually crazy! You don’t know which way is up, which way is down — you just lose all sense. That’s what we were playing with in this film.

The locations were amazing. You were shooting in the actual spots where the story was supposed to be taking place?

Yes, we were in Verona and other places that were true to the time and true to where it was supposed to be set. I loved shooting those scenes in the Room of the Giants at the Te Palace with all those amazing frescoes. Carlo wanted that because he wanted it to seem like the whole world was crashing down on my head. I don’t think  film companies have ever been allowed into many of these places, there were security guards in there the whole time watching our every move. The place where we got married was in this beautiful monastery up in the hills outside of Rome — at one point we got snowed in and had to evacuate. This place is actually dug into the mountains, it’s so beautiful, but our cinematographer David Tattersall was only allowed 25 candles to light the scene! They thought the heat of any actual lights would hurt the artwork.


The swordplay in the film was pretty impressive. Did you already have fencing experience?

I’d done a little on this TV series years ago but we trained a lot for this film.

Were there moments in those scenes where you could really hurt each other if you made a mistake?

Oh, definitely. I had this one fight with Ed Westwick (who played Tybalt) and there was a point where I went to defend his move and I missed and completely wrenched my shoulder. I just went down! We were in this circular church and I remember just lying on the floor in pain. I heard the producers screaming for the medic! Luckily, I was fine, I just had to put ice on it for a while and take a  bunch of aspirin! But there are points in the film when you can see me wincing in pain — that wasn’t acting!

The costumes were  gorgeous, too. Were they comfortable to wear?

Some of them were a bit uncomfortable, but I loved them. Our costume designer, Carlo Poggioli, and his team were slavishly devoted to detail in everything we wore. Except maybe the undergarments — we were wearing thermals a lot because it was so cold! But everybody was dressed perfectly down to the last detail, even the extras. The Capulets wore a lot of dark purples and blues and the Montagues were in oranges and browns.

Is it strange having to be on the defensive about the approach Julian Fellowes took for this film?

Yes. I’m a little nervous about the purists coming in and bashing us! But I truly believe that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d  be doing all sorts of stuff with these stories. The bottom line is that the story is gorgeous, the language is gorgeous — and we have most of Shakespeare’s language in our version. Film obviously wasn’t on anybody’s mind back in the 16th century, it was nothing people could have even imagined. So Shakespeare had to write things like, “Oh, look, the moon is out” — he had to describe everything. But we had to make it work as a film, and help people to not be afraid of Shakespeare. If we could make anyone who would normally steer clear of Shakespeare want to go see a production of the play, that would be the best thing that could come from this.

I’m excited about the other two big films you have coming up: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending.

So am I! I did Noah right after Romeo and Juliet and it was such an incredible experience. That film comes out in March. It’s a major spectacle but it’s also rooted in family — just like this film. I play Noah’s oldest son and it kind of twists in this brilliantly dark Darren way. It’s wonderful, I can’t wait to see it. And I had the best time on Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowskis are absolute geniuses, I loved working with them. I think they’ve made something quite special — and absolutely mad!

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Romeo and Juliet is currently in theaters.