By Rob Hartmann
Cross-posted from www.StageBuzz.com
Matt Doyle, most recently seen on a New York stage in War Horse at Lincoln Center, stars in the film Private Romeo, writer/director Alan Brown’s retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story set in an all-male military academy.
ROB HARTMANN: So how did you get involved with the project originally?
RH: You trained in London, yes?
MD: I trained in London for a year, in a classical theater course at LAMDA [the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.] It was wonderful – I really got to know the classics and Shakespeare. There’s a reason that people love Romeo and Juliet as much as they do, and why it’s probably his most famous work. It’s exceptional. It’s so, so beautiful, and I love the way that it approaches that young, foolish teenage energy – the immediacy and destructiveness of a teenager. How a teenager thinks and works. So I’ve always really loved the piece, and the fact that it was done in a military academy – it was very interesting for me. So I went in for it, and it went great. I had several callbacks for it and ended up getting cast as Glenn, the “Juliet” part. I was thrilled. Juliet’s text is pretty remarkable, so I was very excited. And – when else would I get to play that role?
RH: Exactly – when else would you get to play it? Juliet’s interesting – so often in the play, she’s at the mercy of everyone else: waiting for information, waiting to be told what she can do and when she can do it. It was interesting seeing a guy in that role – but seeing that the essence is still the same.
MD: I wanted to make sure, in translating Juliet to a male, you know, that this would not be a male playing a female this time, as so many Romeo and Juliet productions have done in the past. This was actually a male in the role now – I wanted to make sure that there was a quiet masculinity to the role. She is waiting a lot – it’s a feminine part. I tried to make it as masculine as possible while still honoring Juliet and still honoring her tendencies. But I wanted to make sure that he [Glenn] had his own bearings – that he wasn’t necessarily waiting on everyone else, but that he was probably a little more quiet and a little more reserved, and wanted to get a feel for what other people thought before he made certain moves.
RH: Once you were cast, was there a rehearsal process?
MD: We actually did have a rehearsal process for this, because it was so obviously complicated. We really needed to hear each other and really needed to listen to one another. We were about to play with this text to a degree that none of us had before. I think the reason it’s been met with either people embracing it, or people being confused by it, is because we really do flip the text on its head as much as we can. We had actually just a few days together where we sat around and read it with one another. Seth [Numrich, in the Romeo role] and I had some time where we really got to explore our relationship and get to know each other before we jumped into being completely in love with one another. [Laughs] What was so wonderful about that, though, was that the first time we sat down together, there was this chemistry in the group that was so spot-on. I think, walking away from the film and seeing it again – I just saw it recently – I’m amazed by the performances of my peers in that movie. Every time I see it. Everyone is so specific, and has created something really special with their role-slash-roles – everyone had to play a combination of several different characters.
RH: I thought that was interesting, with Benvolio combined with Lady Capulet [acted by Sean Hudock], and Mercutio combined with Capulet [Hale Appleman.]. Very intense work going on. How long was the filming?
MD: We only had a three week window at the academy that we were shooting at. We were shooting at a naval academy in the Bronx. With only three weeks we had to make sure that we got it all done, and worked with each other as well as we possibly could.
RH: That’s pretty quick.
MD: It’s very quick, especially for the material we were exploring together. What was so great was that the group was so excited to be there. Nobody had any fear going into it – nobody seemed to be overwhelmed by it. Everybody was just completely on board and jumped right into it. We all built these wonderful relationships with each other with little backstories. I built this thing with “Omar” [played by Chris Bresky], who is the Nurse character in the film. We talked about our friendship and who those characters were, and talked about their backstory. We came up with this wacky story about how we grew up in Delaware together on a cul-de-sac, and got way too deep with it. [Laughs] I remember the first time I saw the film when I realized, oh yeah, that’s not in the movie. I thought there were scenes about that. No. There’s nothing. That’s just something we made up. [Laughs.]
But the work that we were doing with each other, in terms of the chemistry among all the actors – I think it really shows.
And then Seth and I – obviously – had to let go of any fear or apprehension whatsoever and just jump right into it with one another. And actually the first scene that we shot together was the balcony scene. Which I think is perfect, because it shows that kind of discovery – I mean, obviously we’re acting, and I see the choices that we’re making with one another. But I also see the discovery of how we both work in that scene – we were really figuring each other out. We got to know each other, shooting that scene. To know how each person would respond to a touch and a kiss – just the simplest movements. It was really fascinating to do that scene first. That’s the thing about shooting a film – you’re not doing anything in order. Starting with the balcony scene brought a really great color to it.
And then the next scene that we shot was ‘the lark’, waking up in bed together. [Juliet says it is night, not morning: Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day: It was the nightingale, and not the lark that pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.] And now we really have to be just completely comfortable with each other. Luckily we both were so open with one another and had no problem with each other. Going into that scene, we just laughed about it: all right, let’s just do this. And it was a hundred degrees in those rooms when we were shooting. There was no air conditioning, so we’re sweating all over each other, and in between takes we’re wiping each other down. There’s no way that we couldn’t have walked out of that without feeling completely comfortable with one another. In fact, when Seth and I started doing War Horse together, everyone noticed that we seemed [laughing] incredibly comfortable with one another. Just great pals, but you know, oddly comfortable with one another. And we’re like, oh, that’s just because we just spent four weeks essentially, you know, making out. We were actually cast in War Horse while we were working on Private Romeo. Quite a coincidence.
RH: Tell me more about your approach to the character.
MD: As a male playing a role that was originally written from a female perspective, I didn’t want him to seem weak, and I didn’t want him to seem scared. Alan [Brown], our director, was really careful about this as well. He didn’t want the film to be all about gay-bashing. He wanted there to be a sense that, no, even boys in military academies aren’t that hateful and aren’t that stupid. They’re not necessarily looking at this from the perspective of, “Oh, that’s gay and that’s weird.”
RH: I was curious to know, when you were shooting scenes using Shakespeare’s text, were you translating it for yourselves in some way – to what they were really saying to one another?
MD: That was a struggle, yes – here’s what Shakespeare’s lines are saying, but what are these boys saying? How do we flip it on its head so that it works in this situation? And sometimes it works brilliantly, and sometimes maybe not so much. I don’t know if we ever really, really figured out Paris [the nobleman to whom Juliet is betrothed] in a way that was concrete and clear - the idea of who Paris is, when Capulet – the character of Josh [Hale Appleman] – comes in to talk to me. And so what we decided is, okay, this isn’t going to work, we can’t make it literal. Some of the boys thought about, well, what if “Paris” is like a school, and he had to go to another school. And Alan, of course, was appalled. [Laughs] “No, absolutely not!” So the idea of “Paris” became just that Josh was coming in to tell me that it needs to stop. It’s gone too far. “Paris” was the idea of it ending. So in some instances like that, you could say, “Well that doesn’t work at all!” But to us it did. [Laughs] Not everything needs to be that literal. I think that’s what the film goes back and forth on. Sometimes when the text really works and it’s really clear, it can be completely magical. You just sit back and go, oh my gosh, I can’t believe that in this context it’s perfect. You know? And I never would have looked at the text that way and think that it would say something like that. And other times you’d say, well, that doesn’t work so much, but let’s push forward. And we sat down with one another and communicated to each other in our own language what we were trying to say, and then tied it back into the text – and accepted that we were doing something experimental. To make it literal is doing a disservice to the piece, and is defeating the purpose.
There’s a moment in watching the film where it starts to become dreamlike. We’re saying that all love is universal, and this text ties into a situation that you’d never think it would have tied into.
RH: I was curious about the scene in which the other cadets attack your character in the middle of the night – leaving you outside plastic-wrapped to a chair with your mouth covered in duct tape.
MD: I kept asking Alan, are they doing this to me because I kissed another boy? Because I’m gay? And he said, no, they’re hazing you, because you are the target of the night. Alan had seen a lot of disturbing YouTube videos of actual hazings, and wanted to tie that into the film somehow. If we were in this environment, and this situation had come up, then something of this nature would have happened, either in good sport or in poor sport. So it’s to capture the environment of the military academy. Alan based everything – wrapping me in the chair with cellophane – on videos that he’d seen.
RH: And you get to sing in the film. [During the credits, Matt sings a pop rendition of “You Made Me Love You” directly to the camera.]
MD: [Laughs] Yes, I do get to sing. Alan got in touch with me after I was cast and said, Oh, by the way, I want you to sing in my film. I know you can sing and I want you to sing. At the time, the ending was unfinished. Alan had decided that’s how he wanted to end it. I said, okay, but if it happens, it needs to be a conversation between the two of us. It needs to be extremely simple if you actually want to put it on film. It’s really hard to put a song on film. It was a lot of back and forth, and eventually he presented “You Made Me Love You” to me, I looked at the lyrics, and obviously it’s perfect lyrically. But I said, I’m not doing Judy [Laughs]. But luckily, I got to work with Bishop Allen [the Brooklyn based indie rock group whose songs are featured in the film.] They worked with me for a few hours in their apartment, and we listened to the Patsy Cline version, and then did our own contemporary spin on that. So that’s how that song came to be.
RH: And you’ve got some musical projects that you’re working on - ?
MD: Yes – I’m working on a followup EP to my first EP. I did an EP last year called Daylight and the followup will come out this year, called Sunset. And I just did the out of town run of Giant, which will be at the Public in the fall. [The musical by Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson, based on the 1952 Edna Ferber novel.]
RH: Back to Private Romeo – I see that you all got an acting award from OutFest. [Grand Jury Prize for Outstanding Actor in a Feature Film, awarded to the entire cast.]
MD: And we just got a Critic’s Pick from The New York Times. I love how controversial it is – I love that some people absolutely embrace it and fall into it and go into that dreamlike state and go along for the journey. And I love that some people are like [laughs] “No! I’m not doing this! I don’t get it!” I think that that’s a mark of something original. I love it.
RH: Especially now in film, so many things feel pre-digested and mapped out. There’s no ‘question mark’ left.
MD: I think Alan’s passion shows through. He wanted something very specific. He was so committed to his vision. I took a lot of film history – it reminds me of some of the films that came out in the Seventies that made people say, “Wait, what?” They were testing boundaries. That’s what this film was trying to do. And I love it.
PRIVATE ROMEO Written and directed by Alan Brown. With Seth Numrich, Matt Doyle, Hale Appleman, Chris Bresky, Sean Hudock, Adam Barrie, Bobby Moreno, and Charlie Barnett. Producer, Agathe David-Weill. Editor, Craig B. Weiseman. Director of Photography, Derek McKane. Casting Director, Stephanie Holbrook. Composer, Nicholas Wright.