Interview: ‘Cymbeline’ director Michael Almereyda on reuniting with Ethan Hawke

In 2000, writer-director Michael Almereyda began his journey with William Shakespeare at the top, taking on “Hamlet” in his Ethan Hawke-starring adaptation set in in modern-day Manhattan. For his return to the Bard, however, Almereyda is bringing to the screen one of Shakespeare”s lesser-known, lesser-beloved plays, “Cymbeline.”

The film uses Shakespeare”s original text, which tells the story of Cymbeline (a king in pre-Roman England, perhaps historical, perhaps legendary) and his daughter, Imogen, who marries the penniless Posthumus against her father”s wishes.

In Almereyda”s version, which opens in select theaters Friday, Cymbeline is the kingpin of the Britons Motorcycle Club in a rundown, backwater American town. Here, the Roman foes are dirty cops, and a brutal turf war breaks out when Cymbeline (Ed Harris), at the urging of his wife (Milla Jovovich), refuses to honor an agreement with the police. Posthumus – here a skateboarding gang member – is played by “Gossip Girl” alum Penn Badgley. Dakota Johnson of “Fifty Shades of Grey” takes on the role of Imogen. Hawke is the villainous Iachimo, who places a bet on Imogen's fidelity with Posthumus.

Written late in Shakespeare”s life, the play unfolds a lot like a “greatest hits of the Bard”: There”s a potion that makes its drinker appear dead, there”s mistaken identity, there”s cross-gender disguise, there”s an ambitious queen, there”s battle with Roman forces, and there”s a final scene where all are reunited, all deceit is revealed and all confusion is cleared. It”s a plot-heavy play with a mishmash of tones and genres, and some Shakespeare scholars have suggested the playwright meant it as a parody of his own work. Almereyda set out to make all of that varied drama work in a sincere 21st century context.

Almereyda chatted with HitFix about what it was like to work on another Shakespeare project with Hawke and whether he plans to take on the Bard again.

HitFix: Why did you decide to adapt “Cymbeline” and set it in this world of biker gangs and drug dealers and dirty cops?

Michael Almereyda: It”s a wonderful play. It”s magical. It has great scenes and characters. I was aware that there hadn”t been a movie made from “Cymbeline,” and it felt like an opportunity to start from scratch and to do something fresh. [A biker gang] seemed like a fair equivalent to the tribal pagan societies and alliances that Shakespeare used as a background for “Cymbeline.” And it really is a framework. The movie isn”t really about biker gangs so much as it”s about a family and broken trust. It”s a kind of a blighted love story, and almost every man in the story has some imbalanced relationship with a woman. And that intrigued me. It seemed, in some ways, a very modern set of relationships. While Ethan was doing the TV commentary with me he said it”s kind of like a Neil LaBute play.  So there”s an element of – it”s not misogynistic but it”s exploring misogyny.  It”s exploring the way men can mistrust women and try to control them.  In the center of it, though, is a very strong woman character who”s not really a victim. She transcends her role and she”s just a kind of force within the story, and that drew me in too.

Which actor did you cast first?

Almereyda: Once the script was written I gave it to Ethan. I said, “Which part would you like?” He chose Iachimo, and I think he chose well.  And we worked from there. We were aided by his wonderful agent at CAA, a guy named Peter Levine who happened to have performed in “Cymbeline” in high school. So while other people considered it an obscure, unknown play, Peter Levine recognized it as a wonderful play, and he was very instrumental in getting it to other actors at CAA. And that had a huge impact on assembling the cast.

When you filmed “Hamlet,” that was the first time Ethan Hawke had appeared in a Shakespeare production. He”s done a lot of Shakespeare since. How did that make the experience of working with him different this time around?

Almereyda: He was much more agile and confident. But he was always enthusiastic. Before “Hamlet” he had auditioned for and prepared a version of “Romeo and Juliet” that didn”t happen. So he had gotten his feet wet, but he wasn”t nearly as immersed in it as he”s become. He was Hotspur in “Henry IV” at Lincoln Center. He was in Sam Mendes” production of “A Winter”s Tale.” I saw both of them and he was terrific. So yeah, he has great fluency now.

When you”re casting for a Shakespeare adaptation, is there anything that you look for in an actor that”s different than casting a production that”s doesn”t use Shakespeare”s language?

Almereyda: I don”t think there”s a difference. It”s just a matter of finding someone who has the bearing, the sensibility, the sensitivity to inhabit the part. Some of it”s superficial. It”s about how they look, which actually isn”t superficial, but it”s on the surface, let”s say. And the other element is just their level of commitment and skill. And when you”re making a low-budget film that”s almost the more definitive element whether it”s Shakespeare or not Shakespeare. I”m very grateful to actors who will work for low budgets because that shows true commitment. So everyone who was involved in this movie was working because they wanted to collaborate with William Shakespeare.

“Cymbeline” is packed with a slew of tones and different types of stories. It”s difficult to classify – there”s both comedy and tragedy. Some of it feels like fantasy, and other parts are more real-world, political intrigue. How did you approach juggling all those tones and creating one cohesive film?

Almereyda: One trick was to unify the timeframes. In the play there are three different timeframes. I unified it and generalized it by setting it in America. It became a willfully American version with American characters and an American subtext. You know the play is about the forming of the British Empire. [At the time “Cymbeline” was written] King James had just risen to the throne, and Shakespeare in some ways was reflecting that even though he”s talking about the deep past. He was acknowledging the recent ascension of King James, and all of that didn”t seem relevant to me. It wasn”t my concern. So the script became more focused on the relationships between men and women and less about empire and about warfare. And so it”s a distilled version of “Cymbeline.” It”s more focused. The play is not a tragedy, and it”s not quite a comedy, but it has streaks of comedy, and it does have wild tone swings, which in some ways makes it modern to me. But it can be confusing to people. We try to acknowledge the variety of mood swings and the preposterousness, the fun of it, the playfulness and also the depth of it because a lot of the characters get unhinged and go in dark directions and get submerged into jealousy and bitter crazy feelings. I wanted to respect the urgency of those emotions and get actors who could handle them.

The film was briefly re-titled “Anarchy” and then changed back to “Cymbeline.” What was that about?

Almereyda: I had nothing to do with that.  There was a distributor that had some mild hope that more people would flock to it if they changed the title. They thought Shakespeare”s title was not quite as wonderful as I thought. When they acquired it they did some testing, and they thought “Cymbeline” was not as strong a title as they could come up with otherwise. But I like to invoke the fact that “The Maltese Falcon” was going to be called “The Gent From Frisco” until John Huston complained, and they went back to “The Maltese Falcon.” And I just kept thinking, “Well, ‘Anarchy” is not as bad a title as ‘The Gent From Frisco,”” but it wasn”t pretty, and I”m glad that I don”t really have to think about it much more. 

Tell me about your choice to have both your “Hamlet” and your “Cymbeline” take place around Halloween.

Almereyda: It seemed more essential for “Cymbeline” because it”s a kind of pagan ritual that persists to this day, and it also allows a way of thinking about the presence of death and a proximity of death to daily life, the kind of cheerful acknowledgement of death that is a bit like a Tim Burton movie, except I think a little more dire. But we tend to both acknowledge death and deflect it, and Halloween is part of that. I also have this offhand conviction that America is more and more in its craziness turning into a perpetual Halloween celebration in a lot of ways. Pop culture is more and more about skulls and skeletons and zombies and vampires, and that”s not just on Halloween. I was trying to make a little bit of a statement with that without being too didactic, I hope.

You had to of course cut down the play a lot, which happens with virtually every film and also every stage production of Shakespeare”s plays these days. There was one specific cut I wanted to ask about: when Imogen says to Cloten that Posthumus” “meanest garment” (his most worthless garment) means more to her than Cloten does. Why did you cut that?

Almereyda: We shot it, but then we cut it. And then Cloten refers to that line and you have to assume that he was stung by that comment enough that he quotes Imogen. So we invoke it, but the actual scene in the movie was longer than seemed necessary, and we trimmed it back brutally, and that was one part that got cut – when they were bantering, and she was rebuking him or rebuffing him. It is an important line, and I didn”t cut the whole idea obviously because he”s still quoting it and then he wears Posthumus”s shirt, which was an essential plot point. It became more implicit.

If you directed another Shakespeare film, which play would you adapt? Any others you have your eye on?

Almereyda: I have about six. It”s too soon to tell because this one has been so hard to make. Ethan and I both want to do at least one more. But it”s too soon to tell because we”re right now we're just hoping that somebody sees this one.

“Cymbeline” starts its limited release in theaters and on demand Friday, March 13.