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Julie Taymor Stirs Up a Tempest

The Tony Award-winning director discusses her big-screen version of Shakespeare's play, starring Helen Mirren. logo
Julie Taymor
(© Tristan Fuge)
Julie Taymor's name will always be synonymous with The Lion King -- for which she became the first woman to win the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical -- and will probably also now be forever linked to Broadway's new megamusical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, now in previews at the Foxwoods Theater. Nonetheless, Taymor is a force to be reckoned with in the film world as well; and proof positive is her new film version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, debuting this month.

The movie stars Oscar winner Helen Mirren in the traditionally male lead role of the vengeful Prospero (now called Prospera), and the impressive supporting cast includes Chris Cooper as Antonio, Alan Cumming as Sebastian, Tom Conti as Gonzalo, Djimon Hounsou as Caliban, Ben Whishaw as Ariel, Felicity Jones and Spider-man's Reeve Carney as Miranda and Ferdinand, David Strathairn as King Alonso, and Russell Brand and Alfred Molina as Trinculo and Stephano.

Speaking about the film earlier this fall at the New York Film Festival, Taymor explained why she chose The Tempest for her fourth feature. "It was the first Shakespeare play I directed, back in 1986 with Theater for a New Audience, and I fell in love with the play then -- and I've directed it three times since. And after I filmed Titus [her controversial 1996 film version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus], I decided if ever I was to do another Shakespeare film, it would be The Tempest."

As might be expected from Taymor, the film is heavily visual -- after an opening that plunges the audience into the very heart of a very real maelstrom conjured up by Prospera, the movie is filled with plenty of magic. But Taymor took the text to heart, as well. "I take Shakespeare at his words, but I do think The Tempest really lends itself to the cinema, because it's one of his most visual plays," she says. "For the film, I used a black volcanic landscape [in Hawaii where the film was shot], including just miles of black lava to show the barren, unfertile landscape in which Caliban was forced to live in."

As Taymor explains, the logistics of working with such a large group of actors was very different than with a traditional stage production. "In the theater, you get all your actors on day one and then you get them for five or six weeks before you go into technical rehearsals," she says. "Here, Helen worked on it for four weeks. Then we rehearsed in London with Russell Brand, Felicity Jones, Reeve Carney, and Helen for about two weeks on and off. And then in Hawaii, where we shot most of the film, I only had what we called the court -- David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, and Chris Cooper -- for not very long, because these actors are very busy. Luckily, I did have Djimon, Russell, and Alfred in L.A. for a hilarious four or five days, and we did rehearsals in a bare room where you can really engage with the language and the physicality of it all before we went to shoot."

The one actor whose work was done in a completely different manner was Whishaw. "Ben wasn't available for the shoot in Hawaii, so instead of casting another actor, I took it as one of those restrictions that could be a plus, and it was an enormous plus," she says. "The fact that he wasn't there made me come up with a concept, and I always wanted him to be able to be transparent. So by not having Ben on location, it freed us up for allowing him to transform. He was air, he was water, he was fire, he was lava dogs, he was frogs, he was harpies. The one scene where he's not an "effect" is where he says, "I would if I were human," because he has to be there, and that's just the real Ben, almost in the Bhutto white make-up, which helps to create this non-human androgynous figure."

Helen Mirren in The Tempest
(© Melinda Sue Gordon)
It was equally critical to Taymor and Mirren that the gender-bending casting never become a gimmick. Indeed, Taymor is emphatic that casting a woman wasn't done to make a point of any kind. "The idea of having a female wasn't about the idea of having a female; it was about wanting Helen Mirren to play Prospera," she says. "I was originally going to do it with a male actor, but I didn't have anyone in mind that excited me more than Helen. We had met each other a few times, and one day, we were talking about Titus and how few roles there are for women of her age in Shakespeare, and she said, 'I can play Prospero as a woman' and I said, 'Do you want to?' And then we did a reading to make sure it would work."

Known for throwing herself fully into her projects, Taymor did some massive research about the play, and made some interesting discoveries that informed the project. "I discovered that the speech where Prospero makes the ring of fire and then renounces the magic is actually a direct lift from Medea [in Ovid's Metamorphosis]," she notes. "I was surprised that it was a female speech that comes from a sorceress originally."

Taymor nevertheless admits that transforming Prospero into Prospera does change the dynamics of Shakespeare's play somewhat. "The mother-daughter relationship is very different than the father-daughter relationship. As for Ferdinand, it's not about her competition with him, it's because she knows her daughter can get hurt by him. She is protecting her daughter. It's just one of those revelations that this works," she says.

"In this day and age, it shouldn't be such a big deal to have a woman in the role," Taymor adds. "Many of the male actors who have played the role have a different take on their Prospero as well. And for people who have seen the play a lot, this is just another take."

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