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Anonymous: Director Roland Emmerich Talks Unmasking William Shakespeare

roland emmerich
roland emmerich

Never shy about tackling formidable subjects like the end of the world or close to it in his movies, German director Roland Emmerich steps on more than a few iconic toes in his latest film, as he mulls an alternate identity for no less than William Shakespeare in Anonymous. Not to mention speculating on all sorts of unconventional, behind the scenes of history sexual antics of Queen Elizabeth I at the time. A naughty mother/daughter dramatic duet on screen enacted by Joely Richardson and royalty in her own right cinematically speaking, her mom Vanessa Redgrave. Here’s Roland Emmerich.

Roland Emmerich

And I think it’s also the literary establishment that doesn’t like when we say something different. And they yell really loud. Then there’s the tourist industry in England that they support. You know, it’s a very big business, Shakespeare.

And anybody who dares to say something different, is subject to attack. And most of the time it’s character assassination. And Count Tolstoy, in his last remaining years, he wanted to become a commoner. And he thought Shakespeare was like an aristocratic snob, that’s what he said.

But didn’t people think Tolstoy lost his mind at the end?

RE: Yes! But some would say he lost his mind, and others would say he finally found the truth! Yeah.

Was the casting for Anonymous complicated?

RE: Well, I wanted Rhys to play Shakespeare. But he wanted to play the Earl of Oxford. And it opened up my idea of who could play what, you know? I told him, you have to test for that. And when he did, he was absolutely brilliant.

So there was no doubt in my mind, in anybody’s mind, that he is not perfect for this. So there’s a lot of box thinking going on. In this world, anyway!

But it was already confusing, because all these people related to one another, whether illegitimate too, had to look a little bit the same! But getting inspired by this project, actually inspired me to read Shakespeare. But I think the screenwriter wanted to quit a couple of times!

Now neither you nor the screenwriter are British and this is a British film. Is that just a coincidence, or were Brits too freaked out about getting involved with this controversial subject matter?

RE: I think if you grew up in England, you probably would not have dared to do this.

And the royal incest too?

RE: Well, look at Shakespeare’s plays. It’s happening. They’re filled with it. Strange, right?

What was the big challenge for you?

RE: It was the coldest winter in Berlin. It just didn’t want to get warm. And I think every day we ordered one heater more! On a very small budget!

Vanessa Redgrave in Anonymous

How about Joely?

RE: Joely, I have to say, she really surprised me. Because I worked with her on The Patriot, and with this she came into her own as an actress. I mean, I was stunned.

What about the other same person pair, Rhys and Jamie?

RE: I just brought them together, so they would start to know each other before they were on the set. And Rhys was quite pleased with Jamie. How good looking he is! And when Jamie went to the bathroom Rhys told me, well done!

And when Rhys went to the bathroom, Jamie told me, I like this guy! I really like him. And they really are the same person. They dress the same, they want to be the same, and they’re both rock ‘n rollers. They’re from the tribe of rock ‘n roll.

And you found this out when you cast them?

RE: No, before I cast them! But it was more that the young character should have a certain arrogance to him. Then you know where Rhys is coming from, and the whole entitlement to who he is. But these people lived in a different world than we do.

Then there were the actors, who were totally looked down upon.

RE: Yeah, like totally scoundrels. And vagabonds.

Are the Brits reacting differently to this movie than others?

RE: It’s interesting how the reactions are quite different in England. The English particularly, they don’t like when certain things about their culture are said, which they disagree with. But there’s also English people who totally embrace the film. And say finally, somebody had the guts to do it.

Then when you go to Germany, or to Russia or Italy, they just like the movie. And they don’t care so much about Shakespeare. They just enjoy the movie as a movie.

And would the Scots be offended by King James who takes over the throne, and how he’s seen as a jolly and foolish man?

RE: Well, he’s very proud of his two red shoes!

What about portraying Shakespeare as a murderer in your movie?

RE: He’s also a murderer in Shakespeare In Love. It’s a little bit of a tradition these days, to do that!

How many movies have you made now?

RE: I don’t know.

Twelve, fourteen?

RE: Something like that.

Is there anything that you feel connects all those movies?

RE: I’m very much about ideas. There always has to be a great, interesting idea for me. And then I will make a movie out of it, in some sort of form. And then there’s always a father/son story in my films, I always had a close relationship to my dad.

But I’m also a very political person, I always was. And I always try to put that in my films, but it’s sometimes overlooked by people. But I think less and less now, because I make it more and more apparent.

But it always has to be a strong idea. Something I can get my head wrapped around. And I’m a voracious reader, I read everything around. Sometimes several times. And my boyfriend is always complaining!

And my mother was always like, can you not play like every other kid, in the street! When I was reading Dostoevsky at fourteen.

What’s next for you?

RE: A movie called Singularity.

And what is that about?

RE: About singularity! You should check it out on the Internet. It’s the idea that if our technology advances as it does right now, there will be a moment in our history very soon, where a singularity happens.

Meaning that, you know, all bets are off! We can create a being which will live forever. And which is smarter than us. And this being, this artificial person could very well decide that we are not necessary anymore.

What’s your relationship with your actors, do you try to get them in the mood or scream at them?

RE: I try to help them as much as I can. And I try to run a nice and friendly set. I don’t believe that conflict breeds anything. A lot of people think exactly the opposite, but…

Are you nervous that critics will reveal the secret twist in Anonymous, in their articles?

RE: I hope they will not write about it! Because that’s the fun of going to see a movie. But what can I do.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.

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