Alicia Silverstone enthuses about the film and director Kenneth Branagh
Even before she had uttered her first words in front of a camera, actress Alicia Silverstone had dozens of Internet shrines devoted to her. That was thanks to her appearances in three Aerosmith pop videos, which caused teenage hormones to explode like popcorn kernels dropped into boiling oil. Her subsequent starring role in the Lolita-esque thriller The Crush won her three MTV movie awards. And her fanbase positively exploded when she played high school princess Cher Horowitz in Clueless, the reworking of Jane Austen's Emma set in Bel Air.
Alicia has now moved on to playing a real princess, the Princess of France, in Kenneth Branagh's latest screen Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost. But there is no trace of the regal manner when you meet Alicia face-to-face. In fact very few young women, let alone film stars, would present themselves for an interview wearing rollers, a hairnet and a dressing gown, as she does on this chilly afternoon at Shepperton Studios.
True, she was between scenes amid a hectic production schedule - but the day after our meeting a tabloid photographers snapped her leaving The Ivy with her hair in the same state of construction. No dressing gown, thankfully, but definitely no veneer of stardom. Silverstone is most definitely the girl next door - especially if you happen to live in Coronation Street circa 1963.
Now 23, Alicia is already a showbusiness veteran. She worked as a child model and at the age of 15 she "divorced" her English-born parents (with their agreement) so that she could legally work on a film. Later she capitalized on her Clueless success by forming her own production company, doing double duty as star and first time producer on the heist comedy Excess Baggage. Although she did not gain many new fans from that of or from the ill-fated Batman and Robin, in which she played Batgirl, her more recent flirting with Brendan Fraser in last year's charming comedy Blast from the Past was well-received.
Nevertheless, she was as surprised as anyone when Kenneth Branagh cast her in a leading role in Love's Labour's Lost. Alicia comes to the distinguished, Shakespeare-literate cast never having performed the Bard before. And as if that were not challenge enough, Branagh has recast the play as a Thirties musical brimming with Irving Berlin and George Gershwin showstoppers - yet Alicia had never sung or danced before, either.
"I really thought Ken had lost his mind when he hired me," she confesses. "I had done no Shakespeare at school or anything, but I would often browse through a Shakespeare play in my apartment. Sometimes I would just open it at any page and now know what the hell I was reading but it was just the deliciousness of the words."
Her hopes were not high when she got the summons to meet with the director. "I read a scene for Ken and thought that maybe in ten years he'd give me a call," she says. "So I put it out of my mind. Then I got a call a few weeks later."
She says she was really nervous about the whole thing. "I sort of thought that maybe Shakespeare doesn't work on film. I had never seen Ken's version of Henry V and I thought Shakespeare's characters were so rich that they couldn't be done on film. But I was so excited to discover how wrong I was when I saw Henry V. I just knew I was safe when I saw what he could do. I actually cried at the battle scenes in Henry V."
"Love's Labour's Lost is an altogether lighter piece of work - even without the singing and dancing. A romantic comedy, it tells the story of four young men, led by the King of Navarre (played by Alessandro Nivola) and sharp-tongued Berowne (Branagh), who determine to give up women while they dedicate themselves to study. Unfortunately, just as they've sworn not to even speak to a woman for the next three years, four beautiful young women, led by the Princess of France (Alicia) and the witty Rosaline (Natascha McElhone), arrive on their doorstep.
The inevitable romantic confusions and farcical complications ensue. "Love's Labour's Lost is escapist," explains Ken Branagh. "But Shakespeare is so bracing that he doesn't allow a piece like this to become sentimental. It's quite hard at the end."
After she knew she has been cast as the princess, Alicia went off to study for a month with Shakespeare & Co in Massachusetts. "It was like an army boot camp," she says. "All we did was live and breathe Shakespeare, studying syntax and movement and everything from morning to night."
She is just the latest in a long line of Hollywood stars queuing up to work with Branagh since his intelligent but accessible take on Shakespeare turned the Bard into a box-office hit with a new generation. There have been Shakespeare movies since the days of silent films, but the 400-year-old writer has undoubtedly become hot property since Ken's groundbreaking Henry V ten years ago.
"We were certainly part of the latest Shakespeare wave, which I'm pleased about," says Branagh modestly. "Sure the bubble with burst and audiences will want something new again, but we have unleashed something fresh. I feel that the dust has been blown off this particular cultural icon."
He was particularly delighted to see what Joseph Fiennes did with his hero in Shakespeare in Love. "It was so warm and clever and funny. He should have been nominated for an Oscar. To give Shakespeare a human face has made him more available, something more than our education has given us, more than cultural medicine."
It wasn't just Shakespeare that Alicia had to master for this production. There was all that singing and dancing to be learned, too. "I'd never done any singing before - I'd never had any reason to," she says. "That was really fun, it was really nice to be able to focus on that. And I love the songs."
Kenneth Branagh is certain that the tunes he's chosen will find as ready an acceptance among audiences of Alicia's contemporaries. "I've always loved this sort of music," he says, "and this play lends itself very well. The music actually advances the plot. There is the same carefree, light-hearted attitude to love in the text as in the sort of musicals these songs would have been in.
"The marriage of songs and speech has a transforming effect. Gershwin and Berlin's songs have great wit. It could be argued that the lyrics sit alongside Shakespeare's dialogue. I've spent the last two years seeing if it will all fit, trying to get some magic."
The advance buzz n the film, which had its London last week and opens here on March 31, seems to confirm that Branagh has been successful. But he, as usual, prefers to give most of the credit to Will Shakespeare.
"These are great stories," he says. "Wonderful, vivid characters. The language is sensational. It always has something to say. There are wonderful insights into the human condition, which for good or for ill doesn't seem to have changed much over the last 400 years."
Despite the hard work of filming, the atmosphere on set seems to have been unusually happy. British actor Adrian Lester, who plays one of the lovers, says: "It is like a repertory company. You feel that people turn up simply for the pleasure of working." And Alessandro Nivola, another of the film's hot young Americans stars, has been equally impressed. "The way Ken works in rehearsals is extraordinary," he says. "One minute he is painting a detailed picture of the film and what he wants to achieve as director. Then suddenly he is delivering a speech from the play and he is so moving that you are in tears."
There were three full weeks of rehearsals before filming started. Alicia recalls: "We all read through the play, and everybody had to dance and sing and start learning the numbers right away. Nobody on the film is a dancer or a singer. I love the music in the film, it's wonderful. But when you wake up in the morning and star singing 'There's no business like show business' you think you're losing your mind!"
She is obviously smitten with Branagh the director. "Working on this film is everything I ever dreamed of. I only want to work with directors I can respect. With most filmmaking, even if you really like a director, you only get so far. But Ken understands acting because he's an actor. Ken is really a genius. Every person in every department is chosen because they're someone he admires and trusts. He's so generous, so talented, so patient and so wonderful to watch."
At one stage the film was going to be shot in black and white, but Ken decided it would be impossible to recreate what was done in films like Top Hat. "I wanted to find my own style," he says. "This is very larger than life. It's very visual. The women's dresses have very vibrant colours. "Very Wizard of Oz."
With its vibrant costumes and light-hearted musical numbers inspired by the heyday of MGM musicals, Kenneth's version of Love's Labour's Lost is designed to be escapist. "I'm basically a romantic, that's for sure," he admits, " and this picture send out a good impulse."