LOS ANGELES – To be or not to be Hamlet? Stupid question.
An actor passing on the opportunity to drill into the skull of the Great Dane — or dozens of other complicated characters from William Shakespeare’s deep roster — is akin to a country singer turning down an invitation from the Grand Ole Opry.
Embrace the Bard, your name could eventually be in lights. Ignore him and spend the rest of your professional life waiting to audition behind Joey Tribbiani.
“It’s more than just brilliant prose. It’s a workout,” said actor/director Kenneth Branagh, 55, the most famous Shakespeare cheerleader of his generation. “It requires you to dance, sword-fight. It’s not something you get bored with easily.”
That sentiment comes as no surprise from a guy who was probably dissecting “The Merchant of Venice” while his schoolmates were figuring out the latest Hardy Boys mystery. But four centuries after the playwright went to the big stage in the sky, his work still resonates with performers of all ages and backgrounds — a passion that seeps into your pop culture diet whether you know it or not.
Take red-hot Benedict Cumberbatch. The actor breathed fire into “The Hobbit” trilogy and enraged Capt. Kirk in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” only to follow up those big-budget splashes last year by playing Hamlet, the hottest ticket in the history of London theater.
Beloved movie star Tom Hanks, who got his big break playing the comic servant in a Cleveland production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” pays his debt by helping inner-city kids in Los Angeles experience the Bard for free.
Recent Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio taught his fans that parting is such sweet sorrow in Baz Luhrmann’s flashy 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet.” Denzel Washington has twice put his movie career on pause to do “Julius Caesar” and “Richard III” in New York. CNN recently unearthed footage of a 14-year-old Jennifer Lawrence tackling Desdemona in a Louisville community theater’s stab at “Othello.”
“I would love, love, love to play Hamlet,” said James Norton, who was plucked from the Cambridge student body for Trevor Nunn’s production of “Cymbeline” nine years ago and is melting hearts as a jazz-loving vicar in PBS’ “Grantchester.” “But I’m already a bit too old.”
The 30-year-old Norton may think the role has passed him by — although maturity didn’t stop Mel Gibson from doing a 1990 film version at the creaky age of 34 — but there are plenty of other choices in his future.
One of the keys to Shakespeare’s longevity is that his characters cover every demographic, from a teenage Juliet to a doddering King Lear.
“You get so used to doing Shakespeare, it becomes part of your life,” said Michael Gambon, who trod the boards at London’s National Theatre, under the direction of Laurence Olivier, decades before replacing the late Richard Harris as Prof. Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” movies. “That just continues as you grow older.”
Gambon’s latest role, as Winston Churchill in PBS’ upcoming production of “Churchill’s Secret,” may not be from Shakespeare’s canon. But the story of the former prime minister’s attempt to recover from a debilitating stroke wouldn’t seem out of place in one of the Bard’s dramas as the seemingly invincible leader privately struggles to outlast the winter of his discontent.
“Shakespeare really loved audiences, and he just wanted stories that would connect,” said Golden Globe-nominated actress Romola Garai (“Emma,” “The Hour”), who recently wrapped up a critically acclaimed run in London of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” “He wasn’t so interested in complicated ideas. These are elemental themes, and that’s what stories should always be about.”
Faster than a speeding sonnet
Having Shakespeare on your résumé will get the attention of casting directors, even when they’re looking for someone to take on a caped crusader.
“Shakespearean actors are perfect for the comic-book world,” said TV producer Greg Berlanti, who often taps classically trained performers as villains for CBS’ “Supergirl” and the CW’s “The Flash.” “They have the ability to make a scene feel real and heightened at the same time. That’s why they’re also ideal for Disney characters and other voice-over work.”
Branagh’s adventures with Shakespeare also came in handy behind the scenes in 2010 when preparing to direct the most highly anticipated project of his career.
“The spectacle and size of ‘Thor’ is not something you get intimidated by if you do a lot of Shakespeare, who used a lot of epic battles, monsters, magic, all of those,” Branagh said. “Some people may think the comic-book world is extravagant, but I don’t get thrown by it.”
But just because Shakespeare is good for you doesn’t mean every actor comes willingly to the table.
Anthony Hopkins got his professional start as Olivier’s understudy at the National Theatre. He divorced himself from live performances and the Bard’s words decades ago, escaping to the U.S., where he made his mark as Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 movie “Silence of the Lambs.” Hopkins did set aside his old grudge against Shakespeare to play the title character in the film adaptation of “Titus” in 1999, but he has only recently discovered a passion for the Bard.
He’ll play an actor obsessed with “King Lear” in a TV version of the play “The Dresser,” co-starring Ian McKellen and premiering on Starz May 30. Later this year he’ll go all in, for a BBC production of “Lear” also featuring Keira Knightley, Naomi Watts and Gwyneth Paltrow.
“ ‘The Dresser’ was a revisit to a world I had known 50 years ago and wasn’t comfortable with,” said Hopkins, who used to treat going on stage like a trip to the dentist. “I can now understand why Sir Ian and so many great actors love Shakespeare. I wish I had had that then.”
Hooked on classics
A younger Hopkins may have benefited from classes taught by Doug Scholz-Carlson. In addition to serving as artistic director for Winona’s Great River Shakespeare Festival, Scholz-Carlson introduces high school students to the classics, demystifying the language by comparing it to the way they talk to one another in the cafeteria.
“I ask them, ‘If you were to write that dialogue down and hand it to your parents, would they understand it? Probably not, but if they could see you act it out with your facial expressions, they probably would,’ ” he said. “In the same way, Shakespeare was making up his own language. Once kids get that, they get excited.”
Branagh remembers being downright giddy the first time he experienced “Romeo and Juliet” — The angst! The love! The guns! — and then seeing a younger generation react the same way to DiCaprio’s version during a Friday matinee in Boston.
“I must have been the only guy in a room full of 15-year-old girls who were going mad,” he said.
PBS has done its part in spreading the gospel with “Shakespeare Uncovered,” a sort of “Classics for Dummies,” in which marquee names such as Ethan Hawke and Kim Cattrall take viewers by the hand and guide them through the iambic-pentameter minefields.
The series, which will air a third season at an unscheduled date, has triggered celebrations across the country, including Nashville residents paying tribute to “Romeo and Juliet” by assembling the largest “balcony scene” ever over a dried-up riverbed.
Once newcomers crack the code, they can begin to appreciate some of literature’s richest heroes and villains who have stood the test of time.
Just ask McKellen, who has played all manner of fantasy figures, from Gandalf to Magneto — and imbued them with a Shakespearean thrust.
“Once you discover Shakespeare, he can be right at the center of your imagination,” said McKellen, whose 2007 take on King Lear will forever reign as a Guthrie Theater milestone. “Long may he continue to do just that.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin