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The Cast of Characters
Joining Oscar® winners Mirren and Chris Cooper (as her deceitful brother, Antonio) are noted actors from both sides of the Atlantic, including Oscar® nominees Djimon Hounsou, Tom Conti and David Strathairn. Rounding out the ensemble are Alfred Molina, Alan Cumming, Russell Brand, Ben Whishaw, Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney.

Some of the cast members had previously done Shakespeare, others had not. To help them find a common language, Taymor held rehearsals both in London and Los Angeles.

For Djimon Hounsou (Caliban), "The Tempest” was his first experience with Shakespeare, and it was like learning a whole new language. "This is my third or fourth language, and processing this language was extremely difficult. But I really wanted to challenge myself, so by reading it and doing the research and absorbing it, I've grown to really appreciate the language. There are so many layers to it, so much meaning in it.”

He adds, "I knew Julie Taymor was talented and that she has such a great understanding of the language and Shakespeare's work. I love working with a director who really has a clear understanding, because this is foreign to me and I have to feel comfortable that she can really help me evolve through the piece.”

Reeve Carney, who plays Ferdinand, says that his work as a musician, particularly as a lyricist, gave him great respect for the play's language. "Shakespeare inverts certain sentence structures, and as a lyricist I'm sort of familiar with dealing with that type of structure,” he says. "So I think that made it a bit easier for me than it would have otherwise been.”

The company he's keeping in "The Tempest,” Carney admits, daunted him at first, despite the assured impression he made on Taymor. "But it was also very exciting. Shakespeare is, in a sense, a great equalizer, because everyone is a little frightened in some way, so as inexperienced as I was, we were all probably terrified of the same things.”

The rehearsal time was invaluable, not only in dealing with the language, but in helping him achieve a level of comfort with Taymor and the other actors. "Julie is incredible to work with as a young actor. All the suggestions she had were presented in a way that was not intimidating. It actually helped me get better. Knowing I'm a musician, she used language that I would understand and that would speak to me more than another actor.”

Ferdinand and Miranda's relationship is sweet and comedic and represents Shakespeare's view of youthful innocence. Felicity Jones, who plays Prospera's daughter, Miranda, says, "Ferdinand and Miranda personify that absolute naiveté you have only when you're really young and which we gradually lose as we gain more experience.”

Like Carney, Jones also felt liberated by Taymor's directorial style. "From rehearsal through production, Julie made you feel very comfortable and very safe. She gave you total freedom to explore your own ideas, which is what you want as an actor.”

Another actor who proved to be a quick study was Russell Brand as the comic buffoon, Trinculo, who particularly impressed Taymor with his improvisations. "Russell is an extraordinary stand-up comedian whose love of language is the reason I cast him in this,” says Taymor. "He would do improvisations. The first one, which we don't even have on tape, was, I thought, better than Shakespeare.”

Brand was also part of the second rehearsal in Los Angeles, with other cast members including Hounsou (Caliban) and Molina (Stephano) present, and again, Taymor was impressed. "This one we do have on tape. And what I asked Russell to do was to tell me who he is, as Trinculo. For a solid two or three minutes, he started from the very beginning as this character and the way he was conscripted on the boat, this miserable boat, this horrible tempest, and then here he is, shipwrecked on this island. And it was ingenious. Alfred Molina was dumbstruck. He said he'd never seen anybody do that, ever. The improvisation really allowed people to get underneath the language and make it their own.”

David Strathairn, who plays King Alonso, shares most of his screen time with three of his fellow shipmates, who are also members of his royal court—Prospera's brother, Antonio (Cooper); his younger brother Sebastian (Alan Cumming); and his consigliere, Gonzalo (Tom Conti). "We represent the court from which Prospera was exiled, because she was becoming much too popular and therefore a threat to my power, in addition to not paying taxes to me,” Strathairn observes.

A testament to Shakespeare's genius, each of the four men has his own unique story that develops throughout "The Tempest,” Strathairn points out. "My character's primary motivation is to find his son, Ferdinand, who he believes is drowned, and if he doesn't find him, he's probably going to kill himself. Antonio is kind of a slippery character, very opportunistic and seeking to take advantage of this situation. My brother, Sebastian, has fallen under Antonio's spell. And Gonzalo, the man who saved Prospera from being executed, represents the conscience and compassion of the piece. It's fun having four quite different personalities confronting their own pasts while they are each being manipulated by Prospera's magic.”

"‘The Tempest' is basically two stories,” observes Alan Cumming, who plays Sebastian. "One is romantic, sweet and funny. The other is more sinister and dark. Sebastian is a character in the latter. Our story is a bit darker, I think, because of Alonso, the grieving father, who thinks he has lost his son. Sebastian and Antonio take advantage of his grief and plot to kill him and overthrow him. It's made even odder when you realize that Prospera has made all this happen. It's really kind of Machiavellian.”

Cumming finds it interesting that the play, written late in Shakespeare's life, is basically about "someone who is trying to make amends, to resolve the past and bring everyone together. I really like that feeling. Changing the central role of Prospero to a woman makes so much more sense in terms of the story. It adds to the whole idea of healing. It sort of manifests what was going on in Shakespeare's own life. He was obviously taking stock as he was about to pop off his mortal coil.”

Conti, who plays Gonzalo, refers to "The Tempest” as Shakespeare's "Lost” in which people are shipwrecked on an island and mysterious things happen to them. "They don't understand what's going on in their surroundings, and they're split up into different groups,” he notes.

Gonzalo is one of the few noble characters in the story. "He's a decent man,” says Conti, "in the classic British civil-service tradition. He serves the Crown because it's his job to keep them safe and on the right track. And if bad things happen, he tries to smooth it over and make it all right.”

For instance, Conti mentions, when Prospera was banished, it was Gonzalo who attended to her needs. "It was basically, ‘Madam, I'm so terribly sorry you've been banished and that we're putting you into this small boat and sending you out into the ocean, but here is a sandwich and some books.'”

That Prospera doesn't take revenge for her exile, Conti says, is a very modern concept. "It could have been written by someone like Alexander Sutherland Neill, who was a famous educator in the UK, who started a free school. His idea was that you don't punish people; you try to point out to them where things are going wrong. And that's what Prospera does, really. She takes the characters to the edge, but she doesn't push them over. And that's wonderful. We should be doing that more.”

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