Much Ado About Amy Acker
She’s “the best actress I’ve ever worked with” proclaimed Joss Whedon.¹ This is no small praise coming from the writer/director who has created countless memorable characters for women. Aside from the testosterone-fueled Avengers blockbuster, he’s earned a reputation for empowered female protagonists played by ultra-talented actresses. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Eliza Dushku, the list goes on… But the actress that Whedon is referring to may not ring a bell: Amy Acker. Whedon disciples know her as Winifred “Fred” Burkle from Angel or Dr. Claire Saunders from Dollhouse, but she finally takes center stage as Beatrice in Whedon’s feature film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a star performance and it’s not her first.
In the fifth, final, and best season of Angel, the spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that became so much more, Fred suffers a freak accident that renders her deathly ill. When she awakes in her hospital bed, she flashes a meek but brilliant smile and mutters, “It’s my boys.” She’s surrounded by the show’s many heroes–Wesley, Spike, Gunn, Lorne, Knox, and Angel himself–vastly different examples of masculinity united by their genuine love for this woman. It’s a pivotal episode, one that requires a truly special performance from a special actress.
Her character needs to be worth the attention and commotion. She’s enough to make vampires, demons, and humans put asides their differences and stand side by side in an effort to save her. She’s enough to stop Angel and Spike’s petty squabbling dead in its tracks. She’s enough to sideline any and all narrative arcs developing up to this point. She takes precedence. She’s the priority.
Fred, and the actress who plays her, must also be enough to make Joss Whedon drop everything and return to Angel to write and direct the episode. His desire to work with Amy Acker has become a familiar theme, as he filmed Much Ado in a twelve-day shoot at his Santa Monica home on a break from The Avengers.
So what’s the big deal? Why do Joss Whedon and I insist on gushing about this Amy Acker so much? For starters, one of the many weapons in Acker’s arsenal is versatility. We now know that she’s as comfortable commanding the big screen as she is the small and her roles in the “Whedonverse” have required a staggering level of dramatic range.
We first meet Fred on the hell dimension of Pylea, where humans are bought, sold, and referred to as cows (these kinds of things happen on Angel). She’s covered in dirt and dressed in rags, but no amount of makeup can disguise that beautiful face or the radiant personality behind it. A slave for the last five years, she’s completely helpless, unbearably timid, and thin-as-a-rail, with a quavering southern accent that initially borders on the annoying (Acker is a Dallas native herself).
But Whedon’s characters are always more than meets the eye. An aspiring physicist, Fred turns out to be the smartest one of the bunch and despite her tiny physique, she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty in the demon-fighting trenches of Los Angeles. As the brains of the operation, she often tempers the brute force and impulsiveness of her co-workers.
It didn’t take long to realize that Acker was far more than a pair of glasses. Whedon couldn’t wait to show her off, writing/directing a Season Three episode that let the shy, uncertain Fred dress to the nines for the ballet. As he often does, Whedon takes a detour from the doom and gloom to explore the romantic entanglement of his leads, pitting the macho-but-sweet Gunn against the bookish-but-complicated Wesley in a battle for Fred’s affections. She’ barely been on the show for half a season at this point and men are already fighting for her.
It’s no surprise why…or at least it shouldn’t be. Acker’s combination of brains and beauty, not to mention the signature Whedon dichotomy of the girl next door who can also kick your ass, makes for an unforgettable character. Yet she’s only known to Whedonites who followed his world of vamps, slayers, and demons over to L.A., where the vampire with a soul enlisted his own band of heroes to combat evil. There were carryovers from Buffy; Angel, Cordelia, and Wesley all enjoyed more depth and development than they ever had in Sunnydale, but it was newcomer Fred who made it all click and ultimately made it all worthwhile.
She deserved to be the next Portman or Knightley, demonstrating an array of talents that at least equal the former and surpass the latter. In the gut-wrenching Season Five, she delivers a head-spinning, heartrending performance that should have made her a star on the spot, but it was not to be…
Ever the curious one, Fred investigates a mysterious tomb that arrives at the gang’s headquarters. It opens and unleashes a parasite that liquefies her organs, ripping the fan favorite from the audience in devastating fashion. Fred always wanted to do more, to be more, and in a cruel reversal of fate, the soulless über-goddess Illyria kills her and inhabits her body as a vessel.
Replacing Fred’s warm optimism, compassion, and sincerity is an empty, hollow shell of her former self. Where the sweet smile used to shine through the darkness of Whedon’s L.A., thin, lifeless lips take over. Where big, soulful eyes used to convey joy, terror, and sadness in equal measure, unblinking orbs pierce the soul of everyone they look upon–everyone that knew Fred and loved her to pieces.
And no one loved her more than Wesley, Buffy’s former “watcher” who found a purpose (and a dark side) in L.A. He’s forced to look upon the body of the woman he loves, to hear the remnants of her voice, all the while knowing that she’s gone forever. The scene they share in the finale is classic Whedon, miserably sad yet achingly powerful. For all of you Buffy fans that never got around to Angel, I guarantee you that this scene (and season) rivals the best of Buffy.
It’s devastating television, but a remarkable tour-de-force for Amy Acker. In a show that many consider to be “just a spinoff,” she takes Fred from her humble Texas beginnings to a backwards hell dimension to killing giant bugs with flamethrowers, making the transition from damsel-in-distress to omnipotent overlord not only believable, but riveting and heartbreaking all at once.
Whedon entrusted another dual character experiment to the actress in Dollhouse, where she played Dr. Saunders/Whiskey. He also gave her a bit part in the Drew Goddard-directed horror flick The Cabin in the Woods, but she is nothing short of a revelation as the lead in Much Ado About Nothing.
The actress is no stranger to Shakespeare, having played Much Ado‘s Hero on stage after graduating from Southern Methodist University. Her audition for Angel consisted of a Whedon-penned piece inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a Shakespeare reading at Whedon’s house with co-star Alexis Denisof (Wesley) eventually inspired the Illyria storyline. “I think I was reading Lady Capulet” the actress remembers, “and Joss got the idea for Illyria, and that’s how he decided to change me to a blue demon goddess. I was mean, and he liked me playing mean.”²
Whedon had Acker and Denisof in mind for his modern-day retelling of the Shakespeare classic from day one and who could blame him? Their chemistry is as potent as ever as they trade jabs, insults, and eventual declarations of love in Shakespeare’s original dialogue. They are so good together, in fact, that I wonder how Denisof’s wife (fellow “Whedon girl” Alyson Hannigan, AKA Willow on Buffy) doesn’t succumb to wild fits of jealous rage every time she sees the pair on screen.
Shakespeare seems to be Acker’s first language as she slips into the dialogue with impeccable accuracy and cool confidence. As Beatrice, who takes hard-to-get to a whole new level, she relentlessly taunts and teases Benedick (Denisof), fearing that giving her heart to such a known Lothario will only result in her own heartbreak. Watching the smug-but-smitten Casanova gradually win her over is a delight.
The role of Beatrice demands a different set of skills from that of Fred and Acker hits it out of the park. There’s nothing shy about this heroine. Although she guards her heart with a passion, she knows full well how to seduce, charm, and excite members of the opposite sex. She also knows how to belittle a man and hit him where it hurts. It’s a delicate combination, one that Acker masters, manipulates, and even flaunts with incredible fun. There’s something surprisingly intimidating about the actress despite her diminutive frame. We believe that she’s the kind of woman that men would fight for to protect or kill for to love.
In a perfect world, Acker would be a major star, not just a familiar face in the Whedonverse. She’s not his first strong female character, and maybe not his strongest, but she may just be the most unique and exciting. In a perfect world, she’d be up for an Academy Award for her performance in Much Ado. Directors would be jumping at the chance to work with her, as Whedon did in his “off-time” from The Avengers. Producers would be waiting around the block for a slice of her unbelievable talent, as her “boys” in Angel waited at the foot of her bed. There’s still time. A star like Amy Acker is worth the wait.
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