Denzel Washington’s passion for Shakespeare is clearly not as fleeting as, to borrow from a certain playwright, a walking shadow. The two-time Oscar winner currently stars opposite Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth, director Joel Coen’s take on the Shakespeare staple that’s now available on Apple TV+, and for which Washington earned a SAG Award nomination. But it was 1993’s star-studded Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenneth Branagh (whose latest, Belfast, is in the awards race alongside Macbeth), that introduced moviegoers to the actor delivering the Bard’s lines.
Washington played nobleman Don Pedro, who overcomes the villainous scheming of his brother Don John (Keanu Reeves) to foil his matchmaking between two couples, Benedick (Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale, in her big-screen debut). The project, which also featured Michael Keaton, filmed at a Tuscan vineyard in Chianti, and Washington remembers the wine flowing during the convivial shoot.
“I did a lot of sword-leaning,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter jokingly. Also making a lasting impression on the cast was the intense heat from shooting in the dead of summer in 1992. “I remember having to wrap a wet towel round my head in order to sleep at night,” Thompson recalls. “Denzel would lie under any bush he could find, trying to escape the Tuscan glare. Mind you, he was in leather trousers.”
More recent period productions, such as Netflix’s Bridgerton, have earned praise for inclusive casting, but for Much Ado’s team, hiring Washington, who wasn’t known for Shakespeare or comedy, was a no-brainer. “We weren’t aiming specifically at blind casting — we were just aiming at good casting,” producer David Parfitt says. “Denzel has that nobility in him, and you absolutely believed him as a prince.”
The shoot took place with Keaton at the peak of his stardom, as June 1992 saw the release of Batman Returns, in which he reprised his role as the Caped Crusader. Meanwhile, Reeves was having a busy moment of his own, with 1991 having marked the release of his Bill & Ted sequel, action flick Point Break and acclaimed indie My Own Private Idaho. However, he still wasn’t quite as recognizable as he would become.
“I remember Keanu showing up in our London office when he first came over to the U.K. on our way to Italy, and we thought he was a motorcycle messenger,” Parfitt says. “He turned up in leather, he looked like he just got off a bike and no one knew who he was.”
Several members of the crew remember Reeves staying in character throughout the shoot and not quite participating in the off-camera revelry with the others. “His acting was just different than everyone else,” says editor Andrew Marcus. “To Ken’s credit, I don’t think he quite got what [Keanu] was doing when we saw it on set, but then when you saw it all, it kind of worked.”
Heat notwithstanding, Thompson has nothing but positive memories from making the film and remembers cooking “a lovely spaghetti al pesto” for Keaton. “The best thing about the shoot was arriving in Italy, all wizened and white and pallid little Brits, and being told our job was to get nicely tanned. Our job,” she quips. “The film is a favorite of mine because it’s so popular with young people — it’s Shakespeare done with fun and lightness of spirit and clarity.”
Washington has since made his way to the director’s chair for films such as 2021’s A Journal for Jordan, giving him a better understanding of why Branagh seemed frazzled at the time. “I remember how exhausted Kenneth was every day, trying to act and direct and produce, and I was like, ‘Man, he’s got to take it easy on himself,’” the star says. “But I get it now, having done it.”
Thirty years later, the chemistry among the cast endures. “I [recently] saw Keanu in New York, and I was like, ‘Ah, he’s got a little gray in the beard there,’ because I hadn’t seen him in such a long time,” Washington says fondly. “It was like we picked up where we left off.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.