Following the success of Downton Abbey, series creator and writer Julian Fellowes is in demand. His next project: an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet due out at the end of 2013 and starring our favorite redheaded terrorist, Damian Lewis, as well as Paul Giamatti, Hailee Steinfeld, Stellan Skarsgård, and Christian Cooke as Romeo’s doomed best friend, Mercutio. The film is, Cooke assures us, more Franco Zeffirelli than Baz Luhrman, with swords and jodhpurs rather than guns and Hawaiian shirts.
Until now, Cooke’s made a name for himself in the UK with miniseries such as The Promise (2011) and independent films, including a role he is particularly proud of in Unconditional (2012). He currently stars as the younger, more straitlaced son of a Miami Beach hotel-owner and mob associate in the under-watched but intriguing Magic City.
In person, however, Cooke is convivial and relaxed, joking around with his friend and girlfriend in between our photos in Kensington Gardens in London. He’s just finished filming the second season of Magic City in Miami and is happy to be home for the holidays. Before meeting in London, Interview spoke with Cooke over the phone.
HOMETOWN: Leeds, England
LOCATION AT TIME OF INTERVIEW: LA. I’m very hungover, so you got me on a good day. [laughs] It’s been a sort of last minute trip for me, I found out a couple of days ago and I brought my mum with me because she was over in Miami visiting me. I took my mum out for some dinner [last night] and then I met some friends and had some drinks. Then things got a bit crazy. Did my mother leave after dinner? Definitely not, she came down and got on the dance floor. It was good.
FIRST JOB: It was a burger commercial when I was, like, 10 years old. We had to walk in a park and we were watching these kids play football; I thought this boy was a really good footballer and it turns out he was my mate’s sister. Then we went back to his house and ate burgers. It was incredible; it’s my finest work. I don’t have it, I did a talk show in England a few years ago and they pulled it up and played it for me. That was the first time I’d seen it in 12 to 13 years, so that was funny and embarrassing. I’d like a copy of it. Maybe you could help me get one.
CURRENT JOB: Danny Evans in Magic City (Starz).
ART BASEL: I missed it last year because we finished a month early. Everybody was talking about it. [laughs] It’s just my luck I had to come to LA. [This year] I went to one party, but I was sort of in and out—I didn’t really experience any of Basel unfortunately. I wasn’t planning on going and then I had a few drinks with my friend at home and I was like, “Oh fuck it, I’m just going to get in the taxi and go and check it out.” So I literally went up on my own, bumped into a few people and stayed for about and hour and then left. But it was cool. Going to parties by myself? Yeah, I don’t know if it’s super cool or super uncool, I haven’t decided yet.
LONDON LOVE: I moved to London about five years ago. I don’t think I’ll be moving to Miami any time soon. Miami’s really fun and the cast and crew are great, but I just couldn’t live there permanently, I think. After four months, I’m dying to get back to London. I live with four of my best friends—with my brother and three of my best friends—and we have a lot of fun, there’s a really tight bunch of us in London. It sounds stupid, but there’s nothing like walking down the street and seeing a building that’s older than 100 years old. I think London—not to sound pretentious—like New York, it’s a big melting pot for all things and it’s just got this energy that you can’t find anywhere else. So I’m still in my romantic stage with London, I love it as a place.
LIVING WITH ACTORS? No, God no. My brother is an agent, so he is in the business. Is he my agent? No, no, no. That would never work. [My house mates] all have wildly different occupations, thankfully. They’re all my best friends from school that I’ve known since I was a little kid. I’d never lived with a group of friends, and I wanted to do that before I branched out and lived on my own or with a girl or whatever.
JULIAN FELLOWES’ ADAPTATION OF ROMEO AND JULIET: It’s Shakespeare’s play, obviously, but he’s tried to make it more accessible for a younger audience, so he’s taken some words out and taken some of the imagery out—simplified it a bit, without butchering Shakespeare’s beautiful play. I think it works, and I think it’ll be interesting to see how people respond to it, because they really wanted to do a classical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but make it accessible. It’s not dumbed down in any way, to the untrained ear it sounds like Shakespeare, but some of the imagery and some of the words are changed and adapted.
MERCUTIO: I played [Mercutio] in school, of all places, a thousand years ago. So when I got the call to go in and read the part on the same day, I was a bit ready for it. With Shakespeare, because you invest so much time in working on material, it always sort of stays with you to some degree. Mercutio has so much going on beneath the surface, it’s almost anything goes, you’re able to really stretch your imagination and do what you want. Although it’s a period piece, we wanted to make it very realistic and grounded in some sort of reality. But yeah, I had a lot of fun with the role and it was great.
The Queen Mab speech is considerably shorter, which was disappointing but I totally understand why—for the nature of a movie, you can’t have one character starting off for 4 or 5 pages. But it’s still there; it still exists in some form. The relationship to Romeo is still that love/hate, he’s his best friend and he’s kind of in love with him but there’s still all that under-the-surface jealousy. I think Mercutio is one of those people that was born in the wrong generation, the wrong era—had he’d come from a more modern time he would’ve been more comfortable in his skin and more able to accept who he is. But he’s a great character: he’s a real thinker, he’s very intelligent, he sees every aspect of the world and human emotion, and he gets caught up in that all as well. It was good trying to get back in his head. In the ’50s, he might have been a beatnik in the San Francisco Bay area—smoked dope and been of bit of a wordsmith.
STRETCHING SKILLS FOR THE RESUMÉ: Oh yeah, all the time. I mean, ski, fence, everything—of course. That should be the first rule of drama school, make it up. The only thing you can’t lie about is the jobs you’ve done, because they can find out. But in terms of skills you just try to figure it out after, or between your first and second meeting you quickly get some sort of lesson. [laughs]