They’ve both done Shakespeare on stage, James McAvoy playing Romeo and Emily Blunt portraying Juliet. But they’ve never done them as garden gnomes, until Touchstone Pictures’ new animated feature Gnomeo & Juliet.
Directed by Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2), McAvoy voices the character of Gnomeo, who lives in the blue garden just over the wall from the red garden, where Juliet resides. Caught up in a feud between neighbors, can this young couple find lasting happiness?
Do you have any childhood memories of garden gnomes?
Emily: I was always scared by anything that resembled people when I was a kid, like puppets or things like that. [Certain] dolls were the depths of Hell for me. I was a rather anxious child apparently.
I remember my friend had garden gnomes and I remember being scared of them when I was very young. I think I know someone who has a garden gnome of themselves which is quite strange. But, I wouldn’t mind having one. That could be fun.
James: I had a frog much like Nanette that Ashley Jensen plays in this film brilliantly I have to say. I had two garden gnomes in my grandparent’s garden. One of them was baring its backside and the other one was looking [disapprovingly].
They were really grimy and covered in moss and I thought they looked a bit seedy [Emily laughs] unlike the friendly ones in this film.
There are lots of Shakespearen references in the film. James, you’ve had experience playing Romeo and Emily, you played Juliet. Did that experience help you create these characters?
Emily: Yeah. I actually found it very helpful. When I did Romeo and Juliet I was about 19 and it was my third professional job. I was very intimidated by the thought of it because I hadn’t trained and had no experience acting Shakespeare.
I had a really wonderful director who encouraged a different view of Juliet which is that she’s not a wilting, delicate flower, that she’s actually hot-tempered like her dad and she’s decisive and rebellious and very much not the reactionary role.
I felt she actually drives a lot of the second act by her decisions, reckless as they are.
So, it was really interesting for me to have lived through that on stage and do it day in and day out. I loved it. I’ve never had a part like that and probably never will, since it was such an emotional roller coaster. It’s crazy to go through that every night.
So when I met Kelly, it was really great to hear that they wanted to have a tough little Juliet. So I was happy that we met in the middle in that way. But I did find it helpful for sure.
James: I always see Romeo as being a bit of a pain in the backside who is very in love with himself. He has got lots of time for himself and some time for the ladies, as long as there would be time for him. And then something massive happens to him.
Gnomeo in this is a little bit of an amalgamation between Romeo and Mercutio. We don’t have Mercutio. We don’t have that leader of the pack which Romeo isn’t, but Gnomeo is a little bit.
So it’s handy to have an appreciation of who Mercutio was, not only to conform to what your family wants but also just to show off for your Blue pals.
Gnomeo does look like a classic garden gnome, but he’s got a little bit of something extra. It’s nice to imagine that all gnomes have something extra. They’ve all got something that they’re hiding from you and when the lights go out, it comes out.
With animation you usually work by yourself, did the two of you meet before starting the film, did you rehearse together?
Emily: They tried to keep us apart.
James: She’s not very easy to work with (he laughs)
Emily: James is really temperamental, so they didn’t want us in the same room.
James: But with that temperament comes genius. (Emily laughs)
What were the difficulties of doing it separately?
James: At the beginning it was particularly hard, but then it got easier. Emily would come in to record and that informed my character. What we did informed the writing and then they’d come back with a script that was slightly evolved.
Even though we’re not there together as actors, the implications of what we did individually now exist on screen. It’s really odd, but it’s fun.
Emily: When you’re doing a comedic version of something I think it always has to be ingrained in some kind of truth because people don’t laugh if they’re not invested. We all very much wanted to play real people in this.
So you’d never met before?
Emily: We’d met socially a couple of times, so we were kind of thinking when we both got on board for this, ‘It’ll be great, we’ll be in the same room and we’ll riff and we’ll improv,’ but we improv-ed separate of each other.
What are the lessons of the story?
James: The story Romeo and Juliet has got a lot of nice morals. It’s got ‘don’t pay attention to preconception and to prejudice’ and, ‘forgiveness is really important’ and all that really good stuff to tell kids.
But you can’t tell them with Romeo and Juliet because everybody dies or commits suicide or takes a drug or kills someone or has sex with someone they shouldn’t be having sex with.
So you use garden gnomes and you can give them all those good little morals and tidbits without the suicide, sex, death, drugs!