9:00am PT by Jean Bentley
Shondaland Shakespeare Drama 'Still Star-Crossed' Goes Far Beyond 'Romeo and Juliet'
Before Game of Thrones, a Shakespearean drama could've been a hard sell to mainstream TV audiences. But, with the success of all things Westeros — and the backing of Shondaland — ABC is debuting its newest primetime soap, the Shakespearean sequel Still Star-Crossed, on May 29.
Showrunner Heather Mitchell tells The Hollywood Reporter that she thinks the appeal of a Renaissance period drama is wider than one would imagine.
"It is a beautiful time period that's really cool and has sword fights," she says. Besides, she adds, "We're not going to be talking in iambic pentameter here."
While the series is based on the novel of the same name by Full Frontal With Samantha Bee writer Melinda Taub that tells the story of Shakespeare's Verona after Romeo and Juliet's suicides, it pulls back from the Shakespearean language that the book utilizes to great effect.
"I am not a drama buff. I am not a Shakespeare buff. I read more about the plays and refamiliarized myself with the plays working on the show," Mitchell confesses, "but I came into this with my 10th grade English memory of this stuff. The bottom line is that these are fantastic characters, and you can take their storylines and use them in a modern way."
Add in gorgeous costumes, locations and castmembers, and there's a recipe for escapist television that Shondaland has perfected.
"I'm always writing for the person who's coming home after work and wants to pour themselves a nice big glass of wine and forget about everything and just watch some awesome TV," explains Mitchell, who has previously written for both Scandal and Grey's Anatomy. "We say the words 'thou art' once in the entire pilot, and that might be the only time we say it in this series."
In true Shondaland fashion, this Verona is populated by beautiful people of all races — but Mitchell says it's not only because of the company's race-blind casting policy.
"The Renaissance was much more diverse than I think most of us, having just taken high school history or whatever, [remember]," she says. "Shakespeare in the 1500s is writing about an interracial marriage in Othello, and Alessandro deMedici is the ruler of Florence, and he's a biracial man. And you're talking about all these cultures along the Mediterranean who have been trading with the Arab world and the African world, and by the Renaissance, they're starting to trade with Asia. This was not a white world, really. You may remember whatever artwork or whatever you want to, but I think, in reality, this is a more diverse world than people think — and on top of that, we just cast the best actor for every role."
Still Star-Crossed filmed in small medieval villages in Spain, and Mitchell says not a single soundstage was used in the entire production.
"You are really getting a travelogue of medieval Europe," she says. "It's fantastic! We're in these beautiful gardens, these beautifully manicured gardens. We're in castles. The writers type 'monastery' and we get the locations people sending us, 'Which one of these 20 medieval monasteries would you like to use?' We could use any of them."
While the premiere focuses on the Romeo and Juliet story and its immediate aftermath, the series as a whole will take a broader approach.
"The show is about, what if all the characters in Shakespeare lived in the same world and could interact with each other?" says Mitchell. "So the plays either have happened or are going to happen, but the plays are canon. Verona is an excellent place for many people to cross paths because it's right on a trade route, and you could totally believe that someone from, say, Scotland or someone from, say, Denmark or a bunch of people from, say, Venice might make their way through Verona at some point. So many of Shakespeare's plays are set in Italy, anyway."
She continues, "We are actually thinking about the whole world of Shakespeare, and we're using Shakespeare's most famous play, Romeo and Juliet, as sort of our launching point to the larger world. So yes, there is romance, but there is also mystery and intrigue. And I was a writer on Scandal for many years, so it's not like I'm going to get into the nitty-gritty of long-married characters and politics and the backstabbing. It's a good mix of all this stuff. I don't think that people should tune in thinking that it's going to be solely romance because it's a lot of action and adventure and mystery as well."
Still Star-Crossed airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on ABC.