O’Connor, on the other hand, initially approached the role as toward school—with heavy looks. “I had this irrational idea of what Romeo and Juliet was,” he admits. “My limited experience of it was like: Here are two people who are just really naive, and all the adults are like, ‘You have no idea what love is, and you have no idea what you’re doing.’ I was on the adult side. I always felt that it is quite easy for particularly Romeo to be a little bit whiny. He goes from lovesick to being completely mad in love with someone else, and it all happens quite quickly.” Just think of all the (iconic) times Leonardo DiCaprio weeps in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation.
But he was quickly won over by the prospect of taking the storied National Theatre stage alongside Buckley. “I remember feeling terrified but also so thrilled and with fires in our bellies to go and tell this unbelievably epic love story on that stage.”
Their enthusiasm for the production made it all the more devastating when it was shut down last spring. They approached the idea of a filmed version with some trepidation; both have said they had little interest in a Romeo and Juliet film project. “The prospect of doing it for film was a whole different story,” Buckley says candidly, not least because director Simon Godwin, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., had never made anything for the screen before. “You’re creating it for an audience that will be seeing it through a screen, not one that will live it with you live every single night. That liveness with an audience is the great joy of being in a theater. This new thing is a bit scary because we don’t know what it is yet, and we have to create it basically from the ground up.”
“Jessie and I had just spent three or four years making films,” O’Connor adds. The change in course “suddenly felt a little bit underwhelming.” In hindsight, he chuckles, “there’s nothing underwhelming about it at all. It’s as terrifying, if not more terrifying, making a film like that.” (He says both will continue searching for something to “scratch that itch” to perform together onstage.)