Rivers Cuomo Would Very Much Like to Watch a Shakespeare Play With You

Rivers Cuomo, perhaps thinking about the First Folio. Photo: Rick Kern/Getty Images

When Weezer ringleader Rivers Cuomo gets into something, he really gets into it. In the late ’90s, he analyzed the mechanics of every Nirvana song and filled a three-ring binder with his findings. In his own ripping guitar solos, you can hear the countless hours he spent learning from his beloved KISS and hair-metal bands. On Weezer's classic Pinkerton, his enthusiasm for Japanese culture is there in the album cover. But recently Cuomo, a Harvard graduate, has found a new passion: the plays of William Shakespeare. And he’s been quietly sharing his love for the Bard’s plays by hosting a small handful of Weezer fans in Los Angeles movie theaters at a semi-regular event he calls Nerd Night. 

On a whim, Cuomo, 45, will post on his website or his Twitter feed that he’s hosting a Nerd Night, where he either privately screens or pays for his fans to attend a screening of a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play. At the most recent Nerd Night in June, Cuomo hosted the 11th installment of the series and paid for approximately 40 Weezer devotees to attend a screening of the 2014 Globe Theatre performance of Antony and Cleopatra at West L.A.’s Laemmle Royal theater.

The venue was half full for the event, and Cuomo, wearing a zip-up blue-and-white-striped Baja hoodie, white jeans, and sneakers, sat alone in his own row. He motioned for me to sit next to him. 

“Nerd Night is whatever I’m super into,” Cuomo said, settling into his seat, stroking the scraggly beard he’d grown while on a recent monthlong Vipassana meditation retreat. “The first two films I showed were The NeverEnding Story and Time Bandits. Since those two, it’s been all Shakespeare. I feel sad if I go [see a film] by myself. So I just send out a tweet and say, ‘Hey, everybody, let’s go do this.’ Then it’s really fun. There’s energy. And I feel happy.”

At the screening I attended, most Nerd Night–goers were high-school or college students. A handful of gray-haired senior citizens, just there to see the movie (which was open to the public) and unaware that they were attending Cuomo’s event, populated the front row. “You’ll find a wide range at Nerd Night,” Cuomo said, “from people who’ve never read Shakespeare who are just here for the experience, to seasoned Shakespearean actors. Whatever they’re getting out of it, I’m just glad they’re here.”

Before the screening began, Cuomo offered some pre-play analysis. “Anyone is always going to have a gripe with a Shakespeare production, so mine with the Globe [Theatre's] is that in the tragedies, they bring out a little too much comedy and slapstick,” he mused. “As an entertainer myself, I can empathize with a performer who’s desperate to get some kind of reaction from the crowd — it’s great when they laugh, it makes you feel good. But I’ll listen to the BBC production of Antony and Cleopatra on Audible, and I shed more tears. It’s a more powerful experience. But the Globe performances, especially this one, have their powerful moments.” 

As the lights dimmed in the theater, Cuomo removed his hoodie, folded his arms, and sat back in his chair. Throughout the film, which starred Clive Wood as Mark Antony and Eve Best as Cleopatra, Cuomo sat with his mouth agape during the play’s soliloquies, seemingly in awe of Shakepeare’s words. Cuomo’s been working at a breakneck pace for the past year, with Weezer’s ninth studio LP, Everything Will Be Alright in the End, dropping in October of 2014, followed by a tour. And he dipped his toe in the television world for the first time, serving as executive producer on DeTour, a sitcom pilot based on his experience as a rock star returning to Harvard to complete his degree.

When the film paused for a 15-minute intermission, Cuomo sat up in his chair, applauded, and said, “I’m going to get an ice-cream sandwich.” He retreated to the Laemmele’s lobby and munched on a Chipwich while fans casually approached him.

“I’m so glad you do this,” said a clean-cut high-school student in a Hollister hoodie who made the trip from San Diego to attend Nerd Night. “Nobody appreciates Shakespeare, at least not from my generation.”

“I’m glad you came,” Cuomo said. “What plays have you read in school?”

Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet,” Brett said. “This is one of the history plays, isn’t it?

“It is, it is,” Cuomo said, taking a bite of his Chipwich as he walked back into the theater.

Before the second half began, Cuomo paced in our row and tried to articulate why Shakespeare resonates so strongly with him. “He shows me what’s possible with language,” Cuomo said. “Obviously, none of us can try to emulate him. But it’s inspiring to know how much power you can wield with words. We don’t know much about his creative process, but I’ve read enough to know this specific example of a way I’ve taken something from him: He worked with sources a lot. In fact, I think only one of his plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream — was an original story. He would read these history stories and combine different plots. And in the case of this play, that whole speech by Enobarbus about 'the poop was beaten gold' — that description of Cleopatra that’s so beautiful — he really lifted a lot of that from a different source. I’ve read the original. So it’s inspiring to know that even Shakespeare needed to rely on the work of people before him. That gives me license to do the same.” (Cuomo has admitted to borrowing heavily from the songs of others. Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song),” for example, is essentially a reworking of Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).”)  

Before Cuomo settled back into his seat, he introduced me to three actors from Santa Monica’s Miles Memorial Playhouse. “You need to meet them. They’re really amazing performers,” he said.

“Rivers recently came to see us do King Lear, and he liked it so much he asked the theater to do one more performance, just for him,” said Frank Raducz Jr., one of the thespians. “The director asked the cast if we’d come back the next day, because Rivers is a big supporter. Every actor but one came back, and Rivers packed the house with people. The dude loves Shakespeare.”

“As an artist myself,” Cuomo interjects, “I’ve been really inspired by family relationships and all the pain in family relationships. There’s so much of that in King Lear. And being in a position of power myself, as a bandleader, as a leader of a scene here, I can somewhat relate to King Lear.”

After the film ended, Cuomo dashed behind the screen, and the 40 or so Weezer fans streamed for the exits. He reemerged a minute later wearing a Roman helmet and carrying an acoustic guitar. But the theater was completely empty.

“I was gonna sing a song,” he said, crestfallen. “Where did everyone go?” Cuomo walked out to the street and invited what fans were still around back inside. Thirty people followed Cuomo back inside, and Weezer guitarist Brian Bell, also wearing a Roman helmet, played “Cleopatra,” a recent Weezer single inspired by the play.

After the performance, I walked out with Cuomo and asked about the status of the Fox sitcom based on his life. “DeTour did not get picked up,” he said. “So that whole chapter is closed. It’s weird; in music if you make an album and your label decides not to put it out, you can bring it to another label and sometimes it can be a big success. At least it gets out. In TV, I’ve learned, it’s not like that. The pilot was made, completely finished, and we can’t show it to anybody! No one will ever see it. It’s a huge waste of money.” 

In addition to “Cleopatra,” Weezer’s latest record features another Shakespeare-influenced song: “Foolish Father,” which is inspired by King Lear. I asked Cuomo if his Shakespeare obsession is just a phase. “Well, I believe everything is a phase,” he said in the theater’s lobby. “There will come a day that I’m no longer into Shakespeare any more if for no other reason than that I’m dead. Twenty years ago, I wasn’t into it. But I am now. When I look back on the art I’ve been passionately into in my life, I’ve definitely gone through phases. I’d say the music of Bach has stuck with me, but Beethoven hasn’t. So everything comes and goes.” Cuomo paused to think, and twirled his Roman-soldier helmet on his hand for a few seconds. “I’ve gotten more and more into Shakespeare,” he said smiling. “I’ll see where it goes.”