Baz Luhrmann’s gloriously batshit retelling of Romeo + Juliet baffled the majority of critics at the time of its 1996 release. Roger Ebert despaired over its attempt at “updating” Shakespeare’s play, writing that he had “never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version makes of” it. Entertainment Weekly called the film a “violent swank-trash music video.” But that’s exactly what made it so appealing to its target audience, a bunch of horny 14-year-olds whose teachers would play the film for them in sweaty high-school classrooms in a desperate attempt to get them to connect with classic literature, and instead merely provoke them to emerge even hornier than before. As one of those teens, I can say with confidence that Romeo + Juliet — and more specifically, the androgynously, angstily beautiful Leonardo DiCaprio making out with Claire Danes in a pool in a mesh knight costume — launched me straight into puberty over the course of two brief hours.
What critics missed — and teens innately understood — was that Luhrmann’s adaptation is psychotic on purpose, a bombastic, glittery, MTV-generation melodrama that speaks the language of its subjects, a pair of lusty, reckless kids who fall in love in 14 seconds and manage to die over it a few days later. Even 20-plus years after its inauspicious debut, Romeo + Juliet throbs with loony energy, the sort of dizzying film that doesn’t let you catch your breath until its leads collapse on top of each other. What’s most impressive about Luhrmann’s film is that every actor is on the same exact page about the films’ highly specific tone: deeply earnest with a winking self-awareness, woozy and weird, campy enough to keep things fizzy and fun until they’re decidedly not anymore. The most successful encapsulation of that tone comes in the form of Harold Perrineau’s exuberant Mercutio, who enters the film in a spangled two-piece, heels, smudged red lipstick, and a wig, wielding a stash of ecstasy with a flourish, then hops onstage at the Capulet’s party and lip-syncs “Young Hearts, Run Free” in full drag.
Perrineau is only in three scenes, but he’s riveting in each of them, oozing mercurial rage and sexuality and lyricism and yearning for his best friend, Romeo. Ahead of our Friday Night Movie Club viewing of Romeo + Juliet, I FaceTimed with Perrineau to ask him about bonding with Leo, the “rockstar-wild” off-set nights out in Mexico City, nearly being caught in a hurricane while filming his death scene, and his feelings about the film’s middling reception and second life as a cult classic.
Hi! I just was watching you die very dramatically onscreen.
Ah, yes. “A scratch! A scratch.”
Do you remember where you were in your life when you first heard about this movie and this role?
I was in New York City, doing lots of theater. I had one TV credit and one big film credit, this movie called Smoke with Harvey Keitel. It was really early on in my career. This audition for Romeo + Juliet came up, and every young actor in town was vying for this role. I think I auditioned for it six times. And the very last time, I remember being in the room with Baz, and he had this video camera and we were doing the Queen Mab speech. And by the end, I was laying upside down on a desk with the camera right in my face. I was like, “Man … man … if I don’t get this job …” Luckily, I got this job. And it was the first time in my career I got two jobs around the same time. I got this and a job called Blood and Wine with Jack Nicholson. Everybody was fighting for my time. The whole thing was kind of amazing and surreal.
Why did you have to audition six times? What was different about each audition?
I think Baz is just one of those guys who’s very detail-oriented. And I think each time he saw someone, he saw a different thing he liked. The first time was for the casting director. The second time was to be put on tape for the casting director to send over to Baz. Then it was some other producers, then he came and watched by himself. They’d shot a sizzle of the film before, so he was really being specific. I think someone else had played Mercutio in the sizzle.
Apparently Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, and John Leguizamo auditioned for the role of Mercutio. Did you know that?
Oh, no! I had no idea. I just knew they had opened it up and they were seeing everybody, and I just went in. I was a young dude. I didn’t know all of those guys auditioned.
What was Baz like, both when you first met him and as a director?
You don’t meet a lot of artists when you go meet directors. They have an idea or a vision, and that’s it. But Baz was so interested in finding things out, searching things through. After the third or fourth audition, I realized I had to loosen up a little bit. Because it was Shakespeare, I was tense. I’d never auditioned for Shakespeare before that. All of these cats had come out of great theater schools like Yale and Juilliard were always competing for those roles, so I never got them. This one, I just had to relax and be who I was. As it turned out, for this particular Romeo + Juliet, who I was really served the character. He didn’t need to sound like he had standard American speech or a British accent or iambic pentameter. He was looking for someone who sounded like me: from Brooklyn, with a little Brooklyn edge and an accent. Turns out my faults in theater were my virtues in this audition.
What was your initial understanding of the character of Mercutio in this movie — did you know he’d wear dresses and sheer tops and headbands?
Baz didn’t explain any of that stuff. I didn’t know that until I got to Mexico and I went to a fitting. I was like, “Who’s that dress for?” [Laughs.] “Who’s wearing that skirt, me?” I didn’t know any of that. But all of us had studied Romeo and Juliet in school, and we knew these young men were very hot and lusty. We knew that was the world, that this real love affair between Romeo and Mercutio, what that meant, how to explore that. But I didn’t realize until we got there that we were going to play with all of those ideas of young men and love and gender-bending, as it were. And when I got there, that’s when he started talking to us about it, how to capture it. I didn’t know what Baz was looking for, and I don’t think anybody did. He shaped it in his head, then put us all together, and said, “This is what I’m doing!” And we were like, “Oh, okay! Oh, snap!” Me and Jamie [Kennedy] and Zak [Orth, who play Mercutio and Romeo’s friends], were like, “Oh, okay! All right! We can do that.”
How did Baz explain Mercutio’s love for Romeo? Did he direct you as being in love with him?
His vision for it was … how do I explain this? They were [in love], but in the way that 14-year-old boys can be in love with each other. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a sexual thing. But sexuality is a thing that young men are always talking about. So it could be confusing. And Mercutio is full of great passions. Of the badasses that could be out there, Mercutio was the baddest ass there was. And wearing a skirt was no problem for him, because if you were going to challenge his manhood, he was ready for that, as well. That’s sort of the stuff we played with. It was really quite awesome.
Can you talk a little more about how you were all instructed to speak the dialogue?
Baz wasn’t looking to capture these English voices. He was looking to capture American sounds. Zak and Jamie were supposed to sound like Beavis and Butthead, and at the time that made sense. I had this dumb-rapper-Brooklyn sort of thing, and Romeo playing around in the middle. He wanted the sound to be very, very American. Even though they came out of this text. The way they came out, anybody in America could completely understand who these guys were and what they were looking for. The only thing that was ambiguous was the relationships: love or lust. That was left up for interpretation.
Was it a struggle to memorize all of that dialogue?
I didn’t struggle to memorize, but I struggled to make it sound natural. I achieved it sometimes and not other times. That was a real struggle. We had a long enough time with the text, though, and a dialect coach. We’d go over all the words and translate them to make sure they made full sense to us, then go back and do them again. That took longer than memorizing. I said the words over and over, but to make them real, and original to me, that took the longest.
What do you remember about first meeting Leo?
Leo was quite a number of years younger than me, and I remember meeting this young, goofy kid. I knew he was a movie star, or was on his way to being a movie star. He certainly wasn’t the movie star he’s become, but he’d already been nominated for an Oscar for Gilbert Grape. I remember meeting this young kid and going, “Okay! He’s cool!” And when we got there, and started doing the work, it was really apparent, like, “Oh, this kid’s got it. He’s for real. He can do anything. Just anything.” I was really impressed by him, because I was trying so hard to do it “right.” And he would just let it happen. So I kind of learned from him that you can just let it happen. You’ve done all the preparation, you’ve done all the work, now just let it happen. Leo could turn it on and off at the drop of a dime. He’d be goofing off and be like, “Are you guys ready?” And I’d be like, “Wait, I gotta prepare!” This kid was ready to go all the time.
I found a very sweet old interview with you on set, where you said of Leo, “I’m attracted to him!”
[Laughs.] Well, he’s a good-looking kid. We can’t deny that, can we? He’s a good-looking dude. If that were my predilection … [Laughs.] I couldn’t say no, right?
You can’t say no to young Leo.
Right, you can’t!
Did you guys become friends?
Oh, yeah. We all became quite close friends. We were in Mexico, and we kind of only had each other. None of us really spoke the language. They were a little younger than me, so they were really having a wilder time than I was. But I liked hanging out with them. At the time, we were hanging out with David Blaine as well — he taught me a bunch of magic tricks that didn’t make it into the film, but we used it for the Queen Mab scene. We were just having a wild, crazy time in Mexico, and I think it translated into the film. Mexico City, at the time, there was a lot happening. I think a lot of that wild energy really worked in the film. And we all stayed really good friends for years and years and years. He actually even helped my kids get into a school.
When was that?
My kid just graduated this year, so that was in sixth grade, seven years ago, eight years ago?
Which school? He just put in a good word?
He did quite substantially more than put in a good word, actually. It was kind of amazing. I don’t want to blow up his spot; he didn’t do it with any fanfare. But he gave quite a substantial donation to the school. Pretty impressive, I gotta be honest.
So you’re still friends?
Yeah, if we see each other, we’re still friends. We don’t keep in touch, but I’d count him as still friends.
When you say you had a wild time, what kind of stuff were you up to?
There was a lot of partying and drinking and clubs and late nights and running through hotels, being just rockstar-kinda crazy. There was a lot of that. A lot of girls. It was wild. I don’t know what to say here … [Laughs.] There was a lot going on. We had to be really careful. Leo had a bodyguard. Like I said, he was already a star, so we’d go places and it would get frenetic. There are people like, “Oh my God, he’s here!” That kind of frenetic energy led to lots of … excited girls, jealous boys, in a town where anything can happen. Once we had just come home from a club and we saw a bunch of people from our production up on the phone, and we were like, “What happened?” And they were like, “Somebody just kidnapped our makeup artist. He took a cab home from that party, and they kidnapped him, and now they’re holding him for ransom.” It was wild.
Did they get him back?
Got him back, a little beat up. $400 bucks. For $400 bucks! Let the dude out! You had no idea what was happening where. A lotta crazy energy.
I think that’s what Baz wanted, to set it in Mexico City. It felt very Shakespearean. I imagine that’s what Verona was like back in the day — just on the edge, all the time.
There’s still an internet fascination with Claire Danes and Leo’s relationship, about what happened with them on set. They hinted that they didn’t like each other, then suggested they had crushes on each other. Was any of that apparent to you?
No, I didn’t spend any time on set with them together, you know? Mercutio and Juliet were never in the same place. But she was so young. She was 16, and he was 21. Sometimes I’m sure acting is confusing, you get mixed up, especially that young. I’m sure for them, there were some interesting feelings happening, but nothing that I was ever privy to.
What did David Blaine teach you?
He just taught me some up-close magic stuff. At the time, I was always walking around with a quarter in my fingers, learning how to twirl it back and forth. Just simple magic stuff. None of the great stuff he does. Like, making things disappear or reappear. We did a couple of card tricks. It was really to get me used to having this feeling of being mercurial, of not knowing where things are coming from. It was an added thing for the character. And David Blaine is very mysterious, too, so watching him was really helpful. Even though Mercutio kind of lays it out, there’s still a bit of mystery about him underneath. Where he comes from, why he does what he does. A lot of the magic didn’t end up in the film; just the scene where I give the pill to Romeo at the beach before we head to the party.
Did you play Mercutio as on drugs the whole time?
Not the whole time. Certainly on drugs that night. [Laughs.] But not on drugs in the other scenes. I was just playing him basically like a young punk, really full of himself, loved his boys, loved being part of that crew, and would defend them against any threat. His desire to be Romeo’s best friend was so great — when I say he loved Romeo, he really full-heartedly loved him. And clearly got stabbed for it. He’d give his life for Romeo. So that’s what he does.
In your first scene, you come in cackling in a red convertible in this silver two-piece glitter dress, this huge wig, messy red lipstick, a gun slung across your body, dancing and singing. It’s one of the best cinematic entrances of all time. What do you remember about filming that?
I remember it being a really, really late night. We were in Veracruz on this beach, and they’d built all of these things, and we did most of the scene first — the Queen Mab scene, all of that. And it was a really long, late night, and I had the most to say that night. So I was really kind of nervous. And after we filmed all of that, we went back to the very beginning of the scene, me in the car by myself. It must have been five o’clock in the morning, trying to muster up this wild energy that I’d been [exuding] all night already. It was a long, tiring night of doing the thing I love to do, which is act.
I know you studied as a dancer — did that help with the drag dance scene? Was that fully choreographed?
We had a choreographer, and that part of it actually felt the most natural and easiest for me. I spent a long, long time as a dancer, so the rehearsals were great. If you’ve been to Alvin Ailey, you can dance anywhere with anybody. It was a little tricky getting used to heels but I had done some pointe work in ballet, so I had a little experience being that high. We had hundreds of dancers and I could communicate in that language all day. It was no stress. Just physically long, long days. But that part was the least, for me, stressful, because that I really knew how to do. I knew how to act, but I was still really learning.
You sing and dance to “Young Hearts, Run Free” in both of those early scenes. How many times do you think you listened to that song, conservatively?
Wow. I would say hundreds. Because we recorded it in L.A. before we went to Mexico; we rehearsed it a bunch of times; I’d go back to my hotel and practice it. To record a dance number is long hours in little pieces. So conservatively, hundreds of times.
If you heard that song now, how would you feel?
Tired. [Laughs.] Exhausted. [Sings] “Young hearts!” Oh, God. Not that again!
Let’s talk about the death scene. You’re on the beach, dying this extremely dramatic death, and a storm is brewing in the background. And apparently a hurricane was actually on its way in real life?
Yep. Full on. Those winds, when he actually dies, that wasn’t fake. That was really happening, in real time. I remember laying on the ground with all of this fake blood on me, and Baz was like, “Just stay there! Don’t move!” And it felt like hours. Because the sand is blowing in your mouth. I was like, “Dude, can we go home now?” We were there for a long time. That was another one of those days where we had all of the setup to the fight, and all of those words, but the fight was choreography. So for me, that was me playing in the field I loved to play in. It was a lot of fun, long days coordinating to make sure nobody got hit with anything, cut by anything, falling through breakaway glass. And at the end, it was like, “Okay, there’s a storm coming, cats!”
Were you scared?
Yeah! We were just out there, and we were gonna film until we got it. And if we happened to be in the hurricane, I think we just happened to be in the hurricane. It was like, “If we die today, we die today. But I’d rather not.”
How close did you cut it?
The lucky thing is that the hurricane really hit at night. So we filmed up until there was no more sun. We filmed all day, until you couldn’t film anymore. That’s what stopped us. Not the hurricane! [Laughs.]
You cycle through so many emotions in this scene: You’re flirting with Romeo, you’re furious, you start laughing as you die.
The lucky part is we filmed it bit by bit, versus a play where you string it together. That took days. At the beach, shooting the fish with our pistols, that’s one bit, and then we get to the bar with the bartender, and Tybalt shows up. And then we get into the choreographer with me and John [Leguizamo]. So I got to really focus on — like, when Tybalt says, “Thou consort’st with Romeo,” we had time to really figure out “consort.” [Pretends to get angry] “Are you saying I’m fucking him? Is that what you’re saying?” It gave us time to really play with those emotions. It’s like, one little boy calling another little boy, in a time of extreme machismo, “Hey, are you gay?” “Am I gay? Am I gay, motherfucker?!” I don’t ascribe to that, but that’s what’s happening for those two men. And that’s really all it takes. He wants to fight anyway, but that’s it. And he turns it from an argument of words into, “Oh, you must want to die today.” And boys that young don’t care enough about life. But yet, death was really on the table.
There’s a line where you accuse Tybalt of calling you a “minstrel.” It takes on a whole other dimension with a black man in the role of Mercutio. Did you talk about that layer?
Yes. It was certainly a small layer. But it was more about … penis. I don’t know how else to say that. He says, “Here’s my fiddlestick!” He’s talking about his penis and his gun. That definitely is an undercurrent, but the other part is … penis.
There’s definitely a lot of penis stuff going on in this.
Yeah. There’s a lot of reverence for these kids’ penises. [Laughs.]
Did you have any sense of the movie’s eventual impact, that we’d be talking about it almost 25 years later?
I didn’t. It felt like an experiment. And when the movie came out, it felt like the experiment didn’t work. The reviews weren’t great; a lot of people were saying, “Oh, this is some MTV version of Romeo and Juliet for people with short attention spans.” It didn’t get a lot of the praise that I thought it should. In fact, there was only one Oscar nomination, for costumes. Catherine Martin was the only one to get nominated. I remember Whoopi Goldberg saying something about it at the Oscars that year, how Romeo + Juliet was slighted. From the adults, it didn’t get the kind of praise I thought it deserved. But what became really clear pretty quickly was that kids loved it. People who didn’t have a real background in Shakespeare, who weren’t expecting the Zeffirelli [version]. It so impacted them. Suddenly there were people who wanted to study Shakespeare, like, “What is this?!” And so that was really clear.
But they weren’t writing reviews. It was just kids in class. Teachers would take their classes to see it, and as the years went on, that’s what kept building and building into something that feels more iconic now than it did at the time. At the time, we were like, “Well, we tried. Let’s keep rolling.” But Leo became way more famous for Titanic than he did for Romeo + Juliet. But I think it’s one of his bravest and greatest performances. And Claire Danes is one of the greatest performances ever. So I’m still surprised about the initial response to it by the adults. But that’s just how it went down.
That’s how I saw it, in English class!
Did you?! Like, “What’s happening?” [Laughs.]
When was the last time you saw it?
Oh, you got me on that one. Uhh …
Have your kids seen it?
My oldest daughter, an actress, has seen it for sure. My middle daughter, Wynter, she’s 12, she’s seen it. But my youngest hasn’t really seen it yet. You gotta be really careful. I die in a lot of things. It gets hard for them. So I’ll give her a few more years. But my two older kids love it.
How often do people recognize you and come up and talk to you about it?
A lot. It’s usually people who are like, “When I was in high school …” I get recognized quite a bit from it. People will look at me and go, “Oh, you look so familiar. Your voice sounds so familiar.” And because I don’t have the locs anymore, it doesn’t hit them, but when it does, they go, “Oh my God, you’re MERCUTIO!!”
What kind of impact did the movie have on your career, do you think?
It set up a couple of things. Some of them were great, some of them not so great. It set up this idea that I wasn’t a flash in a pan, but an actual actor. And I could probably do pretty much anything. But that also meant, people didn’t know what I could do. It was a really weird Catch-22. Like, “He’s good, but can he do this?” But it’s definitely one of the premiere, seminal moments in my career. People who do remember, it’s like, “Oh my God.” I’ve always been so proud of it. We really worked hard. And that was the reason I got to do The Matrix and Oz and all of these other really cool things. It was really the big game-changer.
Do you feel vindicated that all of the teens who loved it back then are now adults, talking about how great it is?
One hundred percent! One hundred percent. I feel vindicated. I feel a little salty. Like, I think there should have been some Oscar nominations. We should’ve gotten a little bit of that. But I do feel vindicated. It’s like, “I told you! It’s really good!”
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