Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Harold Perrineau’s performance in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Before 1996, we’d never seen a film adaptation of Shakespeare that targeted young audiences and retained his original language. Movies of his plays had traditionally taken a more classical approach to the text. They used crisp diction and English accents that catered to the Masterpiece Theatre crowd but might be boring to the MTV generation. Yet Shakespeare’s plays are filled with young characters making irrational decisions all in the name of love. If anyone should be able to identify with his body of work, it’s teenagers.
Baz Luhrmann keenly understood this. And it’s a large part of why Romeo + Juliet (1996) is such an achievement. Luhrmann’s kinetic style of direction helps clue in young audiences to the dynamic energy pulsing through the Bard’s ode to feuding families and star-crossed lovers. But he went further than simply infusing a unique cinematic eye into a centuries-old play. He instructed his actors to deliver Shakespeare’s famously dense dialogue so it sounded like contemporary American speech. This allows teens to better understand the language. This technique not only made a 16th-century play feel veritably modern, but it also helped young audiences realize Shakespeare can be so much more nuanced and relatable than what they learned in high school English class.
The entire cast of Romeo + Juliet was more than up to this linguistic challenge, but no one was better at translating the language into modern vernacular than Harold Perrineau, in the role of Romeo’s wisecracking best friend, Mercutio.
It’s impossible to deny the infectious vitality of Perrineau’s Mercutio, especially in his entrance. Underscored by Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free,” the character steps out of a car, cackling with laughter while strutting around in a miniskirt and diamond-encrusted bustier. Perrineau had trained as a dancer for two years with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, which helped him master the high-energy choreography Mercutio performs in the opening act of the film.
While his background as a dancer helped Perrineau bring Mercutio’s physicality to life, he didn’t have the same experience performing Shakespearean dialogue. As he mentions in a retrospective interview:
“When we did Romeo + Juliet, I had only done [Shakespeare] in school, so I had a very particular idea of how to do it, which is from studying it. Very classical. So when I got the job … everything I learned, we threw away. We wouldn’t do anything, not the big speech things I learned, none of my diction, none of the iambic pentameter. All of it was thrown away.”
Under Luhrmann’s direction, Perrineau surfaced modern speech patterns in the text so the language would be more attuned to younger ears. “[Luhrmann] wanted to find voices we were used to hearing. Patterns of speech we were used to hearing,” Perrineau says. This method allowed teenage audiences to develop a deeper understanding of Mercutio’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Even when the old-world Elizabethan language soars over their heads.
Take the scene between Mercutio and Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) the morning after Romeo ditches his pals to sneak off to Juliet’s balcony. Mercutio’s resentment towards his best friend is still evident when Romeo reemerges from his late-night rendezvous. “Signior Romeo, Bonjour! There’s a French salutation to your French slop. You gave us the counterfeit fairly last night!”
When Romeo questions him on what he means, Mercutio says, “The slip, sir, the slip; can you not conceive?”
We can read Mercutio’s anger as a misogynistic “pals before gals” mentality. He’s upset his friend would choose to see a girl rather than get wasted with the boys. But Perrineau’s line delivery is dripping with jealousy. The audience understands Mercutio doesn’t just have love for Romeo; he may actually be in love with him.
Later in the same scene, after the two men blow off steam razzing each other, Juliet’s Nurse appears looking for Romeo. As she sweeps him away, Mercutio follows closely behind, calling out for his friend. In a last-ditch effort to grab his attention, he pulls out his gun and fires off a single shot, yelling towards him, “Romeo, will you come to your father’s?”
On paper, it’s a simple question from a friend asking when he’ll see his buddy again. In Perrineau’s performance, however, we can hear the underlying subtext. He delivers this line with unanticipated desperation that tells the audience exactly what Mercutio is feeling in this moment: confused betrayal. He can sense his best friend pulling away from him, and as his eyes fill with bewilderment, we realize Mercutio’s love for Romeo runs much deeper than we, or the character, may realize.
That doesn’t explicitly mean Perrineau’s Mercutio has a sexual attraction to Romeo. When asked about Luhrmann’s intention for their relationship, Perrineau told Vulture:
“His vision for it was…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. That’s sort of the stuff we played with.”
This love affair is often an untapped layer of Mercutio’s relationship with Romeo. In the hands of another actor, Mercutio is merely chaotic comic relief. He’s the energizing life of the party who’s willing to show his ass for a laugh. But in Perrineau’s hands, he becomes so much more nuanced than that. He found complexities in Mercutio that may have been left unexplored in a traditional interpretation of the dialogue.
After being stabbed by Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (John Leguizamo), Mercutio tells Romeo, “Ask for me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man.” He turns his back on his friends and stares out into a storm-covered sky. As he looks at his oozing wound, we see in his eyes a dawning realization that his devotion to Romeo has become his ultimate undoing.
This epiphany then becomes the motivation for one of the play’s most famous lines, “A plague o’ both your houses!”
In Perrineau’s delivery, it isn’t just a curse shouted by a dying man. It’s a renouncement of his friendship with — and love for — Romeo. The audience realizes Mercutio’s death isn’t simply the fatal consequence of the play’s central feud. His life was cut short because of his passionate adoration for his best friend.
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet may be reviled by Shakespearean purists (his visual aesthetic is definitely an acquired taste). But the adaptation helped make the Bard’s canon feel more accessible to a sought-after demographic. The popularity of the film even spurred a wave of adaptations aimed at teens through the following decade.
What separates this from, say, 10 Things I Hate About You, though, is that Luhrmann didn’t need to dispense with the original language to make modern audiences understand Shakespeare’s text. Instead, he used an actor like Harold Perrineau who could cut through the density of the language in Romeo and Juliet to find character motivations that would surprise, and delight, teenagers in 1996.
To put it another way, Luhrmann and Perrineau proved something English teachers have been trying to drill into their student’s heads for years. The complete works of William Shakespeare have always been sexy, exciting, and deeply relatable to young audiences.
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