There's a disorienting moment at the start of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead" — the first of many more to come. The film features Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin, so it's a little confusing to see a second deathly pale, smirking vampire's visage that resembles … a young Dustin Hoffman.
"Isn't that funny, people have said that to me," says a laughing John Ventimiglia, the actual owner of that second face. "Not about this, just in general. I don't know if it's the eyes or the smile, I don't know what it is."
Ventimiglia, known to most as hapless chef Artie Bucco on "The Sopranos," plays Theo Horace, undead proprietor of a New York theater preparing to mount his far-removed adaptation of "Hamlet." Neither the play within the film nor the film itself bears strong resemblances to their nominal forebears: Shakespeare's play and Stoppard's deconstruction, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Rather, writer-director Jordan Galland's absurd horror comedy is a derivation so loose its limbs may fall off.
Over centuries, vampire Theo has periodically mounted his extravaganza with motives slightly more sinister than getting good reviews. To accomplish the staging, he requires an easily controllable human director, hence the snaring in his web of young Julian Marsh (Hoffman). The resulting mix of throat rippings and alternate literary history renders the works of Shakespeare and Stoppard … essentially useless.
Ventimiglia knew "Hamlet" but didn't even read the Stoppard: "I saw the film but … I didn't even think about it, really. I didn't do that kind of homework. I just brought my subconscious with me. To Theo, it's not a classical piece; it's autobiographical and modern in a way," he says by phone from New Orleans, where he was wrapping up another film.
"Rosencrantz" was a chance Ventimiglia was thirsting for, after being pursued for any number of mob-related roles. In fact, the "Rosencrantz" filmmakers approached him about a wiseguy character but the actor had eyes only for Theo: "[Producer] Mike Landry and Jordan looked at my picture and said, 'Look at the guy's eyes, man. He could be a vampire.'"
In another bit of changeup casting, that Mafia-ish part went to Ralph "Karate Kid" Macchio. Meanwhile, Ventimiglia savored his juicy role.
"I was loving every minute of it. The power that this guy has. And there is that familiar classical-actor aspect to this guy. There's a kind of hamminess, the after-the-show-going-to-dinner-with-the-kerchief kind of thing," he says of playing a cross between a ham and a butcher. Accordingly, rather than the original concept of a smooth-pated Nosferatu-type, the bald actor successfully lobbied for Theo to sport a "Eurotrash kind of haircut.
"We went to the cheap wig store and started trying on wigs, bought a cheap one and they cut it — it had so much hair on it, I swear to God it was like a 40-minute haircut to get that wig to look like it did."
Theo's voice was similarly synthetic:
"He's been kicking around a long time. At one point, he goes almost into an Eastern European accent. He's not from any one place anymore. Someone who's been around for 2,000 years, what do they sound like? They slip in and out of things a little bit. It was pretty consistent but I didn't worry about it being consistent."
When asked where he's from, Ventimiglia recalls his youthful days in Teaneck, N.J., first and foremost with street games of "kickball, baseball, stickball, touch football … If a car comes, you just say, 'Car, car, C-A-R, stick your head in a jelly jar,' get to the side of the road and let the car go past and you resume your game."
That sense of play certainly lingers with the actor today.
"We all take our work seriously, but there wasn't this precious aspect about it. It was fun. I haven't seen a lot of these [other] vampire films, but what I gather is, they're serious about their vampires, aren't they? We just had fun and were loving what we were doing."