How, on a sweltering day in July, in a tiny, air conditioner'less dorm room, before 14 onlookers, do two relative strangers conjure any sort of intimacy? 'It could have been an awkward situation, but it never was,' says Matt Doyle, describing a sensual scene he shot last year with his cast mate Seth Numrich for the upcoming film Private Romeo. By then, both actors had already cut their teeth in sexually charged projects, Numrich with an Off-Broadway turn as a gay teen in Slipping and Doyle with his role as gay heartbreaker Jonathan Whitney on Gossip Girl. They say leaping into a full-on love scene on day two of filming just felt like another day's work. 'You have to let go of all of your boundaries,' Doyle says.
Casting inhibitions aside seems almost necessary when you're faced with the challenge of playing the most famous couple of all time. Private Romeo, hitting the festival circuit this spring, is a reimagining of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In this version, though, the star-crossed lovers are 16-year-old military school cadets Sam (Numrich, right) and Glenn (Doyle, left), and instead of two feuding houses, a group of eight friends divides over the intense infatuation between the boys. Though Numrich is straight and Doyle gay, Numrich says there was chemistry between them almost instantly. 'We auditioned together, so we'd kissed each other before we'd even exchanged names,' he says. 'It forces you to break the ice. There was never hesitation, and that's what's required to build a relationship onscreen.'
It's no surprise that relationship has extended off screen as well, considering the actors have spent nearly every day together for the past three months. In addition to Private Romeo, which they finished shooting last summer, the pair will appear in the much-buzzed-about Broadway play War Horse, a dazzling, effects-heavy adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 young adult novel set in World War I. A transplant from London's West End, the show has already generated a following that includes Steven Spielberg, whose movie version of the story hits theaters in December. Numrich and Doyle play cousins in the production, and Doyle also understudies for Numrich for the lead role of Albert.
Private Romeo director Alan Brown recalls how the pair arrived at a dinner party in January and spent most of the evening oblivious to the rest of room. 'We all laughed because they're in rehearsals 10 hours a day together, six days a week, and they were still talking mostly to each other,' Brown says. 'They auditioned for War Horse while we were still shooting, so I hold myself responsible.'
Brown's original script for Private Romeo called for a larger cast with more adult roles, but the film's budget forced him to pare it down to just eight 20-something actors -- a decision he's ultimately happy with because the smaller ensemble aligned his vision with the Shakespeare text perfectly. 'My first idea was to place it in a barracks, but then I thought, Romeo and Juliet really have to be young. The whole idea is that they're foolish youth.' He chose to revisit the play when he was fighting to overturn 'don't ask, don't tell' and says that although Private Romeo contains no references to the bill, his decision to cast two men as the leads was 'very political.'
From the grueling routine of daily drills to stolen moments in shadowy hallways, Private Romeo's isolated, martial backdrop is a pressure cooker complete with homophobia and hazing rituals. But even with strong themes typical of the gay film genre, Brown insists there would be no Private Romeo without Doyle and Numrich. 'Matt was at the callbacks for six hours,' he remembers. 'We kept mixing and matching him with people. But when Seth came in, I don't think we read him for anything but Romeo. I put him and Matt together, and there wasn't a question.'
War Horse opens April 14 at New York City's Vivian Beaumont Theater. For more information and the trailer of Private Romeo, which opens in theaters Feb. 10, click here.