WILLIAMSTOWN -- It's easy to suspect commercial motives when a beautiful 19-year-old movie star with no real stage experience gets cast as Shakespeare's Juliet at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The festival gets extra wattage for its marquee. The actress gets to buff her resume in just a few weeks, in the relatively low-risk setting of the Berkshires. Ticket buyers get to see that sweet girl from the big-screen ``Phantom of the Opera." Everybody goes home happy -- except maybe the critics.
Listen to Emmy Rossum talk about grappling with the Bard for the first time, though, and any cynicism dissolves.
``The clues are in the words, and if you pay attention to those clues you can see how to give and breathe life into the character," Rossum says, perched in a lobby lounge at The '62 Center for Theatre and Dance on the campus. ``I think you can tell from the pacing and the kinds of consonants and vowels he uses what the character is trying to express."
Consonants and vowels?
``It's almost like the direction is within the words, and you have to make that come alive," she explains, leaning forward in her chair, all enormous brown eyes and bright smile, as animated as if it weren't the end of a long day's rehearsal and this weren't the zillionth interview of her young career.
``The consonants and vowels he chooses express the feeling. `Oh, woe is me.' Just say it out loud and it sounds woeful. It's not: `I'm sad.' "
She's enraptured with the challenge of ``Romeo and Juliet," which begins previews at Williamstown on Wednesday. The play is about first love, after all. And director Will Frears is counting on Rossum and costar Austin Lysy to deliver hot summer nights full of raging teenage passion.
Working on the Williamstown stage is very different from performing a page or two of a script per day on a Hollywood set ruled by the special-effects department, as on ``The Day After Tomorrow," the 2004 blockbuster in which Rossum played Jake Gyllenhaal's crush, or ``Poseidon," her latest action flick.
The actress also earned good notices as Sean Penn's daughter in ``Mystic River" (2003) and in her breakout role in the 2004 musical ``Phantom of the Opera," in which she drew on her experience singing with the Metropolitan Opera's Children's Chorus in New York from age 7 to 12.
Now she's putting her singing voice to work on her first CD of what she calls ``soulful pop," due next year from Geffen, working with big-league hitmakers including Glen Ballard and Dave Stewart.
But all her experience with show-biz machinery makes the compressed Williamstown journey more appealing, she says.
``People forget that `Romeo and Juliet' happens in four or five days, and they go from not knowing each other to dying for each other in next to no time, and the intensity of their passion for each other has to be worth it," she says. ``To play that in a theater, in sequence, is just so much more fulfilling,because you can really see thearc they go through. . . . It's not like setting up the camera and shooting the scene and shootingit out of order and hoping the emotional arc comes through. It's such a journey, and it's really exciting."
Director Frears (who has helmed ``Bus Stop," ``The Water's Edge," and ``A Servant of Two Masters" at Williamstown) plans to ratchet up the excitement with what Rossum calls a ``sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" production.
``There's a lot of bling, a lot of tattoos, and they're all in unbelievably tight clothes," Frears says gleefully. ``It's just hot. Really sexy and hot."
Full of action too, apparently. When Lysy shambles in for a chat a little while later, he shakes hands with his left hand, his right being stuck down the seat of his tattered jeans. ``I have an ice pack on my ass," he says, sounding sheepish but actually looking quite cheerful about it. Seems he hit the floor wrong while rehearsing one of the fight scenes.
Lysy is a veteran of numerous off-Broadway productions, and all he had seen of Rossum's work before meeting her was ``The Day After Tomorrow." He might have had reason to be concerned about working with an ingenue new to Shakespeare. Then he and Frears met with her in New York for three days the week before rehearsals started.
``I was like, well, I'll come in with no preconceived notions," Lysy says. ``The second I met her and the second she started reading the text and knew exactly what she was saying and was basically off book, I knew we were going to be fine."
Lysy looks slightly older, more dissolute than the standard-issue young hunk a la Heath Ledger, and the contrast to Rossum is very much intended. Rossum was cast first.
``Once we had her, there was a certain kind of Romeo that you needed to have," says Frears -- son of the film director Stephen Frears -- who was directing Lysy in ``Water's Edge" at New York's Second Stage at the time. ``You're trying to get a good love affair. . . . She's so young and so fresh in her prettiness, and innocent, so you want a little contrast, you want a bad boy -- but a sweet bad boy.
``He would make her life exciting, and she would make his life purer. You get why the best possible life for them would be together. They fill in the bits the other person doesn't have."
Rossum sums up the challenge before her. ``This is a young girl who is full of life and has everything to lose," she says, ``and to just play that honestly and to be open enough with your feelings is the key. The words are just the funnel for the feeling."