Denzel Washington has been a Shakespearean standout for decades, but he’d never seen a production of “Macbeth” before being crowned the lead of the latest film adaptation.
That proved to be an advantage, says Washington, who stars alongside fellow Oscar winner Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
“I’m glad that I hadn’t seen the play or any prior film ... because I didn’t feel that pressure,” Washington told the Daily News. “‘Oh my goodness, this is ‘Macbeth’ and how is mine going to be different than whoever?’ I didn’t see anybody else’s, so there wasn’t that pressure. Obviously, it’s Shakespeare. That’s pressure enough.”
Washington, 67, relished bringing his own interpretation to Macbeth in the black-and-white movie, which is directed by McDormand’s husband, Joel Coen, and tells the tragedy of a Scottish lord’s political ambition after three witches deliver him a prophecy.
The new film features older versions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth than previous iterations, which added to the urgency felt by Washington and McDormand’s characters during their quest for power.
“I think it’s already there,” Washington said of his approach to the role. “Our age, our look, in my case his weight, and all of that is sort of built-in, so you realize, oh, this is not a spring chicken. This is the last go-round. They’re expecting a favor here. You know, ‘I did my job. I’m expecting to be paid for it, and we’re passed over.’”
Washington’s history with William Shakespeare dates back to his days at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus, where he starred in “Othello.” He also led New York City stage productions of “Coriolanus” and “Richard III,” and starred in the 1993 film version of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” features another Shakespeare veteran in Corey Hawkins, who stars as Lord Macduff.
Hawkins, who made his Broadway debut in a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” previously portrayed Macbeth as a student at Manhattan’s Juilliard School.
“I’d had access to it, but it also allowed me to, in a way, have a different level of empathy for Macbeth,” Hawkins told The News. “Macduff having a different level of empathy for Macbeth, and understanding how easy it is to fall victim to fate and to ambition, and what that can do to you.”
Hawkins, who starred last year in the movie musical “In the Heights,” enjoyed exploring the complicated dynamic between Macbeth and Macduff, which changes over the course of the film.
“Macduff looks up to Macbeth in the same way that I look up to Denzel Washington,” Hawkins, 33, said. “There’s a reverence there, and an honor for everything that he represents and what he’s done on the battlefield. For Macduff, he sees Macbeth (and) wants to maybe one day walk in that path.”
Washington began reading scenes and discussing ideas for “The Tragedy of Macbeth” with Coen and McDormand, who is also a producer on the film, months before they began rehearsals.
He and Hawkins both praised Shakespeare’s works for stretching actors beyond their comfort zones.
“I think it’s the most challenging,” Washington said. “It’s hard to figure out. It’s almost a foreign language. He’s the best storyteller, and they’re great, great parts.”
Hawkins believes the 1623 tragedy remains relevant four centuries later through parallels between the era’s kings and queens and present-day politicians, and is impressed by how the film modernizes parts of the story as well.
“Lady Macbeth should be able to be played at the point Frances is in her life,” Hawkins said. “Black people should be able to be on screen speaking Shakespeare in this way, on this level. It’s something we haven’t really seen before, in terms of leading a Shakespeare company on film.”
Washington, who earned Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations for his performance, also considers the themes of “Macbeth” to be timeless.
“Power. Lust. Greed. You know, all the things we love,” Washington said with a laugh. “That never gets old, right?”
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