In Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, the concept of time — and feeling like you’re running out of it — is central to the narrative. Corey Hawkins and Moses Ingram play Lord and Lady Macduff, the fertile young couple who represent all that has eluded the Macbeths — a bushel of children to continue their lineage and potential for upward mobility in their political future. They’re time incarnate.
In the pantheon of film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Scottish play, the Apple and A24 production stands out, not only for its modern black-and-white cinematography, but the inclusion of a wide array of Black actors is another notable triumph.
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Hawkins, Ingram and Sean Patrick Thomas (the Scottish nobleman, Monteith) discussed the production’s prominent diversity with Variety at the film’s L.A. premiere at the DGA Theatre earlier this month.
“When’s the last time you’ve seen it?” Hawkins asked. “The fact that we are here, says without saying, we have just as much ownership of [Shakespeare] as anybody else. So, the question is just, ‘Why not?’ We are capable. This language and this story belongs to us as well.”
Though “Macbeth” was the first Shakespearean play she read growing up, Ingram was among those who struggled to feel in sync with Shakespeare’s language and its meaning.
“I remember feeling that Shakespeare wasn’t for me, for somebody who looked like me,” Ingram recalled.
“But I think it’s important to see people of all ages in different colors, tapping into the stories that look like the world that we live in,” she added, hinting toward the diversity of age, race and country of origin within this ensemble. “If we can get past the barrier of the language, we’ll find that a lot of it is very timely.”
Thomas pointed to the rich history of Black actors playing Shakespearean roles on stage, noting that inclusion hasn’t translated similarly to big screen productions.
“I did lots of Shakespeare in New York, so it was very normal to see Black actors, Latino actors, Asian actors playing these great roles. I used to watch Andre Braugher and Keith David in Shakespeare in the Park,” Thomas observed. “To see it here on the screen is a major, iconic step, and we’re very proud to be part of that.”
Washington is another of those titans who’s paved the way for these younger actors to follow, with a slew of Shakespearean roles on his resume. On stage, the two-time Oscar winner has played Othello, Coriolanus, Richard III and Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” and appeared on screen in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”. Washington highlighted the qualifications of Hawkins, Ingram and Thomas to be featured in this troupe.
“They’re classically trained, like I was classically trained. Like Paul Robeson [the first Black actor of the 20th century to play Othello on Broadway] was classically trained before me. Like James Earl Jones [who’s performed Othello, King Lear, Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Abhorson in “Measure for Measure” and Claudius in “Hamlet”] was classically trained,” Washington explained. “Like I watched James Earl Jones and Robeson, and not that they’re watching me, but I’m in that position now, and now it’s their turn.”
Despite Washington’s humble position on the matter, Thomas has indeed been watching him since the pair first appeared together in “Courage Under Fire” in 1996, describing the opportunity to work with him again 25 years later as “really poignant.”
“The first movie I ever did was with Denzel. I had no idea what I was doing and I remember sitting there watching him and learning from him then,” Thomas said of being cast opposite Washington again 25 years later. “And now, I feel pretty much the exact same way. Even though I’ve developed so much more in my craft since then. I think it’s a testament to his greatness, that I’m still sitting there watching him twenty-something years later.”
Likewise, Ingram (who audiences will recognize from her Emmy-nominated turn in “The Queen’s Gambit”) was particularly thrilled to share billing for her first film role with fellow Yale Drama School alum, McDormand, who welcomed the newcomer with open arms. Early on in the production, Ingram pulled up to set in a golf cart only to find the four-time Oscar-winning actor and producer waiting for her.
“She was jumping up and down on the side of the street, she was so excited. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, who is here?’” Ingram recounted. “She ran over, greeted me and was talking to me about also being a student at Yale and figuring out who she felt like she was when she was there and asking me who I felt like I was when I was there.”
“It was just so wild to be talking to her about a shared experience,” she explained. “Fran is really the shit. She keeps in touch and I have a very warm place in my heart for her.”
The heartfelt connection between the ensemble only grew as the company began their rehearsal process for the film. Before assembling the full company of actors, Washington, Coen and McDormand workshopped the production for more than a year. Then for three weeks before cameras rolled, the troupe rehearsed the screenplay like a stage production. [Also representing the ensemble at the special premiere event were Alex Hassell (Ross), Stephen Root (the porter) and Lucas Barker (Fleance), plus special guests Sharon Stone and Ron Perlman.]
“We came together like a theatre company, and everyone delivered on every level,” Washington recalled. “We sat around the table early on, and Joel would say, ‘You know what, you play that part. You play that part’ without any preparation. So, everybody got exposed [to the material] and we all started at the same place that we built together.”
So, what other parts did Washington take on during the roundtable rehearsals?
“I didn’t have to change,” he quipped, with a mischievous smile.
During a Q&A for the film’s NYFF debut, Washington told the audience that Shakespeare is “where I started and where I want to finish.” Asked about his next go at the Bard’s works, the actor said he’s got his sights on Othello again or King Lear.
“That’s what’s left for me as an older guy. As I say, in [Macbeth], I’m in the sear, the yellow leaf of my life, or whatever you call it, the autumn of my life. So, you know, it might be late autumn early December,” he said with a laugh.
This December, audience have been pleased to get a double dose of the legend for Christmas — with Washington starring in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and directing Sony’s “A Journal for Jordan” — with bonus points going to those who watched him opposite the late, great Whitney Houston in “The Preacher’s Wife” (which was spotted on OWN and other cable networks before it’s set to begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video in January).
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is now playing in select theaters and begins streaming Jan. 14 on Apple TV Plus.
Michael Buckner for Variety
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