Denzel Washington and Corey Hawkins on The Tragedy of Macbeth and Joel Coen’s Genius
For actor Corey Hawkins, William Shakespeare’s classic The Tragedy of Macbeth holds a lot of personal history. For his co-star, the legendary, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, it was something entirely new. But for both men, working with director Joel Coen in his critically acclaimed screen version of the tale was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I’m kind of still pinching myself that I got the opportunity to be a part of something that I think is a cinematic masterpiece,” Hawkins says. The 33-year-old actor plays the role of Macduff, the de facto hero of the story who is wronged by Macbeth, declared a traitor and must flee Scotland. Hawkins played the titular role while studying at Juilliard, and coming back to the play brought a sense of déjà vu. When he first played the power-hungry Macbeth, who murders the King in order to assume the throne, Hawkins was just a young actor struggling to find his voice and his confidence. Now a rising star whose screen credits include Straight Outta Compton, BlackkKlansman and In The Heights, Hawkins is able to return to the piece in a new character and with a new perspective. “Having been able to do it on the stage and now the silver screen … a joy and it’s a pleasure,” he says.
“I’m kind of still pinching myself that I got the opportunity to be a part of something that I think is a cinematic masterpiece.”
For Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth was a chance to work with Joel Coen, who, along with his brother Ethan, made such classics as Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men. It was also a chance to work with three-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand while tackling a Shakespearean role that was surprisingly new to him. “I just hadn’t seen the play before,” Washington explains, “and I didn’t see any value in seeing it now. I didn’t want to see anybody and think, ‘Oh, shoot, how the heck am I going to be better than that?’ … I didn’t want that to affect what it was I was gonna come up with, so I was coming to it with fresh eyes and ears and imagination.”
An award-winning star of stage and screen, Washington was drawn to Coen’s vision, which draws on cinematic influences that include Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa but which also embraces the theatrical origins of the source material. Coen and his cast rehearsed for nearly four weeks before the cameras rolled, immersing themselves in the basics of the piece. “So much was left to our imagination,” Washington says. “It was just raw with the language and the other actors, so that made it a little more frightening, but more fun as well.”
The Tragedy of Macbeth isn’t the first time Washington has taken a play to the big screen, whether appearing in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing in 1993 or directing himself and Viola Davis in Fences, a film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson, in 2016. But Washington is uncomfortable comparing his own work as a director to that of Coen. “He’s obviously a master,” Washington says, “and [he] found a way in that I think I didn’t find in doing Fences.” But Washington does see one area where the approach was similar: “I think one thing that we do have in common is that we were smart enough to get out of the way and trust August Wilson and … William Shakespeare.”
“I was coming to it with fresh eyes and ears and imagination.”
The opportunity to act opposite Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth gave Hawkins a firsthand knowledge of the truth behind one of the most famous claims in movie history. In Training Day, the 2001 film for which Washington won his Leading Actor Oscar, Washington’s character makes the iconic statement “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me!” Hawkins, having played a leading role in Kong: Skull Island in 2017, is in a unique position to answer the question: Between the famous movie monster and his Macbeth co-star, who is the bigger badass?
“That’s an easy one,” Hawkins says with a smile, “and it’s Denzel Washington for sure.” Hawkins has deep admiration for the trailblazing star and for the daring choices Washington is making in his career at 67 years of age. “King Kong aint got nothing on him, man. It’s thrilling to watch somebody at this point in his career continue to raise the bar.” For Hawkins, the chance to go toe-to-toe with a true giant and play the hero who ultimately vanquishes him was something he will never forget. “I mean. King Kong may not have nothin’ on him, but Macduff sure does.” Hawkins says.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is playing in select theaters and available now on AppleTV+, and if you’re looking to catch up on the best films of 2021 before the Oscars nominees are announced on February 18, you won’t want to miss this tale of sound and fury. Much like Washington and Hawkins, you’re likely to find Joel Coen’s visionary masterpiece to be an experience unlike any other.