Denzel Washington Explains How Joel Coen Made ‘Macbeth’ for the Big Screen

Power, greed, betrayal, love. These are the four themes most present in director Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Layered in an aura of macabre and presented in beautiful black and white, Coen’s minimalist take on Shakespeare’s classic play aims to show love for the history of both cinema and theater. What better way than to fill your stage with some of the best players in both fields?

Denzel Washington, a name that needs no introduction, is a veteran of the stage and screen. He joins Coen’s vision as the ritual tragic anti-hero — battling with his wits and his steel to become the next King of Scotland in bloody fashion. The NOC was given the honor of sitting down (virtually, of course) with Mr. Washington to pick his brain about this newest take on the old tragedy.

When it comes to adapting Shakespeare, there isn’t one right way to do it. We’ve seen several adaptations, especially in cinema, that have taken liberties with the source material. We all remember Gnomeo and Juliet.

Most adaptations try to adhere to the rules of the film medium, but Joel Coen’s vision comes across as more of a “play on screen.” Characters have center stage monologues, lighting and smoke purposefully obstruct any sign of a larger world beyond the areas visited in the play, and Denzel delivers a performance so powerful that despite not being in front of an audience, makes them tremble with awe.

So you have a lot of experience both on-screen and on-stage, along with most if not all of your fellow cast members. Was working on Macbeth more of a filmmaking experience or did it feel like you were putting on a play?

Washington: Putting on a play. Joel’s rehearsal process was a lot like a play, the way we did the table reads and acted out scenes before we’d slowly get on our feet and start the blocking. It felt like we were more of a theater company really. The entire process definitely felt more like putting on a production.

The process of making The Tragedy of Macbeth also came with the same amount of emotional weight you’d imagine might come from putting on a Shakespeare production. The story of Sir and Lady Macbeth, their friends and their foes, isn’t a pretty one. There’s a reason it’s called a tragedy.

The tragic tale comes to a violent end when Macbeth is beheaded by Sir Macduff, portrayed by Corey Hawkins. Macduff has more than enough reason to strike Macbeth, and the two actors brought their powerful presences to a clash before the credits rolled.

That final scene between you and Corey on the bridge. There’s a lot of emotions tied to it, a lot of build up. How did you two prepare for that scene?

Washington: We kind of stayed in our own corners, if you will, as I recall. When we weren’t shooting, I was over there with my guys and he was over there with his, and then we’d come together and slash it out and go right back to get mopped down [laughs]. It was like boxing, ya know, we each got a couple of shots in then we’d retreat to our corners and try again. That’s the fun part of it all though, when you look at it it’s just two grown men playing dress up and sword fighting!

The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, and Alex Hassell, is now in theaters and available to stream on Apple TV+.