In the four centuries since Shakespeare wrote the Scottish Play, there has never been a Macbeth quite like Denzel Washington.
A double-Oscar winner, he is regularly named the greatest actor of his era, and has already received every nomination going for new film The Tragedy of Macbeth, out Friday on Apple TV+.
He is also 67 – and his Lady Macbeth played by 64-year-old Frances McDormand – meaning their ruthless couple would be most unlikely to create an heir to their ill-gotten crown.
“They’re tired, they’re older,” Washington told AFP, explaining that the passage of time gave their characters a different but equally malevolent motivation.
“They’re like, ‘Look, this is our shot. We’re due. Give it to us’.
“Drastic times make for drastic measures. And the clock is ticking.”
How would Washington, who clashes swords with foes in multiple strenuous encounters towards the film’s finale, have played the role differently 20 or 30 years ago?
“Probably more physical. Not giving into the reality of where my knees are at this point in my life!” he says.
And then, of course, Washington is Black. So is actor Corey Hawkins, 33, who plays his nemesis and eventual vanquisher Macduff.
This detail – while a historical anachronism for 11th-century Scotland –is far from new ground. Orson Welles directed an all-Black stage version of Macbeth back in 1936.
“Obviously, we are diverse, so I think that’s a great thing,” said Washington, at a virtual roundtable interview with journalists.
“In my humble opinion, we ought to be at a place where diversity shouldn’t even be mentioned like it’s something special.
“These young kids – black, white, blue, green or whatever – are highly talented and qualified, so that’s why they’re there.”
Hawkins added: “I can’t change this skin. I can’t change this hair. I can’t change that.
“But what I can do is be excellent at the thing that people may not expect... We weren’t thinking about black and white.”
Ironically, the film itself is shot in black-and-white, and a narrow aspect ratio, with its elegant, minimalist soundstage sets evoking the early days of Hollywood.
Macbeth has been attempted before in various forms on the silver screen by influential directors, including Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski.
But Washington said he had not seen any previous performances of Macbeth, and chose not to seek them out once director Joel Coen had cast the film.
“I don’t want to see anybody and go, ‘Shoot, how the heck am I gonna be better than that?’” said Washington, whose Macbeth is initially restrained and subtle, before his rage, ambition and madness boil over.
“I didn’t want that to affect whatever it was I was going to come up with. So I was coming to it with fresh eyes and ears and imagination.”
Still, Washington has plenty of pedigree when it comes to Shakespeare.
He starred in a Broadway revival of Julius Caesar, and Kenneth Branagh’s film of Much Ado About Nothing.
Hawkins said he hoped that seeing Washington, himself and other Black cast members – including Washington’s daughter Olivia, in a minor role – could inspire young children from minority backgrounds to give Shakespeare a go.
“If there’s some little boy or some little girl, who’s gonna watch this film... they could get curious about it,” he said.
“Yes, Black folks do love Shakespeare. We probably love Shakespeare without even knowing that we love Shakespeare, because there’s so many references in songs and in the culture that we love.
“It’s an honour to be able to do this, and to be side-by-side with these actors, these Black actors, up here doing this,” Hawkins said.
“Because we have just as much ownership of it as anyone else.”
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