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Denzel Washington talks putting a new spin on an old role in 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'

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  • Denzel Washington
    Denzel Washington
    American actor

Denzel Washington and the cast of The Tragedy of Macbeth talk about bringing old material to life in a way that feels fresh, different and diverse.

Video Transcript

- If we should fail--

- We fail.


KEVIN POLOWY: I realized watching this there are a few things I enjoy more than seeing you add your special sauce to Shakespeare. How much joy as an actor do you get out of delivering his poetics?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: I don't know if it's the ultimate challenge or the greatest challenge for an actor, but needless to say, he's a pretty good writer. You know, he's been around a long time. He's had a tremendous--

KEVIN POLOWY: Been around the block.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: I think he's-- I think he-- I think he's going to-- he may make it if he sticks with it. So just to-- to get the opportunity to interpret one of the great roles that's been interpreted by the greats, you know? And the fact that it is Shakespeare and that most actors, or theater actors anyway, cut our teeth on-- on Shakespeare.

KEVIN POLOWY: Your Macbeth is way different than whoever's on Summer Stage or what have you at any particular moment. How important is it to put your own twist on a Shakespeare role, like you do--

DENZEL WASHINGTON: I've actually never-- I've never seen anybody else's Macbeth, so--


DENZEL WASHINGTON: No, I've never seen it before. I'd never seen the play, and I'd never seen-- there was one movie. I saw a little bit of that. But I never seen the movie, so I didn't have a preconceived notion of what it should be, which is the way I prefer it, actually.

Yeah, yeah. I wouldn't want to see other interpretations, because then you start thinking about what you wouldn't do, or I don't want to do that. Or you're starting off in it with a negative.

KEVIN POLOWY: And it messes your whole game up.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: Yeah, it messes up your whole game.

KEVIN POLOWY: I realized, watching this, there are few things I think I enjoy more than seeing Denzel just pour his special sauce all over Shakespeare's lyrics. It just-- it feels it feels singular. Do you feel like watching him gave you more freedom to sort of put your own twist on it?

COREY HAWKINS: That's exactly what it was. Him and-- him and Frances, man. Like, watching them in the room-- because, listen, we knew we were-- all of the Shakespeare vets from Britain, you know, from London were coming over and. We knew this company was going to be a diverse, beautiful sort of amalgamation of just-- just incredible artists who all love Shakespeare.

And watching them find it in the room and love and wrap their mouths around the words and-- and the images and the poetry was incredible. It's a masterclass. I just could go on and on about their genius and about the risks that they were taking in that room.

You know how you're like, dang, I wish I could be a fly on the wall of, like, how he and Fran and Joel-- like, these "masters". And I got to be that fly for, like, weeks. You know what I mean? And weeks and months. And so it was incredible.

ALEX HASSELL: What was really fascinating about the company was that we all had different approaches to the verse and that Joel was really interested in us having different approaches. So mine is built around the shape of the verse, whereas maybe Denzel's is built around the longer thoughts and the kind of through line of those thoughts.

And what that gave him, which I think is immensely impressive and mesmeric-- and that I would like some of that sauce, as you say-- is-- his interior life is very, very deep and comes from a really deep place. It's very relaxed. It's very, very subtle and interior in a way that it makes you think that he's-- he's not quite thinking with his brain. He's sort of thinking with something incredibly deep, almost from the center of the Earth, in a way that I think is very, very impressive.

KEVIN POLOWY: I feel like you and Frances McDormand must have crossed paths at 100 award shows by now. Did you guys know each other very well prior to this?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: No, no, not very well. Joel and I had talked, maybe, two or three years before filming about doing something. We didn't know what. And then they-- I don't know exactly how it started, but they called, and I said, yes.

KEVIN POLOWY: What surprised you the most about Fran?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: What came to my mind is how much she cares. But that shouldn't surprise-- shouldn't surprise me. You know, I didn't know her as an actor, but I got to know her as an actor and a producer. And she really cared about-- this was just as much her baby as it was Joel's.

KEVIN POLOWY: What do you personally enjoy most about getting to spit Shakespeare poetics?

COREY HAWKINS: Just the fact that, growing up, I didn't see it. And so growing up-- and I certainly didn't see anyone who looked like me doing it.

I remember, again, seeing Denzel do Julius Cesar on Broadway. And I was just talking to my friend who was in the production of it all those years ago. And that-- that, again, is inspiration. And it's like, wait, we have ownership of it just as much as anyone else does.

And so I love that, now, we have the opportunity to put something on screen, because, I mean, I'm trying to think of another time when something at this scale, in terms of Shakespeare, has been done on film that looks like this, that has the diversity that it does. It's sort of leading by example without having to preach it, you know? It's like, this is just what we do-- is-- we go to work. I love that.

KEVIN POLOWY: To play off the arc of "Macbeth," is there a moment in your life or career where you ever felt that you were actually too ambitious? Does that does that exist in your field, do you think?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: Well, you know, I don't know what too ambitious mean. Maybe when you're younger, you're too hungry. But I never thought I was too ambitious. I wouldn't go to the lengths that Macbeth went to achieve whatever it is I'm trying to achieve. I'm not that ambitious.

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