Denzel Washington has done Shakespeare on stage and on film, but he had never seen "Macbeth" before agreeing to take on the lead role in director Joel Coen's new film adaptation, "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
This allowed the Oscar-winning actor to do his own interpretation of the famous role without too much comparison to previous versions. But learning very long speeches in iambic pentameter is not easy, so Washington had a process.
"There's just a magic Shakespeare pill you take. You take one every morning and you automatically remember every…No, it's just running it over and over and over," Washington joked in a recent interview with the AP. "I'd come in early in the mornings, even when they were building the sets—and just walk the set. And especially, you know, because I've had three or four or five—whatever it is—monologues, I could work on those by myself. S I would just do them over and over and over and over and over in every, in every circumstance, every situation."
The story is about acute ambition and a lust for power, which Washington says resonates in modern times as well as the past.
"I think any time is a good time to tell that story. I don't think there's anything in particular—it's so interesting, a lot of people have asked that question like, 'Do you think it reflects the time? No, he wrote it 400 years ago," said Washington. "Unfortunately, things haven't changed much. You know, it's still that that that that wrestle for power—the struggle for power—and the abuse of power. Those themes are all the same now and 400 years ago."
The film also stars Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, Corey Hawkins as Macbeth's friend, Macduff and Alex Hassell as the messenger, Ross. Hassell has worked extensively with Shakespeare and emphasized the need to study the Bard's words and cadence, and to go through each line to find its meaning.
"I'm very, very passionate about iambic pentameter and the uses of it for the actor. And basically, if you understand how to use it in the right way, Shakespeare is just directing you through iambic pentameter. He's saying how fast or slow your thoughts are, how clear they are, or if they're sort of coming to you out of the fog. If you're pausing, if you're saying things in one long breath, if you're overlapping the other characters, he writes all of that into his verse pattern," Hassell said. "So my process is very, very much built out of that use of iambic pentameter and that structure. But also, I look up almost every word that I say because it's—the job, I think, is to be very, very specific about what you're saying. The very meaning is quite tenuous in that it's very easily interpretable by many different people with different ideas because…it can be fairly ambiguous exactly what you're saying and what you're meaning."
"The Tragedy of Macbeth" is playing in select theaters and will start streaming January 14th on Apple TV+.