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Arts & Culture

Actors provide insight about director Joel Coen's 'Macbeth'

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A24
Corey Hawkins plays Macduff in Joel Coen's film adaptation of William Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

Corey Hawkins and Alex Hassell talk about bringing Shakespeare to life on screen

Joel Coen’s "The Tragedy of Macbeth" starts streaming tomorrow on Apple TV+. Two of the actors provide insights into what kind of a director Coen is and how he brought this play to the screen.

Cinema Junkie Recommends Joel Coen's stunning new 'Macbeth

"Macbeth" is Shakespeare’s swiftest play. It moves with ferocious energy as it follows the downfall of the title character. In Joel Coen’s film adaptation the character is presented as a victim of both fate and his own bad choices. Supernatural forces lay tempting promises before him but he chooses to take the actions that force him down an increasingly narrow path.

One of the interesting supporting characters in the play is Ross, who is listed in the stage directions as merely "a Scottish nobleman." He is a character who can simply be the bringer of "news both good and ill," as he is described in the play, or he can be given more agency depending on the staging. Coen and actor Alex Hassell collaborated to make this Ross a fascinating player in Macbeth’s tragedy.

"I have to say, when I first read the script, I was extremely excited by the idea of this different Ross knowing the play very well," Hassell explained via a Zoom interview. "But I had no idea what Joel was intending, what Ross's agenda was, what his sort of function in the story was. It wasn't something that one could immediately kind of understand. And I think indeed, that's what we wanted to keep. We wanted the audience to not really fathom what his agenda is, what he's trying to do to people, what he wants. I think that's part of the pleasure of the character. But it meant that I had the great honor and pleasure of collaborating with Joel, trying to work out what this version of Ross was and what he does to the story and the sort of tension of the story. It was a great gift."

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Hassell said a three week rehearsal period helped immensely and revealed how collaborative a director Coen was.

"He is obviously immensely intelligent and has a very clear vision and really understands how to use the tools of cinema to tell a story," Hassell said. "But he's very collaborative in terms of how you create the character together. We would mainly chat, and then we'd do some scenes, and then we'd both think about it. And then he'd say, 'he doesn't have to not be sexy.' And I was like, oh, wow. Really?"

As with Hassell, Corey Hawkins has performed Shakespeare on stage and on film before. And he was surprised by his first discussions about the role of the noble Macduff with Coen.

"One of our very first conversations I remember him saying, you probably know more about this than I do. And, of course, it's very sort of disarming, and it just shows the humility because, of course, I don't know more about it than he does," Hawkins said. "But just the fact that he trusted me to come in there and do what my version of Macduff was, and he trusted that I could come in there and hold my weight with this incredible cast. And so I appreciate the faith that he put in me. And just the collaboration throughout the entire thing, throughout the entire process was just incredible. It's a dream."

The full interviews with Hassell and Hawkins will be on next Friday's bonus episode of Cinema Junkie.