Why Oscar Nominee Denzel Washington Tackled Macbeth: Shakespeare Is ‘Only Challenge Left’

At this stage of his career, with his ninth acting Oscar nomination under his belt, Washington isn't going to waste his time.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, front: Denzel Washington as Macbeth, 2021. © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
"The Tragedy of Macbeth"
Courtesy Everett Collection

Denzel Washington never went to Juilliard. His first exposure to William Shakespeare came a thousand feet down the street, at Fordham University at Lincoln Center, when he played Othello at 21.

“They wouldn’t let me in,” he joked on a recent Zoom call. “I didn’t know anything about theater acting, any of that, until I was introduced in the fall of 1975. I did a musical and found that I couldn’t sing. But I enjoyed being on the stage. The artistic director saw something in me.”

After his fall semester musical debut, the spring semester saw Washington tackle Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.” “I had no idea,” he said. “I did my homework and fell in love with the theater. I was green as a Southern tomato.” And in his senior year he starred in “Othello.” “I had never done any Shakespeare. I did have a couple classes. But it was just — I fell in love.”

Mark Rylance in “Twelfth Night” showed Washington that he didn’t have to be reverent with iambic pentameter. “And I was like, ‘Oh, they break all the rules? It’s not that precious?’ When I was doing ‘Othello’ they didn’t have what they have now, something called ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ that you can read and follow along, and it makes it more understandable. But back in those days, there wasn’t anything like that. So I just imitated Laurence Olivier. Basically, that’s all I did.”

In all these years, Washington never saw a production of “Macbeth,” even while he performed Off-Broadway in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” (1979), played the lead in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film “Much Ado About Nothing,” starred in The Public Theatre’s production of “Richard III” (1990), and played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” on Broadway (2005).

And by the time the two-time Oscar winner (“Glory,” “Training Day”) had agreed to star in Joel Coen’s film version “The Tragedy of Macbeth” opposite fellow Oscar winner Frances McDormand, Washington decided not to watch anyone else’s take on the role. “I’d watch a couple of minutes: ‘No, no, no, I don’t want that to affect me.'”

During the six to eight months prior to the cast rehearsals, Coen, McDormand, and Washington met for a dozen or so sessions, Washington said. “We’d sit down and talk about the text and read scenes. So we had a chance to touch it in May, June of 2019. And then we sat down again for about three weeks in December of 2019. And then the cast came together for three weeks in January of 2020.”

Denzel Washington, "The Tragedy of Macbeth"
“The Tragedy of Macbeth”Apple/A24

The cast read through the script at table reads, from the stars to the supporting cast, including Washington’s daughter Olivia, who read the part of the king when Coen switched things up. “We didn’t have all the actors,” said Washington. “I think some of the Brits were still on their way in. And because we didn’t have all the actors, they just started like, ‘Hey, you got six lines. Okay, now you’re reading the king today.’ And you had no time to prepare, but it was good. So we all got on the same foot and the egos were out the window and we just went at it.”

In Coen’s stylized black-and-white version of the Scottish play, set in the 17th century, the director invests his established older married couple with 60ish seniority and deep intimacy. Clearly, they’ve been through the mill. “You weren’t expected to live until your 80s,” said Washington. “So the life expectancy in our film says 60 is the old 40. Which brought up the ticking clock to it. No question. And the fact that he reveals his desires: ‘Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.’ Now one can say, ‘Oh, they’ve been festering for 40 years.’ He was already in there, feeling that he was being overlooked.”

Added McDormand at the New York Film Festival press conference: “We both understood about each other that there has always been a fight. We fought it as gracefully as possible, but the fight’s never gonna be over. So, we brought that to it, we still knew how to fight. Maybe we were limping a little bit, maybe it took us a little bit longer to get, but the fight was still there.”

Denzel WashingtonAnne Thompson

Washington was willing to face his fears to take on this fierce and iconic role, which Coen encouraged him to perform with his native accent. “Shakespeare, that’s the only challenge left for me,” he said. “It’s the ultimate challenge. I’m more interested in Shakespeare than anything else as an actor, at this point in my life or in my career. You have to come up to the standard of Shakespeare. I don’t care who you are, if you can’t deliver, you will get exposed. And I love that: no pain, no gain.”

So far so good, as Washington has scored rave reviews for breathing vital power into his tortured, ambitious, Scottish laird, landing his ninth Oscar acting nomination (he was nominated as producer of “Fences”) as well as SAG, Golden Globe, and Critics Choice Awards nods.

Washington’s other love affair is with the American Shakespeare, August Wilson. “I made a commitment to the Wilson estate that I would produce 10 plays,” he said, “and that’s what I’m gonna do.” He and Viola Davis won Tony Awards in “Fences” on Broadway; Washington directed himself and Davis to Oscar nominations in the 2016 film version, and produced George C. Wolfe’s Oscar-nominated “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but he’s committed to producing, not directing or acting, in eight more of Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle for Netflix.

The actor likes directing too; late last year, Sony released his fourth feature, war drama “A Journal for Jordan,” based on the Dana Canedy memoir, to mixed reviews.

Next up: Washington’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” set in 1936 Pittsburgh, will launch as a Broadway play starring his son John David Washington as Boy Willie, the role originally played by Samuel L. Jackson at Yale Repertory back in 1987; now, Jackson will play Doaker, the keeper of the piano and uncle to Boy Willie and Berenice (Danielle Brooks). Jackson’s wife LaTanya Richardson (“Two Trains Running”) is lined up to direct the stage play. (At one time the movie was to be directed by Barry Jenkins; that decision has not been finalized.)

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020): (L to R) Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Colman Domingo as Cutler. Cr. David Lee / Netflix
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”David Lee/Netflix

As the clock runs out on Washington in his prime, the 67-year-old is getting himself back in shape to do a third, final installment of Antoine Fuqua’s “Equalizer,” about a former U.S. Marine turned DIA intelligence officer (the two films totaled $382 million worldwide).  “I’m committed to finding out what kind of body I can choose over the next six, seven months,” he said. “This is the longest amount of time I’ve had off in about 18 years. And I’m up for the physical challenge.”

From there he’s laser-focused on “more August Wilson, then ‘King Lear’ down the line,” he said. “It has to be the ultimate challenge right now.”

And after attending Sunday’s SAG Awards, he’s got catching up to do on the Academy portal. “My wife and my children are film buffs,” he said. “They watch everything; they know a lot more about what movies are than I do. I watch movies less and less: the older I’ve gotten, the less I watch, I don’t know why. The last movie I saw [in the theater] was ‘Roma’ and my favorite, ‘Cold War.'”

When he screened the completed “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” and watched it with a rapturous audience opening night at the New York Film Festival, “I thought I was miscast,” he said. “I didn’t like myself. But I thought what Joel did was just brilliant, and the way he did it. But you know, that happens to actors… That’s just, actors are crazy.”

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