Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington offer up a new take on the William Shakespeare classic with their upcoming movie The Tragedy of Macbeth. And Lady Macbeth, played my McDormand, even has a cell phone — at least off screen.
While director and writer Joel Coen and McDormand's costars Corey Hawkins, Moses Ingram and Harry Melling discussed the movie at a New York Film Festival panel in New York City on Friday, McDormand's cell phone started ringing in her pocketbook that sat on the floor. McDormand, 64, grabbed her bag and pulled out the phone. Then she brought it to her mouth, opened it and told the caller, "I'll call you back."
Washington, 66, made sure to point out that McDormand — who also produced Macbeth — uses a flip phone.
After the unexpected interlude, the actors and director continued answering questions from the audience, and McDormand shared how she put her spin on the Shakespearean language by toying with the punctuation.
"The meter and the words are inviolte but the punctuation you can mess with," McDormand said of advice she'd received.
The Oscar winner recalled the one particular scene in the play that actually inspired her to go into acting. "The first thing that got me hooked on wanting to be an actor for the rest of my life was the sleepwalking scene from the tragedy and I did it when I was 14," she said. "So I've pretty much been practicing and rehearsing for it for 50 years. So I feel like it was … I kind of had a fated inevitably to it."
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Washington also performed Shakespeare early in his career. "This is a fascinating journey for me," he told the crowd at Lincoln Center. "I went to school 1,000 feet from here [at Fordham University] and played Othello at 20 and didn't know what I was doing."
The father of four referred to taking on the iconic playwright as "the ultimate challenge." "It's the ultimate reward," Washington continued. "And, you know, it's where I started and where I want to finish."
Having actors in their sixties play Lord and Lady Macbeth gives Coen's version a different perspective. "This is the last go-round," Washington said of the lead couple. "And they've been stepped over by the king and they want it. And we understand."
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"You might think, 'Oh maybe they don't understand.' But guess what, we understand," she said. "Because when we first talked on the phone Denzel and I — I'm not going to … it's our own private conversation — but we both understood about each other that there's always been a fight. We've fought it as gracefully as possible but the fight's never going to be over. So you know, we brought that to it. We still know how to fight. Maybe we were limping a little bit. Maybe it took us a little longer bit to get but the fight was still there."
"[We] still knew how to win!" Washington chimed in.
The Tragedy of Macbeth will be released in theaters and on Apple TV+ in December, but Coen, 66, said he has "mixed feelings" about streaming services.
"Here's the thing about streaming services from a personal point of view," he said. "When I first got into the movie business, almost 40 years ago, 35, 7 years ago, the reason I was able to make movies with [brother] Ethan, the reason we were able to have a career is because the studios at that point had an ancillary market that was a backstop for more risky films which were VHS/cassette home video markets, which is essentially television. The fact that those markets are sort of responsible for my career make it, you know, I'm not going to bust on them now because they've become very successful and are sort of taking over the market. I mean, it's the reason I'm here and able to do this stuff."
Despite at-home viewing being "the reason I'm here and able to do this stuff," Coen still felt "the first thing you want people to see it on [is] a big screen."
No matter how audiences take in the black and white film, McDormand can't help but get emotional up about what she and her costars accomplished.
"When I hear our company I talk — this is the other thing about being an elder — I just get choked up over and over," she said. "I can't believe you did this. It's fabulous."
The Tragedy of Macbeth will premiere at The 59th New York Film Festival Friday and opens Dec. 25.