Denzel Washington on playing Macbeth and the legacy of Sidney Poitier

Award-winning actor stars in new adaptation of Macbeth from director Joel Coen

Denzel Washington has been playing Shakespearean roles since he was 20. The latest is Lord Macbeth in Joel Coen’s new Apple TV+ film The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Ahead of its release this Friday, the 67-year-old actor sat down with Q host Tom Power to talk about working with Coen and Frances McDormand (who stars as Lady Macbeth), as well as the recent death of his friend and fellow actor Sidney Poitier.

Washington has said part of the reason he took the role was to work with McDormand and Coen, who are married.

“[Coen] is a genius. [McDormand] is another genius. Two sides of the same coin, you know? He’s putting it together and she delivers,” he said.

“It’s just her energy coming into the room. She’s just a unique individual, first of all, and powerful and strong and talented. So that energy coming into the room lifts your game up immediately. Like ‘Oh, this is Frances McDormand. Like OK — right, here we go.’ You know? It’s fun. It’s exciting.”

A new take on Macbeth

The highly stylized rendition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been in the works for a few years. The team started filming in 2020, based on a script adapted by Coen. It was shot in black and white with a very austere, almost stage-like feeling on screen.

“Shakespeare is Shakespeare. We [actors] have to step up. The standard has already been established, you know, ‘Can you handle it?’ is the question,” Washington said.

“That’s the thrill of it. You don’t know. Just because Joel and Frances and I and Shakespeare were there doesn’t mean it’s going to turn out well. In this case, it did.”

The Tragedy of Macbeth will be available on Apple TV+ on Friday. It was released in theatres in Canada on Dec. 25, but cinemas are now closed in many parts of the country due to the pandemic.

Washington on Sidney Poitier’s legacy

On Jan. 6, legendary actor Sidney Poitier, who was one of Washington’s friends, died at the age of 94.

Poitier was the first Black man to win an Academy Award for best actor, in 1964, for his performance in Lilies of the Field. Few movie stars had the influence Poitier did, and he was recognized with a special lifetime achievement Academy Award in 2002.

That was the same year that Washington and Halle Berry made history by becoming the first Black actors to win leading performance awards at the Oscars.

That night, Washington thanked Poitier off the top of his speech.

Poitier later remarked in 2014 that he was indebted to the work Washington had done and grateful that he had “taken the concept of African Americans in films to a place where I couldn’t, I didn’t, and he has taken it there with the same kind of integrity that I tried to do and to articulate. So I thank him for that. He helped me that evening to a closing of my artistic life. He put the button on it for me. And I’m indebted to him.”

Washington said he hadn’t heard Poitier’s words until his interview with Q.

“I’m at a loss for words,” he said.

The pair first met when Poitier came to see Washington in a play early in his career and met him backstage to tell him he had enjoyed the performance.

“[He] was grinning, you know, from ear to ear because it’s Sidney, and he came up to me and he said, ‘You know, you’re good. You are good.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, sir.’ You know, what do you say? ‘Yes, I’ll be better tomorrow,'” Washington said.

“Just for him to say that — for a 20-year-old, 21-year-old actor, that’s all you want to hear. That’s all you need to hear.”

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