Kathryn Hunter, ‘Macbeth’ MVP on Denzel Shakespeare and Witches

When filmmaker Joel Coen emailed Kathryn Hunter, an actress with deep roots in Shakespeare who has taken revolutionary turns playing the lead roles in the Bard’s King LearAnd Timon of AthensShe was asked if she would portray. “the witches” — all three of them — in his adaptation of The Tragedy of MacbethShe immediately said yes. “There were no two thoughts about it,”Now she speaks on Zoom from the U.K. Only in rehearsal did she second-guess her decision.

“I said to Joel, ‘There are three witches. How are we going to do that?’” she says in her deep-voiced English accent. “And he said, ‘Oh, we’It will all be figured out.’”

You would be amazed at her scenes-stealing turns onscreen. Filmed in black and white, Coen’s Macbeth — available now on Apple+ — takes place in a dusky shadowland of bitter surrealism. Denzel Washington plays the murderous and savage thane, while Frances McDormand portrays Macbeth’s bloodthirsty, bedwalking wife. Hunter’s witches, or “the weird sisters,” as Macbeth dubs them, elevate the tension every time they’re on screen.

In one scene, the veteran British actress pulls her arm over her shoulder while Macbeth stares at her with an icy cold stare. She then delivers the prophecy about him becoming king. In another, she emulates a crow, right down to the bird’s jerky head movements. When she recites the witches’ famous “Double, double, toil and trouble”Incantation, she appears bizarre enough to have emerged from her own stew consisting of eye of newt & toe of the frog. For Coen’s MacbethShe has created a magical performance of the witches and, if you look closely, an old man, that is both captivating, eerie and masterful. Hunter is a crucial part of Coen’s adaptation, one that even people who don’t know or like Shakespeare would enjoy.

Hunter, who sometimes opens her eyes in a spellbinding manner, said that it was Coen’s research and Hunter’s performance that inspired her performance. “It’s a thriller and you go inside it,”She tells Rolling Stone. “Joel’s storytelling is so brilliant that you really are on the edge of your seat.”

How did you approach the three witches in your role?
We started a process of exploring how to do three. At first I thought I would have two doubles who would be my teachers of physicality. But then Joel told me. “OK, let’s make it one, and maybe you’re possessed by two in the persona.”He also stated that his vision for witches was that they would be like standing stones or crows who have witnessed many things. But they’re also women, and they go between these three forms.

I explored the area and met women living on the fringes of society, including standing stones and crows. I felt like they were outsiders but had natural knowledge, while also thinking about Shakespeare and that he’s obviously referencing the fates from Greek mythology. Before rehearsals began, I was exploring the kitchen table with Joel, while my husband filmed me as a crow in this and that position. Then we met in London once more. Joel took his camera out and began to take pictures. “Yeah, I’m interested in that.” Fran [McDormand, Coen’s wife]It was also my contribution. It was exciting to work together.

What impressed you about Joel’s interpretation of Macbeth?
Joel provided me with mood boards to help me get started. What I loved was that it wasn’t set in Scotland. It’s shot in black and white, very stark, very kind of architectural spaces that seem to mirror the architecture of the mind in a way because I think MacbethIt is a journey of mind.

With Shakespeare, including the plays I’ve directed, I always feel that when you go into naturalism or trying to make it contemporary, like setting it in New York or something, it works for a while — but actually it becomes more distant. I think what Joel’s done is brought out the tale, so it has a mythic quality, an epic quality, but at the same time because he’s such a brilliant director, he’s hopefully gotten from us performances that are very true. With the screen giants Frances McDormand, Denzel, truth was readily available.

Was there anything you liked about it being taken out of Scotland?
The less realistic the story is, the more relatable it becomes. There’s a man called Edward Gordon Craig, who kind of broke the mold in theater and scenery. Craig claimed that Shakespeare was destroyed when we make it more naturalistic. Joel seems to have delivered this as well.

How did Denzel and you work together while filming?
Denzel spoke of a time in his own life when he made a prophecy. It was clear that he believed this prophecy idea was real and not an odd one. That story was so amazing that I told him it as the witch. It also revealed that he believed in blessings and curses. Knowing that, I then consulted a woman who identifies as a modern-day witch — a good one. I asked her to teach me a little ritual to protect Denzel so because there’s so many superstitions around doing the play. To protect Denzel and my company, I would perform this ritual in my RV or in my hotel room. Then Covid struck. I thought: “Oh, it didn’t work.”Then we were back together and I thought, “Oh, it did work.”

What other lessons did you gain from real-life witchery studies?
It’s about the power of thought. We develop technologies like iPhones, but we have amazing technologies and powers inside of us, and I think that’s what makes playing a witch interesting. You can enter the mind and thoughts of someone else. Or it feels like the witches are confronting Macbeth kind of knowing what’s in his mind and they’re saying, “Is this what you’re thinking? I think it is. Do you want to follow it through or are there other choices?” That’s very interesting and takes it away from pointy nose-y witches and makes it hopefully a more intimate relationship.

How did you create the physicality for the role?
Kind of trial and error, because I didn’t want to do choreography. Joel would sometimes say that I did a lot of research. “Oh, that’s a bit dance-y.” It’s like cooking in a way. You might say: “OK, I’ve got carrots, beans, spinach, and some turmeric. Let’s see what we can do.”The elements were standing stones, crows and women who are outsiders. You explore all of those and then it’s what happens in the moment with your playing partner — with Denzel — in the space.

When you have to say a line that’s so iconic, like “Double, double, toil and trouble,”Is it something you just happen to stumble upon, even though people expect it? Is it something that you just happen to see?
I can recall speaking with Mark Rylance about Hamlet. [when]He would be coming to “To be or not to be,” he’d become nauseous because you could feel the audience going, “And now how is he going to deliver that?”

The important thing is, if you’re in the moment in this situation, you go, “Well, why am I saying that?”Or “What do I want to achieve? How am I going to affect the other person?” [In the plot]Macbeth just asked for the future. For me, that means the witches need to summon the Masters at the moment. It’s a point of instruction which was directed inwards rather than on to a cauldron, because Joel said we’re not having a cauldron. This is the conclusion. “Double, double, toil and trouble”Line was all about creating internal visions for the future. If you are too focused on the practicality of the scene it can take away the focus from doing a well-known line.

Many actors are aware of Macbeth a cursed play and won’t even say the name of the play in a theater, calling it “the Scottish Play”Fear of bad things occurring. How did the cast and crew handle it?
American actors have less of this, I believe. We didn’t get have an “Oh, we can’t say that” rule. But, you also know, that we in this country say “the Scottish Play”All that and more. I thought: “Just be safe.”It felt right. [say the Scottish Play]. So I did do it.

How do you feel? Macbeth How does it relate to the world of today?
For us today, I believe that this story is very relevant.

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