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Interview: Corey Hawkins Talks ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ and What He Learned from Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand

January 7, 2022Ben MK

From his roles in 24: Legacy to Kong: Skull Island, Corey Hawkins has gone up against everything from terrorists to giant apes. With Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth, however, Hawkins is taking on what may well be the most challenging role of his career — acting opposite Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. As Macduff, the In the Heights and Straight Outta Compton star plays an integral role in the downfall of Washington's Macbeth, a man so consumed by his own desire for power that he fails to realize just how out of control he has become. But when it comes to his own ambitions, Hawkins remains optimistic and grounded, as he's set to help bring a musical version of Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple to the screen, as well as a new adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, based specifically on one of the classic novel's most overlooked chapters.

I caught up with Corey Hawkins to chat about The Tragedy of Macbeth, what it was like working with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, and his upcoming films.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is, on one hand, a very traditional interpretation of Shakespeare's play. But at the same time, it's also very unique and bold. Can you tell me what drew you to the project, and how acting in a film adaptation of the play differs from playing the role on a stage?

Hawkins: Joel. Denzel. Frances. It was one of those situations where I would have played one of the trees in the background on this project. I was just drawn to that, and then also drawn to the idea that, not only am I working with these masters of their craft, but on a piece of text that has been around for hundreds of years. And to bring it back around with such a diverse cast as well, to reignite and reinvigorate and find new ways of playing these characters, is a challenge that I think everybody was up for. [As for how a film adaptation differs from a stage production], it allows you to do things that you cannot do on stage. You can't get right up inside the eyes, you can't necessarily film someone's back. And you can turn up stage, but at some point you have to turn back around, whereas the camera can always come and tell the story from a different perspective. It was just incredible watching [Joel] navigate that, and I was honored to say yes and to be a part of this.

You mentioned Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, who of course get top billing as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. What was it like working with them — were you intimidated in any way, and did either of them pass on any advice to you while filming?

Hawkins: There was no ego at all. [laughs] I realize why they've been around for as long as they have and maintained the level of success for as long as they have, and it's because of the grace in which they work. They take themselves seriously, they take the work seriously, but in the rehearsal room everyone's equal. It's not them trying to teach or coming into the room with a certain way of working. And that's the cool thing. Frances, obviously, has worked with Joel a lot, and Denzel loves to work with smart and interesting directors who challenge him. He doesn't have to, but he works with people who challenge him, who push him, and I love that.

There were days when me and [my co-star] Moses [Ingram] would just sit in the dressing room with Denzel and just chat. It was just one of those moments where you pinch yourself, and you say, "I'm lucky to do what I do." And I'm lucky to be a part of a film that I think will be a part of cinematic history, in a way to be studied and talked about, not only [in terms of] Shakespeare, but also [how it relates to] where we are in our times, and the power and the dynamics. I'm lucky to be a part of this cast and to have them as mentors.

Was there a scene in The Tragedy of Macbeth that was the most memorable for you to shoot?

Hawkins: Well, certainly, the battle scene towards the end was nerve-racking, to say the least. [laughs] We had prepared, I had been working on the thing since before the COVID shutdown we had in between, and then the day came. I had to get up there with Denzel with these huge, real broadswords in this tiny parapet, and I was like, "Good on Joel for giving actors complications." That's what makes it interesting. So, that was definitely exciting to shoot. And also, even though I say very, very little in it, the scene with Stephen Root, the porter, when he’s walking down that hall. That whole scene and filming that walk with Stephen and watching him work — I've been a fan of Stephen Root's for so long, and so to get to work with him on that was really fun.

Of course, you have a background in the theatre world — you were nominated for a Tony award for Six Degrees of Separation and you played Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet as well — but it appears that you also have an affinity for movie musicals. Can you talk a bit about cutting your teeth on In the Heights, and can you tell me a bit about your role in the upcoming musical adaptation of The Color Purple?

Hawkins: In the Heights was an opportunity, like Macbeth was, for me to stretch myself. If I've learned anything from Fran and Denzel, it's to continue to evolve and [not to] get comfortable doing the same old stuff. So In the Heights was an opportunity to do that, and now I'm back working with the same producers and playing Harpo. I'm really excited to work with [director] Blitz Bazawule, who for me is an incredible, brave, young, fresh thinker and creative. I'm excited that Oprah and [Steven] Spielberg have also welcomed me into that world, and to bring a fresh take on The Color Purple. It isn't a remake, it's the musical version of it that was on Broadway. I got a note from Alice Walker about her excitement for me, and it just touched me. I'm just honored.

Last but not least, you're also starring in the upcoming horror movie The Last Voyage of the Demeter, based on "The Captain's Log" chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which wrapped filming late last year. Can you tell me a bit about what moviegoers can expect from that one?

Hawkins: I had a blast shooting that film. It is a period piece, and it was something that took me way out of my comfort zone, for several reasons. [laughs] With Macbeth, you're taking a piece of history and you're trying to find a new way of telling it. And that's what we do with The Last Voyage of the Demeter. It is an epic journey, but it's also really about these characters. It's not all blood and gore. You really get inside the minds of these people. It's a psychological thriller, and so I'm really excited for fans of that genre to see this.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is now playing in select theatres and premieres globally on Apple TV+ January 14th, 2022.

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