The gala presentation of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” at the New York Film Festival was a true welcome home for Oscar winner Denzel Washington. The actor told the rapt audience at Alice Tully Hall about how he first fell in love with William Shakespeare’s work as a student at Fordham University, playing Othello at Lincoln Center.
“I was so green and naive,” Washington said of his younger self, who listened to the recording of Laurence Olivier’s 1965 production to prepare.
Of course, that role was just the beginning of Washington’s history with Shakespeare. On stage, the actor next starred in a Shakespeare in the Park production of “Coriolanus” in 1979, then as the titular Duke of Gloucester in 1990’s “Richard III” and in the 2005 Broadway revival of “Julius Caesar” as Marcus Brutus. On screen, Washington played Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
When asked what it meant to have his Shakespearean experience come full-circle with the premiere event happening so close to where things all began, Washington told Variety, “It’s good work. It’s what I do. It’s a company of actors — and that’s not what it means to me, that’s what it is — just a great group of unselfish actors, and obviously a brilliant director, who had a vision, and we’re all a part of his vision.”
The brilliant director Washington refers to is Joel Coen, who helmed this latest adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” starring Washington and Frances McDormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth. The trio posed on the red carpet at Alice Tully Hall alongside Washington’s wife Pauletta, and McDormand recalled her own history with this Shakespeare adaptation, having first performed the play at age 14. “The hook [for acting] went in and never left,” McDormand said.
Representing the film’s ensemble cast were Corey Hawkins (Macduff), Moses Ingram (Lady Macduff), Harry Melling (Malcolm), James Udom (Seyton), Bertie Carvel (Banquo), Miles Anderson (Lennox) and Stephen Root, plus composer Carter Burwell. The evening was particularly nostalgic for Hawkins, who last sat in Alice Tully Hall at his graduation from Juilliard. And now, he’s starring opposite and facing off against a true icon in Washington.
“Denzel’s a mentor to me; he’s a friend,” Hawkins said of working with the actor. “This man prays with you, he lifts you up, and not only as an artist or as an actor, but as a man. I’m just forever grateful to that man.”
As far as the film festival itself goes, he adds: “I remember being here, upstairs, working on ‘Macbeth’ in my third year Shakespeare repertory and looking down and seeing the red carpet. I get emotional just thinking about it, because it is full circle.”
Hawkins played Macbeth in that production, but after witnessing Washington do his thing in “The Tragedy,” the actor joked, “I don’t know if I’d ever step back in [that role].”
During the post-screening Q&A, Ingram shared similar sentiment about working with her idols.
“Growing up, you spend your whole life watching people and wanting to be like them,” she said. “You make your own stories for them, and they spend your greatest peaks with you, and your greatest valleys with you, in your homes. And then you meet them, and they’re only just meeting you.”
So, on the final day of filming, which fell on the Yale School of Drama alum’s 26th birthday, Ingram approached Washington, whom she called “Mr. Denzel,” for some career advice.
“I said, ‘I have tried to be professional this whole time, but I’ve really got questions,'” she said with a laugh. “And for two hours, we sat and every question I had, he answered. These are things that I will get to tell young people after me.”
Washington spoke glowingly of his younger counterparts, telling Variety, “They’re trained, they’re ready, and they’re prepared. And I’m happy for them. They’re here because they’re great actors.”
The evening was similarly nostalgic for Katie Holmes, who was on hand as a brand ambassador for NYFF sponsor Campari. “My first film [1997’s “The Ice Storm”] premiered at the New York Film Festival,” she explained, looking back on that event. “I was just so excited. I was here with my parents. I was 18 years old.” Like most teenagers, Holmes read “Macbeth” in school — though she never performed the play — and she was particularly eager to see how Washington and McDormand executed their work.
“Hamilton” and “Blindspotting” duo Daveed Diggs and Jasmine Cephas Jones also walked the carpet, as did Molly Ringwald and Ziwe. Nicole Ari Parker was also on-hand to celebrate Washington, who played her husband in 2000’s “Remember the Titans.” “Macbeth is one of the hardest pieces of Shakespeare to do,” Parker said. “It only could take two true artists to to make that happen.”