SPOILER ALERT: Do not read unless you have watched Apple and A24’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” which is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV Plus.
In “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Denzel Washington plays the titular Lord Macbeth — a Scottish nobleman whose last grasp at power ultimately leads to his downfall.
In addition to memorizing Shakespeare’s powerful soliloquies (“It this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”), the Academy Award winning actor and many in the troupe, including Corey Hawkins (Lord Macduff) and Alex Hassell (Ross), were also required to brush up on their dueling skills for the production, adapted and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Joel Coen. (Coen also produced the film, alongside fellow Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, who stars as Lady Macbeth.)
Neither Washington nor Hawkins were master swordsmen before signing on for the Apple and A24 movie, but Hawkins had previously trained in stage combat and Washington had handled long knives in 2010’s “The Book of Eli.”
“My swords were a little rusty,” Washington quipped, detailing the fight prep in an interview with Variety.
If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll recall that Macbeth and Macduff face off in a duel at the end of the story. In the days building up to shooting the confrontation, he and Hawkins refined the choreography to execute the grueling fight separately. Filming the scene marked the first time they squared off against each other.
Washington described it as “a sweaty day,” explaining that, with all the leather gear the actors wore while performing take after take, he “lost some weight that day.”
Hawkins was sweating for a different reason. “It was a little nerve-racking [fighting Denzel]. I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, just please don’t hurt him.’ Because I’m a clumsy guy. In my head, I just saw the headlines,” he says with a laugh.
“But I’m fortunate enough that, the way he works, we beat through it in the same way we beat through scenes. So, it was easy, and it was a lot of fun,” Hawkins continues. “That’s what we did as kids, little boys running around playing with swords and stuff. Now, to do it across from an icon, a legend, is incredible.”
The staging of the fight scene itself is also pretty iconic. As the two men clash — Macbeth, cocky with the belief that “none of woman born” can kill him and Macduff fueled by the spirit to avenge his family, who’ve been executed by Macbeth — Coen continues to escalate the tension each time their swords meet. At the climax of the duel, Macduff knocks Macbeth’s crown off his head — and as the king bends down to pick it up, he’s beheaded.
“The way Joel would describe it was really funny,” Washington says, chuckling as he recounts the story. “He was like, ‘Well, you’re just gonna reach down for it, and that’s all we see, you reaching for it. … We’re gonna see your hand, and then the next thing you know, you look up, and your head goes flying over the side.”
It’s a shocking moment for the audience, but Hawkins notes that the scene demonstrates a lot about who Macbeth has become by the story’s end.
“That’s ‘pride goeth before the fall,’” Hawkins explains, loosely quoting Proverbs in the Bible. “[Macbeth] makes this decision to go and put the crown back on his head, in the middle of a fight for his life. That for me was very telling of who he is and what this whole thing is about.”
Hassell calls the choreography of the scene “a piece of genius” on Coen’s part.
“What I love so much about what he has done in that moment — it reminds me of the end of ‘No Country for Old Men,’ which is that you don’t see Josh Brolin’s character die,” Hassell explains, referencing Coen’s 2007 best picture Oscar winner. “In [‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’], the camera pans away just as Denzel’s head is cut off, so you don’t get really to see it. It’s so shocking — it’s in the corner of the screen, so you’re not prepared for it, because the camera hasn’t prepared you for it.”
To craft the prosthetic head that appears in the film, Washington had to do a plaster cast and a 360-degree scan of his head. Prosthetics designer Vincent Van Dyke shared photos of the finished product to social media, displaying the intricately designed prop in all of its impressive detail.
The Vincent Van Dyke Effects team collaborated with Washington’s personal makeup artist, Oscar-nominee Carl Fullerton, throughout the design process, as Fullerton also crafted the scars the actor wore throughout the film. The post explains that specialist Manny Lemus engineered the head to be weighted and as “lifelike to hold” as possible, using varying densities of silicone, internal structures and weights. Van Dyke and artists Daniele Tirinnanzi, Gwen Ramsey, Jason James, Sasha Camacho Van Dyke and Megan Sinclair collaborated to put the finishing touches on the prosthetic to create a perfect replica.
On screen, after Macbeth is beheaded, Hassell’s Ross presents the severed head to Malcolm [Harry Melling] as proof that Macbeth has been defeated and now he is King of Scotland.
Hassell admits it was “pretty weird” seeing the head and even stranger figuring out how to hold it. Because the faux severed head was weighted equivalent to a real human head, there was much conversation about how Hassell would carry the heavy prop leading up to filming.
“The first thing I had to do was kind of get my hand right up into his esophagus, so it was quite unnerving,” Hassell recalls. “It was quite gruesome.”
The box holding the head was kept private most of the time on set, but eventually, Hassell made his way up to the Oscar-winner with the prop to get his reaction to it.
“He found it quite freaky, as we all did,” Hassell says, adding, “I don’t know how many people have held their hand in Denzel Washington’s esophagus. But I’m on a shortlist, potentially. And I’m proud to be on that list.”