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Washington and McDormand talk acting, aging, and Shakespeare

Director Joel Coen didn’t experience moments of tragedy bringing the Bard to the big (and small) screen. In fact, nothing wicked came his way when casting Denzel Washington, 67, as Lord Macbeth. “What was great was, it was a pretty short conversation,” Coen said, recalling the early days of “The Tragedy of Macbeth. “I called Denzel and he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

He just said, “Yeah” — off the top of his head?

“Yes, I did,” Washington said on a recent night, zooming in in a black suit and black shirt. “I knew this would be a fascinating journey for me. I remember playing Othello when I was 20. Didn’t know what I was doing! I learned a thing or two over the years, and here I am.”

Now streaming on Apple +, the black-and-white adaptation is garnering best actor, best actress and best picture Oscar buzz. Shot partly on a Los Angeles soundstage, the film is about a Scottish lord who has convinced a trio of witches that he will become the next king. It marks first movie Joel’s ever made without his brother Ethan (who is focusing on theater these days). Frances McDormand, 64, plays ambitious Lady Macbeth, with Brendan Gleeson as Duncan and Corey Hawkins as Macduff.

“It’s the kind of work actors live to do,” Washington said. “It’s where I started and where I want to finish.”

Frances, you did “Macbeth” on stage a few years ago at Berkeley Rep, also playing Lady Macbeth. Is this when you and Joel began talking about it for screen?

Frances McDormand: I think I had asked Joel a couple of times if he was interested in doing it onstage and he said, “Absolutely not. I have no interest in doing theater.” I tried over basically a 15-year period and then basically gave up. I was very fortunate to do this work at Berkeley when I was 56. That did inspire Joel to think about it as a screen adaptation. He finally said, “If you let me think about it as a movie, maybe we could do something interesting.”

Denzel, you’ve mentioned that one of the joys of this work was forming an almost theatrical company to make a movie.

Denzel Washington: The cool thing is we were a company. Joel and Fran led us. We sat around a table. People played different roles within the readings. We became a company. My daughter in the piece had one line in the film. A wonderful actress. The first day of readings, Joel said to her, “Today you’re going to read The King.” Joel threw everybody under the bus. You had to sink or swim. I was just grateful to be there.

You’ve done other works of the Bard. How did it feel to return to his work now?

Washington: It was the ultimate challenge and the ultimate reward. There is no such thing as a definitive version of these plays, which really allows you to get in there.

Is it true that at one point Joel considered having the actors do American accents?

McDormand: It was an experiment, and everyone did it perfectly. Then the next day, Joel said, “Nah, go back.” And he decided against it. It was a fun way to try something different and explore this world.

The casting was diverse.

Washington: You had the Yale and the Julliard mafia in this thing with all the youngsters, too. The diversity in the dialects and the backgrounds in theater and film was exciting. You walked into that room and you could feel your heart beat a little faster.

What has changed for you since you did Othello as a young man?

Washington: This time, I get to work with the …

McDormand: Elders!

Washington: I prefer to say masters.

What has changed about Lady Macbeth?

McDormand: I think it maybe illuminates something about the female condition and the female power structure of what I think Macbeth was using from that period, especially within this couple. I kept saying to Joel, “In 400 years, everybody has done everything. We’re not inventing anything new.” Yet, I believe our cellular structure made it different and for me that was extremely gratifying.

Were you encouraged to play these characters at older stages of her life?

McDormand: It felt right. The first thing that I ever did — the thing that got me hooked on being an actor for my entire life — was the sleepwalking scene from “The Tragedy.” I did it at 14, so I’ve pretty much been practicing and rehearsing for it for 50 years. It had a fated inevitability to it. To have it sculpted by Joel was absolutely perfect. … One more thing, I didn’t really play Lady Macbeth at age 14. I just memorized the lines. I’m not kidding myself.

Washington: There is also a built-in sense of urgency with aging. This is it. This is the last go-round for them. They’ve been stepped over by the king and they want it. And we can all understand it.

You understand aging and wanting?

McDormand: When we first talked on the phone — Denzel and I — what we both understood about each other was there has always been a fight. We fought it as gracefully as possible, but the fight will never be over. You know? We brought that to it. We still know how to fight. Maybe we are limping a little bit and it takes us a little bit longer to get there.

Washington: But we still know how to win.

What is your idea of a great Sunday when you’re not quoting the Bard?

Washington: Wake up. Go to church. Read from the Bible. Breakfast. It’s a good day to look for wisdom and understanding.

McDormand: Read. Walk. Family. Live.

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