The actor never leans in - he's all in. And in his latest, Macbeth, conjured by Joel Coen, he is as sharp and deadly as a dagger. By Maureen Dowd.
When Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand began rehearsing to play the Macbeths, he asked her how she thought the couple had met.
Oh, she replied blithely, the Macbeths met when they were 15. They were Romeo and Juliet, but they didn't commit suicide. They just stayed married for 50 years. But they didn't have any kids and his career stalled so, thinking legacy, they suddenly went gangster and killed their nice, old friend, the king.
"This is one of the only good marriages in Shakespeare," said Joel Coen, who adapted and directed "The Tragedy of Macbeth," which opened late last month. "They just happen to be plotting a murder."
James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar at Columbia University, backed up the director, adding dryly, "But there's not much competition, is there? The Capulets? Richard II and his nameless Queen? Richard III and the doomed widow, Anne?"
Now Coen and McDormand, who are married and who met on the Coen brothers' debut feature, the 1984 film noir "Blood Simple," have teamed up with Washington to do another noir, the Scottish saga of "Blood will have blood".
As in all films noir, the guy is a sap and the lady is trouble. Lady Macbeth pushes her husband into killing Duncan by taunting him about his manhood.
When you watch McDormand — who defied all Hollywood odds to became a soaring star in middle age, specialising in playing women who, as she puts it, "are not necessarily redeemable" — you absolutely believe she has the will for regicide.
Mirroring the plot of "Macbeth", McDormand pestered her reluctant husband until he gave in and agreed to direct the movie — without his (also reluctant) brother, Ethan, no less.
"Frances McDormand is a beast," Washington said, admiringly.
A few weeks into filming, she asked her leading man if she had earned the right to call him "D," as some close to him do.
"Sure," he replied.
Coen was amazed at what it was like to work with the pair, an old-school Hollywood matchup of titans. "They are such powerful, intuitive and fascinating performers," he said. "You were just floored by what happened on the set." He shot in a square "academy" format, so it's all about the faces of Washington and McDormand filling the frame.
"The three of us are at the top of our game," McDormand said. "Denzel's 66. I'm 64. Joel is 67. We're still taking risks. We're still willing to fall flat on our faces. Working with Denzel was delicious because of all those things."
It was a tricky artistic three-way. She said that her husband had to trust that "Denzel and I weren't going to gang up on him as actors" and Denzel had to trust that she and Joel "weren't going to be too intimate as husband and wife".
Over coffee at a Midtown Manhattan hotel, the morning after the movie's premiere at the New York Film Festival, Washington looked casual in black Under Armour sweats but seemed beat.
He said he had had very little sleep. He had just put the final touches on a film he directed, "A Journal for Jordan," the true story of the romance between Dana Canedy, a former New York Times reporter and editor, and Sgt. Charles Monroe King, a soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, after meeting their infant son only once. It stars Michael B. Jordan and Chante Adams.
"It's just a beautiful story of loss and love," Washington said, "a story about real heroes and sacrificing, men and women who have given their lives so that we have the freedom to complain." (The star, who has played a policeman more than a dozen times, recently made similar comments of respect for cops who put their lives on the line.)
He said that before his 97-year-old mother died a few months ago, he promised her that he would "attempt to honour her and God by living the rest of my days in a way that would make her proud. So that's what I'm trying to do."
"I'm more interested in directing because I'm more interested in helping others," he said. "What I do, what I make, what I made — all of that — is that going to help me on the last day of my life? It's about, Who have you lifted up? Who have we made better?
"This is spiritual warfare. So, I'm not looking at it from an earthly perspective. If you don't have a spiritual anchor, you'll be easily blown by the wind and you'll be led to depression."
Sounding like his father, a Pentecostal minister who died in 1991 — "That's what got my father, he couldn't give up the meat and fried foods" — Washington asked me: "Have you read the Bible? Start with the New Testament, because the Old Testament is harder. You get caught up in the who-begot-who-begot-who thing."
He said he wants to mentor young actors like Jordan, Adams and Corey Hawkins, who did an acclaimed turn as Dr. Dre in "Straight Outta Compton," and now plays Macduff, the lord who beheads Macbeth.
Hawkins said that he sometimes prayed with Washington on the "Macbeth" set in Burbank, California.
"Sometimes we get talking, and you see the preacher in him," the younger actor said. "He's just a natural-born charismatic leader, who is not afraid to talk about his own faults or misgivings or shortcomings."
Washington was eager to go to directing school under Coen, saying, "Joel is just a genius, focused."
Alex Hassell, a British actor who plays a Scottish royal, Ross, as a "sexy Rasputin," said Washington often pressed Coen to explain his technique: "Denzel would be asking, 'Why this? Why that?' He was so excited to get to work with Joel."
Hassell said Washington could go so "deep in his cortex" that watching him was hypnotic, and he would sometimes forget to act. "I'd be like, 'Oh my God, oh, hang on. I was supposed to be there as well.' It might have just been him coming out of a tent. There is some quality that some people have which you just want to bottle."
I read Washington a quotation from Maya Angelou: "Denzel Washington appears to me a classical contradiction," she said in the March 1994 issue of Ebony magazine. "He is totally contained as a vault of rare gems and is as totally accessible as air."
He smiled, saying, "Beats a sharp stick in the eye, I guess."
I wondered how he maintains an air of mystery in this oversharing era.
"If they see you free all week, they won't pay to see you on the weekend," the star said. "I don't tweet. I don't have Instagram. I embrace my inner analog."
I told Washington that he is so peerless at speaking Shakespearean verse in a conversational way, he could be the love child of John Gielgud and Spencer Tracy.
"That's 45 years of training," he said.
When he was growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, a mentor told him, "Your natural ability will only take you so far." With that in mind, after playing Othello at Fordham, he started searching for a school that would give him a foundation in the classics and ended up attending graduate school at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.
"The whole thing with Joel and Fran was they wanted 'No stick-up-the-butt Shakespeare,' " Washington said. They wanted "dope Shakespeare", Hawkins added.
Todd Black, Washington's producing partner, who worked with him on the movie versions of August Wilson's "Fences" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," said, "His whole thing with young people is 'Don't act.' He will stop an audition cold and say, 'You're acting, please don't act.' He always checks their resumes to see if they've done theatre."
I asked Washington if Hollywood had become more diverse after #OscarsSoWhite.
"Hollywood is a street," he said. "I live in Los Angeles. I don't live in Hollywood. I don't know what Hollywood thinks. It's not like it's a bunch of people who get together on Tuesdays."
When the Times' movie critics put Washington atop their list of the greatest 25 actors of the 21st century (so far), Manohla Dargis said that his dominance "is a corrective and rebuke to the racist industry in which he works."
"Okay," he said, chuckling, when I asked him about it. "You know, put the work out there and then people decide it's this, it's that."
There were some who thought that after the Black Lives Matter protests, having a Black Macbeth would cause the play to resonate in a different way.
At the start, Washington asked Coen about the black and white of it all. But it turned out he was just asking the director whether he was going to film in black and white. Washington believes that if you look at everything through the lens of a political agenda, you lose the plot as an artist.
The director and his stars wanted to make a "Macbeth" that was universal, not topical.
McDormand told me that she was not interested in modern interpretations of Macbeth as an emblem of toxic masculinity or in correcting the stereotype of Lady Macbeth as a harridan.
"It's banal" to make Shakespeare politically correct, she said, sniffing. "It's bigger than that."
But the casting still makes a difference. A fan approached Hawkins to tell him how amazing it was to see two Black actors, representing good and evil — Macduff and Macbeth — in the final, searing sword battle on a bridge.
Coen goes for abstraction and chiaroscuro in the movie. Besides removing colour, all the costumes and sets are stripped of ornamentation. The grey gloaming and hallucinatory mists envelop a spare and savage landscape, with the witches shapeshifting into three black birds.
The disorienting first scene features the whispery, scratchy voice of the staggering British actress Kathryn Hunter, who plays one witch divided into three; she sounds as if she's gurgling blood.
It's Coen's first cinematic adventure since his brother traded the silver screen for the stage — "Of course, I missed him," Joel Coen told me — and he doesn't want us to know if we're in Macbeth's wild mind or on the wild moors.
"It's the essence of Joel, I have to say," McDormand said.
The director was careful about fiddling with the verse, noting, "You don't want to sing the song without the melody."
In keeping with the vision of a "postmenopausal" Macbeth they did change a line Macbeth speaks to his wife: "Bring forth men-children only/For thy undaunted mettle should compose/Nothing but male." "Should compose" has become "should have composed."
"They're a couple at the end of their ambition, not at the beginning of their ambition," McDormand said. "In our interpretation, she starts realising that she's become expendable, and that's what drives her insane, not the fact that they kill Duncan and there's blood on her hands. She's given up her soul to the dark forces, and he's not confiding in her any more. He's not asking for her help."
The actress said that, for her and "D," their long marriages provided insight: "Denzel and Pauletta have been married as long as Joel and I have. We had to learn how to be parents together and life partners together because it's an ever-changing landscape."
Coen said he wasn't scared of the Macbeth curse "until Covid shut us down on Friday the 13th in March 2020". But Washington was never worried.
"I'm a God-fearing man," he said. "I try not to worry. Fear is contaminated faith."
The Tragedy of Macbeth is in cinemas now