The Tragedy of Macbeth star Kathryn Hunter on conjuring a new take on Shakespeare's 3 witches
Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble...
With those iconic words in The Tragedy of Macbeth, William Shakespeare created an indelible image of witches that endures to this day. But for writer-director Joel Coen's interpretation of the play, renowned British stage actor Kathryn Hunter wanted to stay away from anything that felt like Halloween.
"We did want to avoid pointy noses and things," she tells EW. "There was lots of trial and error. 'Oh, she lives on the battlefield, maybe the other witches are dead bodies,' or things like that. It evolved. Then, there was the idea that I would be the center, and there would be two doubles to whom I would teach a kind of choreography or a physical shape. But then we left that idea. Then, 'Okay, you're all three, and you're like possessed by another two characters.'"
Hunter gives a striking and truly terrifying performance as, yes, all three witches in the latest adaptation of Shakespeare's most supernatural work. Her eerie hand of fate draws Macbeth (Denzel Washington), his wife (Frances McDormand), and all of the Scottish nobility into a twisted tale of murder, ambition, and revenge.
Ahead of the film's Jan. 14 debut on AppleTV+, we called up Hunter to get the story behind her bird-like take on the witches, how powerful she believes them to be, and what it was like having Washington as a scene partner.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this project come your way? Did director Joel Coen reach out to you?
KATHRYN HUNTER: I've known Joel and Fran for about 30 years and they came to see many theater shows that I was in. Then, finally, an email arrived in the inbox from Joel saying, "Hey, I'm doing The Tragedy of Macbeth, would you be interested in playing the witches?" to which there was only one answer, of course.
The witches have been interpreted in so many ways over the centuries. For yourself and in conversations with Joel, how did you arrive at this shape-shifting version where you're one entity but three voices who can split into all these beings?
So Joel said all three witches, and my immediate response was, "Of course, and how do we do that, Joel? "We'll figure it out," he said. The whole process was evolving ideas and collaboration, which was so exciting.
You've done a lot of Shakespeare. What were your previous experiences with Macbeth and the witches?
A million years ago, I did play Lady M in a kind of avant-garde production where, I remember, in the sleepwalking scene, I was walking on pillows. It was very short-lived. That experience in the theater, because it was so short, there was very little time to explore the language. It was so thrilling how Joel and Fran really explored the language. Joel's vision is unique, and he's created his own world and language, which one hasn't seen in theater productions or film productions. But it does, by stripping away, let the language live, which is an incredible thing and a wonderful thing to do.
Does your work start in the body or with the text?
There's this strange kind of dichotomy: are you a physical actor or a text actor? They go hand-in-hand. The text informs the physical, and then the physical informs the text. But where I was so lucky, Joel being the genius that he is, [he gave me] his image of the witches. First of all, I said, "Are they real or are they in Macbeth's mind?" and Joel said, "Both." Then he said, "I think they're like crows or standing stones or women. Sometimes they're crows; sometimes they're like standing stones, sometimes they're women." That's a gift for any actor to have a director give you those images, so off I went with these provocations. She's a woman who lives on the battlefield where there are crows, and she embodies the crows. They are her companions. Then the idea of playing the three, there is a kind of possessed-ness, so that did require a different body shape or different vocal inflections.
As the witches, you do this amazing contortion with your body, especially in the first scene. How did you hone in on what worked best there?
It's funny because people are talking about contortion, but I never thought about contortion. I just thought "bird" and let my arms do what they wanted to. And then, a shifting from one persona to another means that your body has to change as well. Working on it, I developed a little sequence, and then she makes the spell. I looked a lot online for — people do do spells now, and there's a lot of circular movements — and just picking up things from research as well, and a sequence of movements evolved. And then Joel saying, "Yeah, that works, less of that, more of that, be the crow here." Creating it together and Fran going, "Which persona was that? Maybe try the other voice." It was very much working in collaboration.
How did you figure out which voice made the most sense for each witch?
In my head, I created three different characters. One was quite young. One was middle-aged and a little wry and ironical. And the other was older, gruffer, and angrier, and more aggressive toward Macbeth. They had different qualities in their voices.
How did you make sense of who the witches were and where their power was coming from?
Shakespeare is clearly referencing the three Fates in Greek mythology. In this time, they had the Anglo-Saxon frame of witches. But the subtextual reference is the three Fates. And the Fates, they are quite riddling. They present riddles. When Macbeth says to them, "How now you secret black and midnight hags? What is it you do?" and they say, "A deed without a name." This deed without a name I took to be, not to curse him, not to damn him, but to test him. To confront him with himself. On a psychological level, they are himself, his darkest, inner self. On another level, they are the threads of destiny saying, "Okay, you could go this way or that way, where do you want to go?" I believe there is a choice there. There is a choice, and that's what Shakespeare is interested in and that's what's interesting about us — is our choices.
Do you think Macbeth would reach his fate regardless of the witch's involvement? Do you see them as an evil spirit or merely a supernatural being whose impact is dependent on the person receiving their information?
It feels like we all have witches inside us, as it were. What's interesting about Macbeth is that if he were a hardened criminal or psychopath, he wouldn't have any compunctions, he wouldn't have those wonderful monologues, he wouldn't have scorpions in his mind, he would just get on with killing. What's extraordinary and what makes it so modern and so appealing for a modern audience to see is the psychology of somebody with a conscience. We're supposed to be talking about a world where people have lost their moral compass. They're not bad, they're not evil, they've just lost their moral compass. And so, murder becomes easier and second nature. As he says, blood will have blood. If you go down that road of killing, it will just go on and on and on.
Tell me more about filming that scene where you're in the rafters, and the floor turns into this cauldron. What was the reality of that on set?
The reality was that we filmed not at that great height. We might have done it if it hadn't been in COVID. We were in COVID conditions, and Joel had to shoot fast. Without COVID conditions, I maybe would've worn a harness and done the scene three times. But because Joel had to shoot fast, we did have doubles there, and I wasn't up at 20 feet, I was at 10 feet with a mattress in case I fell. Then, Denzel had to imagine I was up in the rafters and talk to me and then imagine he was seeing the figures in the water. What I think is genius with Joel's conception of that scene is that we've seen a lot of cauldrons, haven't we? For him to configure the cauldron as this water that rises up is very beautiful. They're not extravagant and weird choices, but Joel's choices are really extraordinary and captivating. We go deeper into Macbeth's mind, and it prepares us for when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane in the form of all those leaves blasting into the castle.
The witches in Macbeth, especially in this potion scene, play a large role in the broadest vision of how we see witches. Were there certain things you wanted to avoid or perhaps lean into keeping that in mind?
Again, it was following Joel's lead. I imagined the cauldron inside myself. That somehow, this prophecy had to be vomited up from deep inside. We didn't consciously think about it, but already Joel, by putting me in the rafters and not doing circles around a cauldron, had lept over the conventional motion.
You predominantly work with Denzel Washington on-screen throughout. What was the most effective thing he did as a screen partner?
I was amazed with Denzel. The way he speaks the verse feels like he's minted a new way of speaking Shakespeare's verse. He is so direct; it's like he's speaking his mother tongue. Whereas at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the U.K., it can get a little stentorian. Also, with Fran, there's this complete directness. It's wonderful that they're older than usual, so the whole sense of there's not much time left, what is our legacy? And the childlessness and the grief of that. And with the lightest of touches, they suggest a long-term relationship. They're consummate; I'm just in awe. What they've managed to do is marry their thoughts through the voice, so it's just fluid. People who might normally go, "Shakespeare, thanks, but no thanks," it'll be a gift. It's a great adaptation. I'm sure Shakespeare's nodding.
Why does Macbeth endure and remain something that can speak to an audience in 2022?
There are many reasons, but the big thing that comes out is nature. In a world that has lost its moral compass, nature goes awry. You could say, we've lost a bit of our moral compass, and maybe Shakespeare would say these floods, these forest fires, these rising temperatures, these viruses, this is man and nature not working together. Murder is a part of that. As a soldier, as a general, Macbeth is lauded for killing. "I unseamed him from the knaves to the chops." But when is killing legitimate ever? Shakespeare always goes back to a basic Christian faith, "Thou shalt not kill." As to why it's for now, it's to do with what do we believe in? Where do we live? And our relationship to nature. And then it's a very well-written thriller and enjoyable and funny and extraordinary. The deeper level is nature and our moral compass, and then it's a whacking great, brilliantly told story by Shakespeare and by Joel Coen.