When filmmaker Joel Coen emailed Kathryn Hunter, an actress with deep roots in Shakespeare who has taken revolutionary turns playing the lead roles in the Bard’s King Lear and Timon of Athens, and asked if she would portray “the witches” — all three of them — in his adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth, she immediately said yes. “There were no two thoughts about it,” she says now on a Zoom from the U.K. It was only in rehearsal that she momentarily second-guessed her decision.
“I said to Joel, ‘There are three witches. How are we going to do that?'” she says in her deep-voiced English accent. “And he said, ‘Oh, we’ll figure it out.'”
Watching her scene-stealing turns onscreen, however, you would think she never had any doubts. Filmed in black and white, Coen’s Macbeth — available now on Apple+ — takes place in a dusky shadowland of bitter surrealism. Denzel Washington plays the murderous thane, while Frances McDormand portrays his bloodthirsty, sleepwalking wife, hellbent on Macbeth becoming King of Scotland. Hunter’s witches, or “the weird sisters,” as Macbeth dubs them, elevate the tension every time they’re on screen.
The veteran British actress pulls her leg over her shoulder in one scene, while giving Macbeth an ice-cold stare and delivering the prophecy that he would be king. In another, she emulates a crow, right down to the bird’s jerky head movements. When she recites the witches’ famous “Double, double, toil and trouble” incantation, she looks bizarre enough to have emerged herself from her own stew of eye of newt and toe of frog. For Coen’s Macbeth, she has conjured a performance of the witches (and, if you look closely in some scenes, an old man) that is captivating, eerie, and masterful. Hunter is a crucial part of Coen’s adaptation, one that even people who don’t know or like Shakespeare would enjoy.
For Hunter, who occasionally opens her eyes in her own uniquely spellbinding way, it was the research she did and the way Coen told the story that inspired her performance. “It’s a thriller and you go inside it,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Joel’s storytelling is so brilliant that you really are on the edge of your seat.”
How did you approach playing all three witches?
We began a process of exploration of how to do three. At first there was an idea that I would have two doubles to whom I would teach my physicality, and then Joel said, “OK, let’s make it one, and maybe you’re possessed by two in the persona.” He also said that his vision for the witches was that they were like crows or standing stones that have been there and witnessed so many things. But they’re also women, and they go between these three forms.
I went away and explored crows and standing stones and women who live on the outskirts of society. I felt like they were outsiders but had natural knowledge, while also thinking about Shakespeare and that he’s obviously referencing the fates from Greek mythology. Then before rehearsals started, I was doing explorations on the kitchen table with my husband filming me being a crow, in this position and that position, and sending them to Joel. And then we met in London one time very early on. It was a good sign when Joel got out his camera and started going, “Yeah, I’m interested in that.” Fran [McDormand, Coen’s wife] was also contributing to the process as well. So it was exciting to work in a collaborative way.
What impressed you about Joel’s interpretation of Macbeth?
Joel showed me some mood boards early on. What I loved was that it wasn’t set in Scotland. It’s shot in black and white, very stark, very kind of architectural spaces that seem to mirror the architecture of the mind in a way because I think Macbeth is a journey of the mind.
With Shakespeare, including the plays I’ve directed, I always feel that when you go into naturalism or trying to make it contemporary, like setting it in New York or something, it works for a while — but actually it becomes more distant. I think what Joel’s done is brought out the tale, so it has a mythic quality, an epic quality, but at the same time because he’s such a brilliant director, he’s hopefully gotten from us performances that are very true. I mean, obviously with the giants of screen that are Frances McDormand and Denzel that truth was immediately available.
What did you like about taking it out of Scotland specifically?
The story becomes more accessible the less realistic it is. There’s a man called Edward Gordon Craig, who kind of broke the mold in theater and scenery. Craig said that we ruined Shakespeare when we try and make it naturalistic. The nearer it comes to dream and music, the nearer we are to Shakespeare, and I think that Joel has delivered that as well.
How did you and Denzel work off of each other while filming?
Denzel told me about somebody in his life who made a prophecy about him. There was this sense that this idea of prophecy was very real to him and not something odd. So it was fantastic to know that story when I spoke to him as the witch, knowing that it landed in a psyche that actually kind of believes in curses and blessings. Knowing that, I then consulted a woman who identifies as a modern-day witch — a good one. I asked her to teach me a little ritual to protect Denzel so because there’s so many superstitions around doing the play. So I would do this ritual in my trailer or in my hotel room to protect Denzel and the company, and then Covid struck. I thought, “Oh, it didn’t work.” But then we got back together again and I thought, “Oh, it did work.”
What else did you learn from studying real-life witchery?
It’s about the power of thought. We develop technologies like iPhones, but we have amazing technologies and powers inside of us, and I think that’s what makes playing a witch interesting. You get into the mind of somebody else. Or it feels like the witches are confronting Macbeth kind of knowing what’s in his mind and they’re saying, “Is this what you’re thinking? I think it is. Do you want to follow it through or are there other choices?” That’s very interesting and takes it away from pointy nose-y witches and makes it hopefully a more intimate relationship.
How did you develop the physicality of the role?
Kind of trial and error, because I didn’t want to do choreography. I did do lots and lots of research, and sometimes Joel would say, “Oh, that’s a bit dance-y.” It’s like cooking in a way. You say, “OK, I’ve got carrots, beans, spinach, and some turmeric. Let’s see what we can do.” So the elements were crows, standing stones, and women who are outsiders. You explore all of those and then it’s what happens in the moment with your playing partner — with Denzel — in the space.
When you have to say a line that’s so iconic, like “Double, double, toil and trouble,” do you stumble on that, knowing people expect it? Or is that something that just comes to you in the moment?
I remember speaking to Mark Rylance about playing Hamlet and [when] he would come to “To be or not to be,” he’d become nauseous because you could feel the audience going, “And now how is he going to deliver that?”
The important thing is, if you’re in the moment in this situation, you go, “Well, why am I saying that?” Or “What do I want to achieve? How am I going to affect the other person?” [In the plot] Macbeth has just asked to be told the future so, for me, the witches in that moment need to summon the Masters. It’s a point of instruction which was directed inwards rather than on to a cauldron, because Joel said we’re not having a cauldron. So the “Double, double, toil and trouble” line was about churning up something internal in order to surface these visions of the future. So if you get rooted in the practicality of the scene, it takes the emphasis off doing a famous line.
Many actors consider Macbeth a cursed play and won’t even say the name of the play in a theater, calling it “the Scottish Play” out of fear of bad things happening. How did the cast and crew treat it?
I think American actors bring less of that. We didn’t get have an “Oh, we can’t say that” rule. But you know, in this country, we say, “the Scottish Play” and all that. I thought, “Just be safe.” And it felt right to [say the Scottish Play]. So I did do it.
How do you feel Macbeth relates to the world today?
I think for us today, when nature is out of control and those themes that Shakespeare brings up about us losing our moral compasses are very vivid, this story is present.