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Despite heading into a night shoot half a world away in Malta, Corey Hawkins is energized when he talks about The Tragedy of Macbeth and its Sept. 24 premiere at the New York Film Festival. A William Shakespeare adaptation by way of Joel Coen, Macbeth sees Hawkins, whose star has been steadily on the rise with credits in Straight Outta Compton, BlacKkKlansman and In the Heights, working opposite onscreen titans Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.
The actor spoke to THR about landing the role of the film’s main antagonist, Macduff, and sharing his first scene with a particularly ornery horse.
Had you had experiences with Macbeth before?
At the beginning of my third year at Juilliard, we put up these Shakespeare pieces in class. I brought in Macbeth’s “Dagger” speech before Michael Kahn, who used to run the Shakespeare Theater in D.C., and I got it completely eviscerated in class. It was a hot mess. (Laughs.) It was all my fault. I brought it in completely unprepared. I didn’t rise to the occasion and I was like, “I never want that to happen.” I worked my ass off that entire year and eventually for our third-year show at Juilliard, in our repertory, I played Macbeth on the main stage. It’s crazy because New York Film Festival was happening [at the same time]. I remember looking out of the window, seeing New York Film Festival happening down below while working on Macbeth. I told Joel this, too, that it’s this full-circle moment to now be opening this festival at this time with this piece of cinema.
How did you find out you landed the part?
I got the call and obviously flipped out, but then there’s the dread. But that’s the fun part. It’s meeting yourself at that place and walking in prepared and ready to work. The roller coaster that we are on is: You want the role, and then you’re like, “Oh, shit. They gave me the role. What were they thinking?” (Laughs.)
Was there time for rehearsals?
I’ve known D [Washington] and his family, but I never worked with him. I was around for a costume fitting, and [the costumers were] like, “Everybody’s over at the rehearsal hall. How would you feel walking over and just saying what’s up?” Denzel, Frances and Joel were there. We rehearsed in this huge room where they used to paint all the backdrops on the Warner Bros. lot for all the old films. It was this magical beat-up wood floor that just felt like we were rehearsing for a play. D says, “What’s up?” and we’re talking, and then he’s like, “You ready?” And I’m like, “Yeah. I’m ready to rehearse when we come in for rehearsal in a few weeks.” And he was like, “Nah, let’s get started.” I literally picked up my script and he just starts going with text and then I hop on the train.
How was that first day on set?
[Joel’s] sets are so well run. Everything is planned out and everybody comes prepared because you have to be. Everybody comes ready to work, and then it feels like the only person who could up fuck it up is you. So, it’s my first day, I’m speaking Shakespeare, I’m in period clothing, Denzel showed up, Fran was there, and my first scene was on a horse. It became a bit of a comedy of errors. Like the horse would not stay on his mark and I’m confused why the horse is moving. It was a good way to break the ice. Every day after that it was just something different and something unique. I could just watch [Joel] work and direct these incredible actors, and watch them make mistakes and be bold. These are people who have every accolade and they are still pushing.
What did you learn from the experience?
Denzel always says, “Trust the pilot.” If you’re going to get on board with a project, trust the people you’re working with. And I wasn’t the only one sitting back and watching. I’d see Denzel or Frances watching with me. It’s silly, but you pinch yourself. This is the Olympics of moviemaking.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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