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Corey Hawkins on playing Lord Macduff, the Thane of Fife, in 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Joel Coen's film of "The Tragedy Of Macbeth" is told in black and white and a landscape of grays in a haze of smoke, clouds and ravens. Denzel Washington is the Scottish general who becomes king through his own hand. Frances McDormand is his spouse, who, as we might put it these days, is Macbeth's enabler. Brendan Gleeson appears briefly. Let's not provide any spoilers after five centuries. And Corey Hawkins is Lord Macduff, the Thane of Fife, who discovers the corpse of the murdered king.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

COREY HAWKINS: (As Macduff) Awake. Awake. Ring the alarm bell - murder and treason. As from your graves, rise up, and walk like sprites. To countenance this horror.

SIMON: Now that's a wake-up call. And Corey Hawkins has also been seen in "The Walking Dead," "BlacKkKlansman," as Dr. Dre in "Straight Outta Compton," and got a Tony nomination for his acting in "Six Degrees Of Separation" - joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

HAWKINS: It's good to be here. How you doing?

SIMON: Fine, thank you. Well, but I didn't discover the body of the King of Scotland, now did I? - the slain King of Scotland. Is the moral landscape as gray as the film sometimes?

HAWKINS: I think so. You know, it's interesting because, for me, Macduff sort of represents morality and all that is sort of good and virtuous in that world. It isn't always black and white. There is a bit of gray, certainly, in Shakespeare.

SIMON: What did you want to put into Macduff?

HAWKINS: I - you know, it's interesting because a lot of people think about - especially as actors, we enjoy playing the villains because they are so much fun, and (laughter) you get to go into the mind and understand how they are and why they are and how they think. But with Macduff, it was just a joy because it was an opportunity to bring a little bit of that goodness, a little bit of the antithesis to evil. And it was, I think, necessary for me to kind of - you know, just for my own sake (laughter). You know, I just wish I had some of the - as many of the qualities that Macduff has, you know?

SIMON: You are an accomplished Shakespearean. You received the John Houseman Award for excellence in classical theater at Juilliard, made your Broadway debut as Tybalt...

HAWKINS: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: ..."Romeo And Juliet." I was Mercutio, by the way.

HAWKINS: Oh, really? (Laughter) OK.

SIMON: Yeah, yeah. Did you kill me? I'm trying to remember.

HAWKINS: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: Yes. Yeah, yeah. Right. It...

HAWKINS: Took you out.

SIMON: You're the guy.

HAWKINS: (Laughter).

SIMON: That was...

HAWKINS: That was me all along (laughter).

SIMON: Yes. Yeah. No.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Now it's coming back. Right - call for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I made jokes until the end. What does Shakespeare give an actor?

HAWKINS: It gives an actor facility. It gives you flexibility. And it also sort of trains, I think, the imagination. It allows you to sort of go places that you don't necessarily get to go with modern-day sort of - you know, the scripts that float around people's desks in Hollywood these days. So I'm fortunate enough any time someone talks about Shakespeare. It's a blessing to be able to dive into it and crack it open.

SIMON: One of the many lines that can strike you as newly resonant in these times is, I guess, what Shakespeare calls the insane route that takes reason as a prisoner.

HAWKINS: Mmm.

SIMON: I just found that an especially resonant line with all that we're dealing with now. I wonder how you felt about it.

HAWKINS: Well, it is interesting when reason becomes prisoner. You know, we sort of get locked into what's in front of us instead of sort of looking at the bigger picture. Ambition - everything sort of falls by the wayside, and you're sort of chasing after one thing without realizing the damage that's being caused around you and the hurricane that you're causing because you are in the sort of eye of the storm, I guess. And you'll be sort of moving, and everything else around you is a bit of a hurricane. I sort of think that's what happens to Macbeth on this downward glide to destruction.

SIMON: Mmm hmm. I have to tell you, as someone who is fortunate enough to interview a lot of actors...

HAWKINS: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: ...It is great to finally see a great American actor play a classic British role 'cause I'm - I got to tell you, I'm a little sensitive about all these great British actors playing Abe Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Superman, you know, cowpokes. It's about time we got a little skin in the game ourselves, we Americans.

HAWKINS: (Laughter) I mean, listen; I think - a lot of those actors are just great actors. And a lot of them, I'm fans of. And it's just - it's always fun to be able to stretch yourself. So look; if I can go play a British role, then I will. If I can - you know what I mean? And they should be able to come and do the same. You know what I mean? If they're good, if they do the job right, then, you know, give them the opportunity. But yeah, I kind of feel you a little bit on that (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. I - they're great actors. It's appalling. But, I mean, every now and then, I think, you know, come on now.

HAWKINS: Come on (laughter).

SIMON: How do you see Macduff in the end? Is he a man who is roused by his conscience? Or do you worry what he'll do to himself?

HAWKINS: It's a tough one to think about. Macbeth takes away everything from Macduff - worst of all his family. But Macbeth also takes away the love that Macduff has for Macbeth. The idea that ambition and drive and the pursuit of the things that you desire - he turns it all ill. He turns it all bad for Macduff. And I like to think of them as two sides of the same coin in that Macduff could easily become Macbeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

HAWKINS: (As Macduff) Despair thy charm. And let the angel whom thou hast served tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) Accursed be that tongue that tells me so. I will not fight with thee.

HAWKINS: (As Macduff) Then yield thee, coward.

WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) I will not yield.

HAWKINS: He has such goodness in him. I mean, even to the very end, he blames himself. He doesn't blame Macbeth. He blames himself. He blames the world. He asks him if he wants to surrender. And Macbeth, you know, chooses not to. So he gives him a choice again at the very end after everything that he's done to him. And I think that's really sort of telling about who he is. And so maybe there is hope. Maybe there is a man who can carry on when everything he knows and loves has been taken away from him. I like to think that's the case.

SIMON: Yeah. Corey Hawkins is Macduff in "The Tragedy Of Macbeth," in theaters and on Apple TV+ now. Thank you so much for being with us.

HAWKINS: It's a pleasure - absolute pleasure.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this segment, Scott Simon references Shakespeare having written about "the insane route that takes reason as a prisoner." The actual quote uses the word "root." ]

(SOUNDBITE OF CARTER BURWELL'S "THE END OF MACBETH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 15, 2022 at 7:00 PM HST
In the audio of this segment, Scott Simon references Shakespeare having written about "the insane route that takes reason as a prisoner." The actual quote uses the word "root."
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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