Denzel Washington on the ‘fascinating journey’ to playing Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth” has generated some of the best reviews ever for Denzel Washington. The two-time Oscar winner and eight-time nominee plays Macbeth in the Joel Coen film, a role that Washington said completed a “fascinating journey” for him decades after graduating from Fordham University in 1977.

“I went to school a thousand feet from here and played Othello at 20, and I didn’t know what I was doing,” Washington joked at the New York Film Festival last month when “The Tragedy of Macbeth” had its world premiere. “I’m honored and fortunate that they said yes to me.”

Washington, who has appeared in multiple stage productions of William Shakespeare’s plays and also co-starred in the feature adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,” had discussed working with Coen years before. But as the director explained, when it came time to cast Macbeth, there was little conversation about who should have the role.

“I got together with him again for lunch in LA, and I said, what about doing Macbeth?” Coen told Deadline before the New York Film Festival debut. “And he was like, yeah, cool.”

Speaking at the festival itself, Frances McDormand, the film’s co-star and producer, said Washington was a match made for the part. “You don’t make lists for a generation’s Macbeth. One is born and then they play it,” she said.

“It’s the ultimate challenge, it’s the ultimate reward. It’s where I started and where I want to finish,” Washington said of the Shakespeare tragedy.

Washington is widely expected to receive a Best Actor nomination for “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” an honor which would make him the first Black actor to ever earn nine Academy Award nominations and just the sixth actor overall to reach the milestone. He has won two Oscars, one in the Best Supporting Actor category for “Glory” at the 1990 ceremony and then Best Actor for “Training Day” at the 2002 show. 

“Washington manages the near-impossible feat of delivering his lines as though he’s putting the words together in the moment, speaking some of the most famous sentences in the English language as though they’re actually being dredged up out of Macbeth’s roiling consciousness,” Alison Wilmore wrote in her review of the film for Vulture. For Indiewire, David Ehlrich called Washington’s work “one of the best performances of his career.”

Among Gold Derby experts, Washington is a slam dunk for a nomination at the 2022 Oscars and the top pick for five of the soothsayers. He still trails Will Smith for “King Richard” in the race at these early stages, but it would be hard to count Washington out: the last time these two faced off in a Best Actor race was 20 years ago when Washington won for “Training Day” and Smith was a nominee for “Ali.”

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