The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Macbeth.
When an actor does Macbeth on stage, they get to experience the character straight through. How was it playing it in a film?
It’s just a normal thing, really. It’s such a rare opportunity to do something in chronological order when filming; it just never really happens. I just spent so much time with the script by myself before coming to rehearsals. I always think filming is, as opposed to being on stage, it’s a little like carpentry. You build a little piece of the table; that’s going to join up with another piece of the table over here. But they’re done individually. And then at the end the editor puts the table together. Having that timeline through rehearsing it by myself and realizing where he’s at at this point, those things are really kind of clear, or need to be made clear, rather. It’s just a normal way of filming. Meeting up with soldiers for example was a big help. I was very grateful to one gentleman who came to see us who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s why Macbeth really loses his mind in the banquet scene, because these guys are soldiers. You can have a wife, and you can have an ex-wife, you can marry again. But your brothers that you fight with, or your sisters that you fight with in war, they’re not interchangeable. To kill one of your comrades that you go to battle with is like the absolute no-no. You cross a line there that is beyond forgiveness or redemption. So all these components, I had to make sure I had them in place.
“She has this amazing strength and fragility in the same beat of an eyelash”
What aspects of the story were changed, or how did you act differently to appeal to a younger audience that might not have read Macbeth?
I think dealing with the language in a sort of way, a lot of the times with Shakespeare, to live with it, it’s very externalized. Of course the language—it’s all about the language. You obey it in order to understand the character’s psyche and journey. It displays it for you through the rhythm of the language. But we wanted to keep it, I found myself when I was a teenager, and for me the most important thing for this was to get fifteen year olds into seeing it, and go, “Wow, Shakespeare, I didn’t see it like that. It’s actually quite accessible to me.” So start with the language to make it a lot more intimate, and film gives you the great benefit of doing that. Obviously you can’t do that in a theater with 1,200 people all there. But you can do it on film, and you can keep it quite intimate, and the delivery of the language can be quite intimate. I just tried to get it to a way that it doesn’t seem like a foreign language. Sometimes for a fifteen year old reading the text, there can be a block just because the language seems so alien and so far removed from today. But by keeping it more intimate and simple in a way, like a stream of consciousness approach, hopefully it’s easier for them to understand.
Did you know Marion Cotillard before?
I had met her very briefly at these sorts of events, but no, I hadn’t had a conversation with her. I just told her I was a fan of her work and think she’s just an amazing actor. She does so much by appearing to do nothing. She has this amazing strength and fragility in the same beat of an eyelash. She’s very generous partner to work with, very easy to work with. I don’t like to talk too much, with either director or actor, before doing the scene. I always think it’s a way of preventing yourself from going and doing it. It’s like, I’m a bit scared, so I’ll talk, rather than just going and going through things and trying, throwing things out. She just picks up the ball and she runs with it, like that scene—the scorpion scene. I put my hand underneath her dress; I didn’t tell her I was going to do that, and she took it and she went with it and then she kisses me and then pulls away. She’s got this sort of repulsion, and then she reengages, and she’s like, “I love this man, I feel him, he’s sick.” All these things are happening on her face. That’s when you realize you’re in the presence of somebody great. I knew when she came on board I was just so happy, I knew she would nail it. And she brings this sort of royal quality. I love the idea that he’s more rough, sort of from the gutter-type character, and she’s regal, she’s got royal blood. It’s the dichotomy between them. It’s pretty cool.
What is it about Shakespeare that makes it still so important to people today?
Well obviously there is the language to begin with, but I think actually at the core of it is the story of human beings. Jeff Daniels talks about how his character in Steve Jobs was like a Shakespearian character, and the fall of a Shakespearian character, and there you see it. It’s kind of like the Bible. We keep doing the same stories because the same stories are there. Seneca influences Shakespeare, and these sort of classic tales of human tragedy and human conflicts. The classic things like ambition—how does it affect us as human beings, and when it takes over it’s like a disease, and what it does to these characters. So I think it’s basically just these human stories that are sort of heightened versions of human wants, needs, and conflicts that we keep returning to. If it’s not Shakespeare, it’s taken from him. Somebody’s writing something that’s influenced by him. West Side Story. These stories sort of live on because they’re classic, human stories.