Interview: The Tragedy of Macbeth’s Alex Hassell and Shakespeare’s Musicality

On the Bard, The Big Lebowski, and more!

Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is an angular and exquisitely architectural take on the Bard’s tale of jealousy, revenge, and betrayal. Along with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, there’s an impeccable ensemble of committed performances, each one providing a unique shade to this unique telling.

In particular, Alex Hassell’s portrayal of Ross is deliciously mercurial. He slides with precision between the various factions with almost supernatural skill. With a strong jawline and expressive eyes, Hassell injects a particular physicality to the role that is incredibly engaging, all while letting the dense language concerning the various machinations roll off his tongue with seemingly effortless ease.

Following roles in films such as George Clooney’s Coen-scripted Suburbicon and Gideon Raff’s recent Red Sea Diving Resort, as well as small screen appearances on numerous British shows and the recent Cowboy Bebop redux, he’s one of those fine actors who simply elevates whatever he’s in, no matter the scope of the role.

In Macbeth Hassell shines in scenes with some of the most powerful performers of our time. That’s no small feat and one well worth applauding. He is also the co-founder of The Factory Theatre Company, and has played numerous roles including Hal in Henry IV Part II and Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

We spoke to Hassell from his home in London about his deep love for Shakespeare and his enthusiasm for being able to bring this production to life.

Let’s begin by talking specifically about your character Ross. How does one find humanity and contemporaneity within the words of Shakespeare?

I guess it can only be contemporary because I live in a contemporary world and you are always the filter of your character and the words. It can be no other way. I don’t tend to think about what things might be saying about the world, if the play or the film isn’t set in the modern world. I’m not one of those actors that looks intentionally for things to say about the world–I just put myself into wherever that story is. In terms of making a personal connection to the words, that’s a really fascinating question. It’s unconscious and subconscious. I try to understand exactly what I’m saying, and this is such an obvious thing to say but it’s harder than it sounds with Shakespeare! [Laughs.] I look up almost every single word that I say, in dictionaries and in Shakespeare glossaries that cross-reference all of the usages of the playwright’s words. I try and get closer to what he might be meaning by those words, and then I work very rigorously with the iambic pentameter and the shape that gives you. That not only gets you much closer to a specific meaning about what you’re saying, but also the speed of your thoughts, the direction of your thoughts and the thought changes. I’m a fan of using that structure. All of those things together just get you to be more clear and specific about what you’re saying. Unconsciously, this all moves around your being and it starts to mean something to you.

There’s a musicality to Shakespeare which is difficult for many of us to get into. You come from an environment of very well-trained British actors who grow up with this and internalize this, but even still, we are listening to an instrumentation that is itself slightly distant. You have to internalize and not be simply be reading the sheet music, or words on the page, as it were.

To split hairs, I would say it’s slightly different. That is definitely part of the way of thinking about it. For me, rather than being a rhythm, I would say that the iambic pentameter is a pattern. Shakespeare is essentially underlining the important words. I don’t think he’s talking about the rhythm in which you should say them, because I think he wants you to sound like a human being.i It definitely shouldn’t be soporific in that kind of way. I think he’s merely saying these are the important words, or this thought moves out of the fog and this thought tumbles and crashes on top of another. And I think that is more about the speed of your thought and, potentially, the speed of your speech. The speed is elastic. Even though the pattern is fairly set, but it’s not necessarily about rhythm.

Joel Coen and Frances McDormand on the set of The Tragedy of Macbeth | Apple TV+

Here’s where I’m going with this. I believe a Coen brothers’ script, or in this case, a Joel Coen script, is equally as precise as that of the Bard.

I totally agree.

And the pre-built cadence is in many ways equally perfect. It has to be performed in a way as if it is coming out of your mouth, as if it was never on paper, with every “um” and “uh” intact.

I think that’s absolutely accurate.

And there’s that collision, and the magic of performance, making it feel human and present yet coming from something intricately pre-constructed. Can you talk about that, and working with Joel and working that all out?

I love that! I think you’re absolutely right. As much as I am incredibly grateful for this experience, I obviously would also really like to do a Coen-written script! Working with Joel was, obviously, completely amazing. Aside from being a world class visionary director with more experience almost than 10 directors put together, and being a fiercely intelligent and perceptive person, both in terms of the human condition and the psychology of actors (even though he claims not to know much about acting), he also is a very lovely, open, warm, encouraging human being. In the Venn diagram of amazing directors, he absolutely hits in the sweet spot for me. I am sort of crushing really hard on him as a director. [Laughs] I have to refrain from emailing him constantly and saying please let’s work together again, please.

We have to talk about the long sleeves, because I believe, this outfit and the Lebowski sweater (or “jumper”) are two of the most iconic knitwear ever in a Coen film. Where did this come from? It makes you so rigid and yet drapes so expressively. It’s amazing.

[Laughs.] If it becomes as iconic as the Dude’s, that would be really amazing! Mine would be difficult to bowl in, wouldn’t it? It all came from the costume designer, Mary Zophres. I believe that some of the discussion was about the ambiguity of Ross. Is he or isn’t he tied to the witches? The witches are really tied to birds, so there’s a kind of wing-like element to it. Also, while I don’t mean that he’s non-binary, he seems to be able to move in, to be reductive in my language, female and male aspects. He mirrors people that he’s with a lot–some of that costume is based on Lady Macbeth’s costume. Also, it has a kind of monastic quality to it, so there’s the idea that he might be communing with a higher thing, a confidant or consigliere in that costume. Then there’s a Rasputin-y element to it, where it’s snake-like in how it affected my performance. It’s very, very tight, and there’s a very small amount of movement for my legs in terms of stepping. It made me glide in a way that was very interesting, but then when I had to do something more physical, I had to hitch it up, which gave it another interesting aspect. In terms of the wings, it made me want to stand in certain ways. I got the sense that the pictorial impression shouldn’t be ignored in my performance, if you know what I mean. Joel and I talked a lot about trying to throw the audience off the scent of who Ross was and what he wanted and what his gender was and what his allegiances were. So I tried to change my physicality quite a lot through the film so that you didn’t quite know where he fit in whilst also being quite still and watchful. Basically, it was a huge gift and I’m very thankful to Mary for essentially doing most of the acting work by giving me such a great costume.

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth | AppleTV+

Let’s talk about working with this incredible ensemble, anchored by Washington and McDormand.

We were incredibly lucky to have three weeks of rehearsals together, which is very unusual on a film. Approaching language like this, it’s absolutely essential. But also, it meant that we got on the same page about the world that we were creating. There were some rehearsals where I and all of the British people were doing an American accent, and other rehearsals where the Americans were coming towards R.P., or received pronunciation as we would call it. Joel decided in the end that using our own voices, creating a non-naturalistic sort of world, was interesting. It meant we got to watch and be part of each other’s performances. Getting to see Denzel and Fran grappling with that stuff was absolutely fascinating. We all shared ideas about what the scenes were about or what lines were about and how to use the language. It was a massive gift to watch them on set. Their relaxation is something I’ve learned from the way that they comport themselves and carry themselves with the crew and everything.

You have you done Macbeth before, correct?

I’ve directed Macbeth before. I’ve done bits and bobs in it, but I haven’t played Macbeth himself yet. I’d very much like to, to any employers out there, but I’ve got some years left, I think.

I may be pushing too hard at this musicality again, because there’s such specific ways of actually doing this, that every single person who takes it finds new meaning in these words. You’ve directed Macbeth, and you have done these performances where you’re hearing these words that you’ve heard dozens of times, in a new way. And you have that moment as a performer where you’re thinking ‘these are 400-year-old words’ and yet suddenly they’re new for you as they’re coming back from a Frances, or a Denzel, or any other member of the cast.

I’d say that is one of the unique joys of doing Shakespeare: you hear it in a new way from other people. But you also get it out of your being in a new way every time. Somehow, the words are so dense and detailed, specific and complicated, and yet, endlessly open to interpretation and ambiguous that, more than any other script I’ve ever worked on, every single time you say it, it’s different. I’ve done 200 performances of certain Shakespeare plays, or near enough anyway, and if you’re available to it, it constantly surprises you, knocks you around, hits you emotionally in new ways. That is why I’m sort of addicted to it, and why actors and audiences are addicted to it. You can see a mirror to your own humanity because you hear it freshly each time. You can also see the humanity in the people performing it because it is not rigid. It deserves to be continually explored and mined and excavated and experienced afresh every time, including in this film. Each of our takes would be very different, even if not wildly. You’re treading through it in a new way every time and it’s an amazing, exhilarating feeling.

Again, I don’t have a better metaphor, it’s musicality. You think that there’s a rigidness of classical music in a way there’s not with jazz. But in some ways, the notes are the same, the words are the same, but it’s all of the shades and it’s the tones, the different moments where you’re emphasizing different things.

If you hear something like the “Rach Five”, the notes are the same, but the reason you want to listen to it again and again is the interpretation of the performer and his or her connection to this structure and foundation that is presented to you either in the words or in the music. You want it to pass through someone who is particularly capable of experiencing it, I would say. Someone who has the tools with which to be able to filter it in a way that not everyone can.

What’s your favourite Coen brothers film?

Oh, it changes. It’s like Shakespeare–every time I’m reading a Shakespeare play or watching it, that’s my favourite one. I’d say it’s the same with the Coen brothers. I’ve watched a bunch of them in preparation for this. I was really surprised by how much I’d forgotten how I loved A Serious Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There. I mean, they’re fantastic, but Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Raising Arizona.  It’s incredibly difficult, I can’t possibly say…

…Ok, it’s Raising Arizona [laughs].


Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is currently in select theatres and debuts on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14.