In November, when The New York Times published its list of “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far),” A. O. Scott said he and his fellow critics argued about every spot on the list but the top one: “Denzel Washington is beyond category,” he wrote, “a screen titan who is also a subtle and sensitive craftsman, with serious old-school stage training and blazing movie-star presence.”
All of those attributes are on display in The Tragedy of Macbeth, director Joel Coen’s bewitching, nightmarish film adaptation of Shakespeare’s proto-psychological crime thriller with Washington in the title role.
The film, shot in black and white on stark, expressionistic sets, casts a spell from the start: We hear the rustling wings of three black birds as they ascend and “hover through the fog and filthy air” of medieval Scotland. Washington’s Macbeth, a war hero, emerges from the fog and, emboldened by a witch’s prophecy, colludes with his wife (played by fellow Academy Award winner Frances McDormand) to assassinate King Duncan and claim the throne.
The film, to be released in theaters on Christmas Day and via AppleTV+ in mid-January, had its premiere across the street from Fordham, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, during the 59th New York Film Festival in September. At a press conference following the screening, Washington, a 1977 graduate of Fordham College at Lincoln Center, reflected on his Fordham roots.
“This is a fascinating journey for me,” he said. “I went to school a thousand feet from here and played Othello at 20.”
It’s a theme that came up again on December 15, when Washington was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Right away, the host prompted the actor by sharing a picture of him in his first big role: the title character in a fall 1975 Fordham Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.
“I was a junior. I thought I was supposed to act mean and be serious,” Washington said.
“Do you have any advice for this kid right here, because he seems pretty confident already?” Colbert asked.
“Ignorance is bliss,” Washington replied, smiling. “That was the first leading role I ever played, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I would go out and peek and look at the audience, you know, count [the people], see if my mom was out there.”
Washington’s mother, who died earlier this year at age 97, was indeed there, he added. “Every night.”
Colbert then listed several of the Shakespeare plays in which Washington has been seen on stage and screen, including a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Coriolanus (1979), the film Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and a Broadway production of Julius Caesar (2005), and asked him how he prepared for his first experience with the Bard.
“After I did The Emperor Jones, I played Othello at Fordham University as well,” Washington said. “At the Lincoln Center library, they had records of the plays, so they had Olivier’s Othello. … I put the headphones on, ‘Oh, my lord,’” he said in a comically high-pitched theatrical voice, to laughter from the audience. “I was like, ‘OK, I’ll sing it like this and make it happen, and people seemed to like it.”