Alex Hassell on Joel Coen’s ‘Tragedy of Macbeth’

We are both sitting in front of our laptops, contemplating why we’re not having this conversation face to face. Then we look outside, and there is that classic London torrential rain scenario. So, we sort of nod. Alex Hassell’s resumé is admirable and, with so many performances to discuss, we settle on Joel Coen’s new film, Tragedy of Macbeth, where he plays Ross alongside a few recognisable names such as Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington. Hassell prefers to be called just an actor, although his career began in theatre and eventually extended into film and TV. Tragedy of Macbeth satisfies his love for both mediums, as it has the best of theatre and film. We can call it a theatrical-cinematic chef-d’oeuvre, something Shakespeare would acknowledge, should he be part of the audience today.

FRONTRUNNER sat down with Alex Hassell to discuss Shakespeare’s everlasting timelessness, how not all actors are infantile and may very well be capable of tying their shoelaces and why greed was so important in the 1600s and still is very much so today. 

Congratulations on Tragedy of Macbeth. The film is a feast for all the senses and a sweet spot between theatre and film. How did the role find you?

Alex Hassell at the Closing Night Gala of the BFI London Film Festival 2021
Courtesy of Apple

Ellen Chenoweth, who casts most of the Coen Brothers’ films, played a major role in it. I was in a play, Henry V and as you want your agent to do, they invite casting directors to come to see you. She came to see me and then cast me in a George Clooney’s, Suburbicon (2017). We built a relationship from there. Over the years, she put me forward for roles that I did not get and one of those was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), which was the Coens’ film before Hail, Caesar! (2016). I’m not convinced that they remembered me. Joel says he did but…I was filming a Netflix show called Cowboy Bebop in New Zealand and I still had five months left. John Cho, the lead, ruptured his ACL and production was shut down. I phoned my agents in a bit of a state, and they said “Oh, such bad news but we’ll phone you back in 10 minutes.” I was suddenly sent the script, prepared on the plane, and made a tape for both characters, Banquo and Ross the day I landed. I didn’t have the whole script, so I had no idea that Ross’ character was different from the play that I know very well. When I received the whole script, I realised what Joel has done to Ross’ character. Playing Ross was a mixture of Ellen’s persistency, Joel’s trust in her, and hopefully they saw what they were interested in the tape. Since then, I have thanked John Cho for rupturing his ACL. It was an absolute dream job for someone who loves and knows Shakespeare so well. I will forever feel grateful for the opportunity. 

Your background is in theatre, but we see you frequently onscreen. How do you tackle the shift? In film, you have more opportunities to perfect the scene whereas in theatre, you act in the moment.

We had three weeks of rehearsals, which by theatre standards to do Macbeth is very short, but by film standards to do any preparation is a lot. We felt like a company, which is unusual in film. We heard each other, explored, swapped parts when not everyone was present, tried accents, and blocked some scenes. Personally, it was useful to overcome the fear of being crap in front of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. For Joel and I, the rehearsals were also helpful because we did not know how Ross was going to work. I am geeky about the iambic pentameter, the verse pattern. That’s a large part of my preparation for doing Shakespeare in theatre. I would look up every single word that I say to work out what exactly it means, because the definitions have changed in modern English. One of the challenges for me was to do all that rigorous technical work without being caught on camera. All that work is there for you on stage because Shakespeare was writing for a time when the theatre would be incredibly loud and ruckus. So his language had to be direct. With the camera in your face, I didn’t want to be caught doing the work. I loved the technical challenge. The aim was to not be theatrical. Denzel is incredibly internalised, subtle, and naturalistic in his performance, which took my breath away. There are lots of other styles and approaches to verse which is a fascinating blend. What I love about the film is that it’s cinematic in terms of images, transitions between scenes, sound effects, the music, and the close-ups, but it is also theatrical as it’s all on sound stages. The sets are non-naturalistic, and the costumes are detailed, but not specific to a particular era. Joel seems to have set it in the history of film that’s exciting. He plays with Ingmar Bergman and Neo-expressionism. He set the film in a unique, timeless, and familiar place. 

American and European actors work differently in the industry. When your co-actors are from different backgrounds and training how do you find the common denominator and the mutual voice to achieve what’s desired?

In this context, it was slightly different because most actors have history and experience with Shakespeare and theatre. It meant that they were coming from a similar place. So the lines, the words, and the dialogue is where you start and work backwards from there. In incredibly broad terms, it’s more of a British way of approaching acting. Our history of acting is based on theatre rather than film. It’s fascinating to work with people where theatre has never been a part of their lives, or their way of thinking about acting. I think they’re both valid. The method and idea of American acting, which is more emotional and is more about your inner psychology, might be what creates this difference. It’s also about understanding how to be on a set, giving yourself room, and even working out the hierarchy. I’m not a fan when I’m called a theatre actor because I just think that I am an actor who’s done a lot of theatre, now I’m doing more TV and film. 

Yes, just simply an actor. 

I am just an actor, but I had to learn how to apply theatrical acting on camera. I enjoy trying to feel as uninhibited in the process of filmmaking as I do on stage. 

You mentioned that you do not read reviews.

When I am on stage I don’t. As a rule. I might when the production is over. The reason is that if they are horrible about you, that’s not going to feel great, but even if it’s positive news, they tend to describe qualities that they perceive [from] your performance. Or moments that they believe are particularly important. I think that’s just as detrimental because then you start to think “Oh, I’m playing this quality or maybe I should do it more because people like it.” I try to stay alive and responsive and be available to change it all within the parameters of the production we have set up.

Alex Hassell at The Photography Foundation

You have a desire for the unexpected to happen.

Yes, I also attempt to be rigorous with myself about why I am doing it. Of course, I have an ego and certainly I want people to think I am brilliant, but if I don’t allow myself to look at reviews then it is more about what does it feel like is happening between me and a person in the audience in the now. That’s a more useful focus. 

Having worked as an assistant director (AD), I can safely say that not everyone, but many people approach actors with a certain preconception that they need to be babysat. I am against this stereotype, and I feel the industry fuels it by suggesting that an actor can’t even walk up the stairs without help. I’m exaggerating of course, but where do you think is the fault in the system?

I think about that a lot. It frustrates me. I like to be involved in the process as much as I am allowed, so I like to know what’s going on and be included in making choices. I’m there to work and that’s what I am most interested in. As you say, the whole process is predicated on the infantilism of the actor and the lowest common denominator in terms of behavior. My theory is that it’s just to do with money and time. I imagine there have been enough actors that have fucked everything up financially because they are like children, prima donnas, narcissistic or disorganised. Therefore, it’s safer and cheaper to assume that all actors will be the same and we are lucky if they are not. I find it difficult because I can tie my own laces, I can do my buttons up, I would like to wander over there for 5 minutes and I will be around when you need me, but I would rather not be watched constantly. I like to be good at my job, respectful, professional, and responsible, but I understand that acting is a weird job. It requires a certain amount of childlikeness, playfulness, emotional availability, and an imaginative nature. For many people, that doesn’t go in hand with timekeeping and being able to remember that you must pay attention to other things. I met actors who are very nice, but they are miles away. 

Yes, but it’s taken to another level. 

A good thing about a theatre background is that you get paid absolute shit. You usually start at the Fringe with tiny, freezing dressing rooms. You have got to do everything yourself. It’s about the love of doing it and not about the financial reward. So, I think that I am a piece of shit, but I love what I’m doing and that may count one day. Whereas if you come from film, especially if you have been paid a lot of money and you’ve been on big sets, then you will think, “I’m great, aren’t I? I must be special because everyone treats me special.” A brilliant thing I was told when I was young is: a common misconception that you are put in a nice hotel, driven everywhere, given a trailer, chairs, water, and tea is because you are special. That’s what you can mistakenly think. But it’s not because you are special, it’s because you are an idiot. They need to put you up in a nice hotel so that you don’t moan all the time, you need a nice bed so you can sleep, you need a car to pick you up so that you are not late or get lost, you need a chair so that they know where you are and don’t fall over, you need water so that you don’t get dehydrated, but you are too stupid to think about that. Thinking about it this way keeps you down to earth.

Macbeth is never dated material and the story constantly brings new messages across. We see mental illness, vulnerability, greed, society’s pressure, failure all under one roof and I am curious if you think Tragedy of Macbeth could inspire, teach, or open eyes to new and important messages?

What is utterly amazing about Shakespeare is that there is always so much in his plays to think about or reflect upon. In terms of Joel, he is direct about not trying to put messages in his films. He doesn’t think like that. He thinks about what he feels is the right thing to do and that’s it.

https://youtu.be/ptqe7s6pO7g

What an instinct to have. It’s like a sixth sense. 

It’s incredible. I think he purely thought dramaturgically and about tension, but the film still discusses power, manipulation, sociopathic and emotional disconnection. However, I am sure that Joel isn’t trying to say something. 

Let’s circle back to the topic of greed. It’s an important theme in the film. Not only there, but in the entertainment industry, too. Just like Macbeth, we always want more and are never happy with what we, in the present moment, have. How did this become such a deep-rooted problem and how come it was and still is so apparent since at least the 17th century?

Definitely. It’s always timely and I can look around and see people with slipping morals or ignore them because they want things and everything for themselves. Once you have broken that bond you keep going further. That is a story that’s appropriate. 

How far can an actor go when experimenting on stage or set with the material, especially when there are co-actors present? How can you express your creativity without disadvantaging production, being selfish, and stepping on others’ toes?

I love this question. It’s great. I run a theatre company, The Factory. I’m the artistic director, so there are two different parts to that. One is that I’ve created the company with other people where we set strict rules. We talk about the rules of the game for each production and remain strict about playing that game. Within the game, anything is up for grabs, and you are attempting to surprise each other and yourself. There is no blocking or decisions made and we often swap parts and venues. It is absolutely about spontaneity and being in the moment. That’s how my acting has developed and then how do you do that in a different production like at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s about being respectful to other people, and you don’t want to hang them out to dry. If your way is not their way, then your expressive parameters become smaller or vice-versa. If you are the lead in the play, then you are given the space to do that. That doesn’t mean you can do whatever the fuck you want, but you are allowed to set the tone of the way of working. Hopefully, it works and becomes appealing to other actors. Actors love being on stage and rehearsals are often the most fun part because that’s when you are working it out and hopefully that can carry on afterward. 

The Factory seems it’s a place for you to make a change. Does your company play a big part in creating a safe space for actors in the? A space where you encourage people to grow, explore, experiment, and build confidence.

That’s exactly the goal. One of the main reasons we set it up is that before you enter the industry you acted because you enjoyed it. As soon as you work in the industry you are only allowed to do something when someone says you can do it. It takes away the ownership of your own craft. For us, it was about allowing acting to have a space outside of the industry and all the permissions. The directors are more like coaches, and they are trying to get everyone to play the games to the best of their ability. That means the actors must believe in their own abilities and skills without being told what and how to do it. We also wanted to build a community as it’s not always easy to be part of one and being supportive instead of competitive became key. It was important to act all the time and therefore grow and become good at it. However, allowing the possibility of failing also played a major part in building the company, which is why we have always kept the ticket prices at £10. We thought that was a good price because it meant that we could take massive risks. If it turned out terrible then it was just £10. Only by flirting with complete failure could we these moments of connection to one and another and the audience be born. Some incredible things happened and some of the best acting I have ever seen was by members of the company. 

I must go watch some plays. To end on a positive note, what’s the most inspiring comment or piece of feedback you have ever received?

Joel Coen’s belief in me as an actor is one. I don’t think that can ever be taken away from me. I feel incredibly validated by it. When I was playing Biff in the Death of a Salesman and coming out of the stage door after such an emotional play, I remember people and cast members needing to hold us. To be part of something that means something to people is all I want. 

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