A version of this story about Kathryn Hunter first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
One of the most delightful surprise of awards season so far came in the New York Film Critics Circle’s supporting-actress category. In a hugely competitive field that included Kirsten Dunst from “The Power of the Dog,” Aunjanue Ellis from “King Richard,” Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno from “West Side Story” and Caitriona Balfe and Judi Dench from “Belfast,” the critics went for a little-known, 64-year-old stage actress named Kathryn Hunter, whose biggest film role has come in Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
The spookiness of Coen’s haunted, richly theatrical take on Shakespeare’s dark tragedy is helped enormously by veteran British stage actress Hunter, who plays the part of all three witches with an unnerving physicality that finds her contorting her body into strange, birdlike poses. In the film’s first trailer, the only voice you heard was hers, with a chilling recitation of one of the play’s immortal lines: “By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes.”
Hunter, whose best-known work has been in experimental theater productions in Great Britain and Off Broadway, plays all three of the witches who set Macbeth on a path to destruction by foreseeing his rise to become king. Productions and films typically distribute the roles among three actresses, but she takes them all, portraying the “weird sisters” as an unholy trinity — part women, part hallucination, part creatures from the darkness.
“I’ve known Joel and Frances (McDormand, who plays Lady Macbeth opposite Denzel Washington’s title character) for about 30 years, and working together was always on my dream list,” she said. “So when he emailed me and said, ‘Hey, Kathryn, maybe you’re not interested, but would you want to play the three witches?’ I immediately said, ‘Yeah!’”
Figuring that the three were really just one soul possessed by others, she prepared for the role by doing research into witchcraft, multiple personality disorders and the birdlike sounds made by a woman with Tourette’s syndrome she read about online. But the conception of the witches also came from conversations with Coen, who had some specific visual references in mind.
“I was reading about how, in King James’ time, there were outcast women who may have lived on battlefields seeing death all around them,” she said. “And Joel said, ‘That’s kind of like crows,’ and I thought, yeah, that makes sense — this crazed woman is a fellow creature to the crows. Joel also talked about standing stones, so I started mixing those images and trying to physicalize them, which was a wonderful journey.”
“Macbeth” is also one of Shakespeare’s most quotable plays, and many of its iconic lines are uttered by the witches: not just “something wicked this way comes,” but also “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble,” among others. The lines are instantly familiar, but Hunter’s job was to make them sound fresh.
“I guess I tried to approach them in the way I would totally unknown lines,” she said. “You think, ‘Why is this being said?’ and try not to be blocked by how well-known the line is. So with ‘double double,’ they have to conjure something up. So it’s as practical as making a list if you’re going shopping.”
Hunter’s physicality was perfected during years of stage work in companies like Complicité – whose ethos, she said with a laugh, was “If you ain’t got any bruises, you’re not fit to be a company member.” “I’m happy working physically,” said the actresses who has played a chimpanzee on stage, among other roles that require contortion. And while she’ll admit that the constant squatting could take its toll, she also looks back fondly at the shoot, with one of her favorite moments coming when they shot the opening scene in the dead of night on the Los Angeles soundstage where “Macbeth” was filmed.
“We shot that first scene about 1 in the morning, ‘cause we’d kind of run out of time,” she said. “Joel had filled the studio with sand, and he wanted me to appear like a little stone. He needed me to curl up as small as possible, and for the costume and the sand to cover my feet. And after each shot, Joel would come over and cover my feet with sand again.
“The crew said, ‘Mr. Coen, we’ll do that,’ but he said, ‘No, I want to do it.’ If you’re treating me with that kind of tenderness, I’ll go until 4 in the morning, you know?”
The film, in which Hunter also has a brief scene as an old man, was not her first experience with the Scottish play. “I had a go at Lady Macbeth a million years ago,” she said. “I was just thinking about that, and wondering, ‘Why is it an important story to tell today?’
“It’s about a culture that sets up Macbeth as a war hero – he basically gets promoted because he’s done very well in battle: ‘I seamed him from the knave to the chops’ and all of that. So murder is legitimized and awarded. I think Shakespeare is asking, ‘When is murder legitimate, or is it ever legitimate?’ And then you have Joel Coen meeting this story – and for me, it’s the meeting of two master storytellers.”
And it’s also, she said, a new way into an old work. “Every era finds its own way to speak Shakespeare, you know?” she said. “Laurence Olivier was thought to be very avant-garde in the way he spoke it. Now we think he’s old-fashioned. I think that Denzel, Frances, Corey (Hawkins), all these wonderful actors, because of the intimacy of film, they have a way of speaking that is very intimate and immediate. And that could attract people who would not normally come to Shakespeare.
“In an age where we’re texting away and our sentences get shorter and shorter, I think the richness of this language is a great gift that people shouldn’t be bereft of.”