Alex Hassell stars in Joel Coen’s rapturously received cinematic adaptation of Macbeth – but the actor’s initial foray into Shakespeare was even more remarkable.
The young Hassell used to stage guerilla productions of Hamlet that lent heavily on improvisation and audience engagement. “We did a version of it in a music festival that ended at like, four in the morning,” recalls Hassell. “The audience must have been on drugs.”
“People would be snogging in the audience as part of it, or ripping each other's clothes off – there was full nudity. Fully improvised, full front nudity. Some of the shows were mad!”
Working with Joel Coen and Denzel Washington must be a breeze in comparison – although Hassell understandably admits: “I still feel like a 12 year old walking into these rooms being like… fuck!”
We caught up with Hassell to discuss working with screen legends, using his four-week-old nephew as a prop and the abrupt cancellation of Cowboy Bebop.
This isn't your first encounter with Macbeth. Do you remember the first time you met with the play?
What a wonderful question! My immediate response is no, I don't remember. But being someone who's been drawn to Shakespeare and has had theatre and drama school training, I was probably introduced through some speeches – random, rehearsal type workshop things.
I think my introduction to it was through Lady Macbeth and that section when she begs the witches to unsex her. I then just slowly got drawn into it. The complexity of the language is what makes me so thrilled by it.
I haven't, by any stretch, read all of Shakespeare's plays. But out of the ones that I'm familiar with, it’s just so dense. The language is so complicated and the images are so sort of smashed on top of each other that anything extraneous or superfluous, to get from one thought to the other, is just cut. So it's really tight in a way that's incredibly difficult to act, and that's appealing to me.
Is that why you decided to do the play with your theatre company?
Yeah, basically. The first thing we ever did was Hamlet about 15 years ago. We’ve done a bunch of Shakespeare along the way, but not as a major production. This was me after I'd come back from the RSC, reclaiming Shakespeare into the company. This time I was directing and taking a mixture of what I'd learned at the RSC whilst hoping to understand some more of my own processes.
I love difficulty. I regret almost immediately [laughs] that I'll take a job and I'm really drawn to something that I don't know how to do and I'm not sure I'm good enough to do. Then I get massively insecure about it along the way.
But I really love looking into stuff. What's so wonderful about Shakespeare is that it's so complicated. When you start to understand it, you really feel like (well for me anyway) you've cracked into this secret code that makes you able to understand and communicate some of the most profoundly, beautifully put-together thoughts about the human condition. That takes real work to get to understand and for me, that's addictive.
It’s also the invitation to the other element of the plays. Aside from the language, there's also the supernatural. What you do with that as a director and as a production, that's something that you have to have some go at. It’s exciting too.
You've probably been asked this a lot since the film but Denzel Washington. What's he like to work with
The more you get into film, the more frequently you come across these giant legends. It's imperative that you don't shit yourself and fall apart when working, because that doesn't suit anyone! So that's part of the task I think.
I was able to try and switch that bit off and just take him as a guy and an actor that I was meeting. But of course he's ridiculously amazing. As just the-guy-that-I'm-meeting-who-isn't-Denzel-Washington, he's a phenomenally talented actor and an incredibly charismatic person. He’s very intelligent but not in a way that’s boastful or immediately academically apparent. He doesn’t flout it, it’s just the way that he suddenly says something or thinks about a way through lines. You're like, whoa, okay, wow. That's from a really deep place.
For me, having seen the film too – the subtlety he has, where and when the thoughts come to Macbeth, is like they're from the centre of the earth in a way that is not something I'm currently able to do in the same way.
Also he was really open, really supportive, encouraging and gracious. And I really, really enjoyed working with him. We did three weeks of rehearsals, so we got to be party to one another's processes and get over the ‘Denzel Washington factor’ if you know what I mean. It was an amazing experience. I feel very, very lucky and grateful.
At the same time, it's important to try not to feel lucky and grateful; feel that you are supposed to be there and deserve to be there and all of those sorts of things. Though I still feel like a 12 year old walking into all of these rooms being like 'fuck!'
Sticking with the theme of big names – you were in Suburbicon written by the Coen brothers, but this is the first film that Joel has directed without his brother Ethan. What was different this time round?
I've met Joel and Ethan together for an audition. I auditioned for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but that's the only time I've met them. So I don't have a comparison, but it was fascinating. Joel and Ethan have worked with a lot of the same department heads and crew, even the boom operator who in fact worked on Suburbicon too. They like to have a community like that.
In terms of Joel individually, he's amazing. I think about him a lot and I think about the way that he directed a lot. For me, one of the big things is the validation and self-belief [that he had in me] that I can't get out for myself. He wanted me to play this part.
We got on really well and had a really good time working together. He’s really pleased with what I did and we had a real, genuine, communicative, collaborative relationship. It’s something that means a massive, massive internal amount to me. He just made me feel really confident.
He would giggle a lot behind the monitor, when usually you're not supposed to make any noise. So I would hear him giggling. And I was like, “I'm not trying to be funny” and this is not a funny scene. This is all pretty Dickens but it must mean something!
So I kept working towards whatever that giggle was. And it was a wonderful way of working because it was non-cerebral. I didn't know what it was and he didn't ever explain what it was, but it meant that I kept being braver and more relaxed, which is such a brilliant thing to give an actor.
Sometimes direction can close you up and make you feel that you're supposed to be correct. Whereas he just wanted me to play. I'm not the first person to say this, but I'd very much like to be in that gang of people that get to work with them over and over – that would be an incredible thing.
Just briefly – Cowboy Bebop. It must be disappointing to have it cancelled after a season?
It's weird. Things get cancelled all the time – that wasn’t weird. But it was the speed at which it was done. This is the business and you get used to the rollercoaster nature of it – over time I’ve learned to. I think this is partly why I try to create my own work and find my own self-esteem about acting in my own arena. Because you can't rely on anything and that's just the way it is.
So I feel OK about it to be honest. I'm really, really grateful that we did it. I'm really grateful for the experience I had. What I learned, being in New Zealand, and meeting and working with so many wonderful people, but that's the end of that journey. And there are new journeys to come.
It’s really a bit glib, but famously Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop says, “whatever happens, happens''. You've got to be water and go with the flow, and that's what I'm doing.
In terms of your character, Vicious – fans seemed to have mixed reviews because he wasn't much like the original. Did you expect this type of reaction?
For one thing, I’ve tried not to pay much attention to the responses. I turned off commenting on my Instagram and things like that. I think there's a degree of being damned if we do and damned if we don't. Some people thought it was too much like the original anime and some people felt that it wasn't enough. Which is fair enough.
In the anime, Vicious is only in four or five episodes very briefly. Whereas in this, the writers wanted to put him in all of the episodes, so they had to create a story with more dimensions and expanded backstories for the character. So that's always gonna be a risk, if you want to think of it as a risk, I guess.
I watched the anime a lot and thought about it a lot, but I also had to serve the new writing that was being presented to me, so I suppose I did think that. I'm fairly used to playing parts that already exist in the sort of cultural ether. It’s just one of those things.
Your theatre company The Factory – can you give us a summary?
Essentially, the reason that we created it and the reason that it still exists is to try and find a place for acting that was outside of the industry. As an actor, you usually only get to engage in your craft if someone else from some hierarchical place gives you permission to do it. And that just seemed wrong.
If you only have little bits (of acting) to do very spread out, and they're not necessarily complicated, it's very, very difficult to grow and put your 10,000 hours in. So it was all about regular, very difficult work. We would rehearse every Wednesday night for a year, and it's a big shifting group of people.
The main thing was that we didn't have any money, we weren't good at making money and we didn't want to spend all our time raising money. We wanted to just act and work. So we predicated the entire company on being able to exist with almost literally no money, therefore we couldn't have sets or costumes or props. We couldn't pay anyone. We couldn't do a traditional run because we couldn't hire a theatre. So it meant we needed a shifting group of actors, because you can't do a play with 12 people and then Hamlet buggers off and does another job (quite understandably).
So we all learnt a bunch of parts. The audience would then play ‘scissor, paper, stone’ for who would play who and they would bring random objects that would be the props. We'd play and we'd move venues every time that we played.
We made no blocking decisions, no character decisions, no decisions except for working rigorously on the verse pattern and what the words meant and getting on the same page about what we thought good live acting was, and then just played. So it was incredibly spontaneous. Every decision is in the moment and is yours to own.
Tickets were only ever £10, so it would be wildly changeable in its quality, but also its nature. It was really experimental and a major crucible of learning, experience, liveness and communion in this truly one-time-only evening. And then we took it into writing and improvisation. I guess that's a fairly quick way of talking about it!
Had you always wanted to be a director?
When we started? No. I wasn't even thinking about being an artistic director really. I just wanted the opportunity to challenge myself, be pushed and get deep into some shit. I think Shakespeare had a big part of that. I don't know why but from quite early on, in school with my English teacher Mrs. Stroud, I felt I understood it more quickly than I thought I should or would. Then I got really into verse through working with Tim Carroll and became addicted after understanding the principles of it.
So that's where becoming a director came in. I just love having a bigger canvas on which to paint and create. I'm writing a film at the moment that I'd like to direct, so that's the next thing that I'm aiming to do.
I’m sure the improvised performances are brilliant, but have you had any unfortunate mishaps?
Oh yeah, tons. I still wake up in a cold sweat about what could have happened. Once, someone broke a table and messed their hand up, but they're fine. And they didn't hold us responsible as it totally wasn't our fault!
I remember one time in this tiny little theatre, one of the Hamlets was blindfolded for some reason and picked up a mirror. They swung it, it smashed into a pillar and smashed into the audience. I'm sitting there in the audience (cause there's no wings or anything) tearing my hair out as a producer. It was crazy chaos.
We did a version of it in a music festival that ended at like, four in the morning. The audience must have been on drugs and people in the festival didn't know it was a performance because we were just moving around wherever we wanted to go. People dressed as the devil walked into the production at exactly the right time and ended up getting into a wrestling match with Hamlet or whatever.
People would often bring their pets or their children – it was wild! We would always involve the audience in it, not in a sort of crummy audience participation way, but everything in the room was part of it. And because the audience knew that none of us had any idea how this was gonna go, they were always willing, which is an amazing feeling.
There were times when a bunch of people would be snogging in the audience as part of it, or ripping each other's clothes off – there was full nudity. Fully improvised, full front nudity. Some of the shows were mad!
Wow! Didn’t expect that! You also did some guerrilla performances in public. One of which used a baby as a prop from someone in the audience…
That was actually my nephew, Henry!
Tell us more…
That was one of the most profound experiences I've ever had. My brother and his family came to see this one particular show, which was one of the first times there were people queuing around the block. Famous people were there too.
I won the task to play Hamlet. The audience would bring objects with them and anything in the room was fair game, but you couldn't plan what you were gonna do with it – you just had to grab something. So they brought Henry, who was four weeks old. And I picked him up for the ‘what piece of work is man’ speech, [which ends] “And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights, not me”.
And in that moment, I was holding my four-week old nephew and saying ‘man delights, not me’ – the idea that I didn't give a shit about him or that he might one day feel the way that I was saying, just destroyed me. You're not acting in that situation. You are trying to mean what you're saying within the parameters that you find yourself and it hit me really hard. I think the unplanned egoless, emotional connection of that was very moving to everyone in the room because it wasn’t bullshit.
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Can you tell us about the film you're writing?
I can say it evolves. It's not Shakespeare, but it involves a production of Shakespeare and it's a sort of Paul Schrader style dark, twisted, perverted story. That's as much as I'll say at the minute.
Other than writing the film, where will we see you next?
I just did a couple of episodes on a TV thing that I'm not allowed to talk about, but that'll be out at some point this year. It's a co-production of a British and American company.
I'm about to go and shoot another film, I leave in about a week that I also can't talk about. But this will be something really different for me. I'm playing a relatable dad – I never play relatable people! So that'll be really interesting.
And then I don't know. I thought we were gonna be going back and doing Cowboy Bepop. So I'm available for work if anyone's interested!
The Tragedy of Macbeth is in cinemas now