Actor Kathryn Hunter: ‘I gravitated towards male roles because men are given more interesting things to do’

The theatre star on the car crash that transformed her life, changing her name for work – and playing all three witches in Joel Coen’s new film of Macbeth

Kathryn Hunter, 64, is an actor who has done more than make a name for herself in theatre. In shows for Complicité, Shared Experience and the RSC she has, with physical virtuosity, extended the reach of what theatre can do. She has played great Shakespearean male roles – Lear, Timon of Athens and Richard III – and is now starring in Joel Coen’s film The Tragedy of Macbeth, alongside Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. Hunter plays all three witches as thrilling, crow-like contortionists with voices that stir, disinter and reverberate. She lives in London with her husband, Marcello Magni, co-founder of Complicité.

How did the idea of playing all three witches come about?
Joel emailed me – we’ve known each other a long time and he and Fran [the actor Frances McDormand, also Coen’s wife and a producer of the film] have come to see shows I was in. He asked if I’d like to play a witch. It’s been a lifelong dream to work with Joel and Fran, so that was an immediate yes. We started talking about the how – and there were many experiments in my kitchen. I’d think: OK, the witch is a scavenger on the battlefield – she carries dead bodies around.

How did that work out in your kitchen?
I made impromptu puppets of pillows, and my husband, Marcello, photographed me. Then we met with Joel and Fran in London. My first question was: “Are the witches real or in Macbeth’s mind?” Joel went: “Both.” He talked about crows, was much taken with the play’s bird imagery. He gave me the image of standing stones. Crow… woman… standing stone… these were the images percolating in my psyche. Originally, Joel thought we’d have doubles for the other witches, and we saw lots of small female contortionists. Then one day I said: what if there is one person possessed by another two?

You have a twin sister… you could have invited her to audition?
We’re very close, but Angela is three inches taller than me and we’re quite different… otherwise that would have been a good idea.

Kathryn Hunter in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Kathryn Hunter in The Tragedy of Macbeth. Photograph: Courtesy of Apple

Aikaterini Hadjipateras is your real name. You changed your first name initially, then your surname too – why?
I was at Rada 40 years ago and the extraordinary principal, Hugh Cruttwell, said: “So Kathryn, do you wish to play the full canon or just Gypsies?” He told me to change my name because in those days there was more of an assumption that if you looked foreign, people might assume you couldn’t speak the language. James Hunter, a dear friend, was one of my first boyfriends. I asked him: “Do you mind if I’m Hunter?” I thought we’d end up together anyway. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards we did separate.

Do you see yourself as Greek, American or British?
I grew up in New York. My parents were Greek, but when I was 18 months old they emigrated again, to London. My father was in shipping and my mother went into shipping too – which was radical at the time. I’m very much a Londoner. Marcello longs to go back to Italy but I defend London.

You suffered life-changing injuries in a car crash while at Rada. Did it made you extra determined to use your body superlatively – as you do – as an actor?
Definitely. I remember waking up in intensive care and seeing Hugh Cruttwell at the edge of the bed. He was wearing a white suit so I thought he was an angel. My first question was: “Can I come back, Hugh?” And I did go back to Rada, on crutches, and remember people looking at me and going: Oh dear. I discovered, because of the limitations of the lower body at that time, all the upper body possibilities. I was in Lady Be Good and had to come downstairs, and I remember the cast – Ken Branagh, John Sessions – looking at me with hopeful eyes that said: don’t fall! I’ve always loved being physical. I did ballet as a small girl. Then there was Complicité – and off we went.

Hunter as King Lear with her husband Marcello Magni as the Fool, Leicester Haymarket theatre, 1997.
Hunter as King Lear with her husband Marcello Magni as the Fool, Leicester Haymarket theatre, 1997. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

What was special about Complicité?
My first love affair was with Complicité. It was based on [the celebrated French actor] Jacques Lecoq’s idea of understanding how the body tells the story, and about an understanding of the body – and objects – in space. It was also about the story as a collective responsibility: everybody plays everything. We’d all be the outside eye – Annabel Arden, Simon McBurney… It’s fascinating because you know a scene even when it’s performed by someone else.

How did you meet your husband, and does a marriage of theatre practitioners ever get too close for comfort?
I’m probably one of the luckiest people in the world. We met through Complicité. I found him brilliant and hilarious and we fell in love. He asked me to marry him 15 years into our relationship and I said: “What for?”, and he was a bit disappointed. Then, after we’d been together for about 20 years, I was playing Cleopatra for the RSC and roaming around thinking: what does Cleopatra want? She wants someone she can call her husband. That inspired me… it felt right… I said: “Let’s get married,” and we did, and it was amazing. Anything goes with Marcello – he’s very game. He’s had to watch me being a crow for hours and hours…

You’ve played many men long before it became fashionable.
Gender is a floating thing. I gravitated towards male roles because men tend to be given more interesting things to do. There was a Complicité show where I was supposed to play a sexy maid – I balked at that.

Do you think this stunning Macbeth will pull in young audiences?
Denzel Washington takes us deep inside Macbeth. It’s terrifying. He has a new-minted way of speaking the lines as if it were his mother tongue, a strange and beautiful patois we grow to love. And Fran – an extraordinary human being and one of the funniest people alive – is an exceptional Lady Macbeth: you can hear her thoughts, see her feelings, and it tears you apart. It’s so exciting. I hope it will seduce young people into sharing my passion – for Shakespeare.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is released in UK cinemas on 26 December and on Apple TV+ on 14 January

Watch a trailer for The Tragedy of Macbeth.


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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