Elijah Alexander Goes Deep Into the Psyche of Macbeth

Elijah Alexander as Macbeth. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Elijah Alexander in A Noise Within’s Macbeth. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Stepping into the role of Macbeth is not for the faint of heart. It’s a dark spiral of a ride that requires an actor to completely immerse himself in the evolution of evil within a character. Classically-trained actor, Elijah Alexander, talks about his journey preparing to play the role for A Noise Within and what he’s learned from touring the country in this fascinating in-depth interview.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known villains. What appeals to you about playing such a complicated character?

E: It is, indeed, a complicated one but a wonderfully complicated one because you get to delve into his imagination and his intuition in a very intense and surgical way. You get to play the spectrum because Macbeth’s journey is both an evolution and a devolution. It’s open to interpretation but the director, Larry Carpenter, and I think that for this production Macbeth becomes more self-actualized as the play progresses and not less. It wasn’t interesting to me to write it off as madness or insanity. That’s too easy. We wanted to discover what it was that Macbeth was becoming as the play progresses. Does he become a tyrant, and if so, is it by choice? Is it by accident? Is it by mystical support? Is it by his own willful intention? What are his choices and what are not his choices. Does he have a hand in his own destiny or not? Those are the questions that this role, and this play, asks and demands of the actor. For any actor it is wonderfully challenging and a lot of fun. 

Have you worked with Larry Carpenter before?

E: No, it’s my first time and I adore him. He’s a smart, sensitive, skilled director and we get along very well, which is important. The whole cast is very passionate and I’m hoping that will resonate with audiences.

I would imagine that working on Macbeth has taken you to some very unusual places both in rehearsal and in your own research.

E: Yes, it’s a dark play. It lives in the shadow world almost from the get-go and it pretty much stays there so, in order to fully discover all that’s needed, you have to go there and live there. Emotionally and psychologically and physically it has taken me to some very dark places that have been illuminating and frightening because the imaginative work is a necessity in order to make those images alive and vibrant for an audience. As actors we have to utilize everything at our beck and call and, in order to do that, we have to really engage in those sometimes horrific scenarios. So it has been a dark ride; one that’s particularly hard to shake off because you’re so in this world.

A lot of what we have been trying to explore is the psychopathology of this character. Where does Macbeth start his journey? What is his state of mind when he begins? How deep does his ambition run? He’s been a celebrated general and warrior for his entire career so he’s no stranger to killing but murder is something very different.

Would you elaborate on that?

E: All of us have a varied relationship with war and taking someone else’s life can be justified in many different ways in many different contexts. For this context, Macbeth has come off the battle field where he’s been fighting and killing to defend his king and his country. He then comes back to court where there are a certain set of rules and regulations, both moral and communal, and killing in that context is very different than it is on the battlefield. So we explore that difference between killing and murder.

Everyone else has a different perspective on it but this play focuses on Macbeth’s perspective because he’s the one who orchestrates this journey for the audience. Lady Macbeth also has a very different, very clear perspective on the difference between what it is to kill and what it is to murder; what is necessary in order to obtain the crown; what’s justifiable. That’s really the fun part of it; to see how human beings justify their behavior to suit their own needs in the moment.

What have been the challenges in working on the role?

E: For me, the greatest challenge is to make him identifiably human. Not that the audience should like him. That is never a good intention, but creating a character that is able to be identified with and empathized with, meaning that the audience can understand what is inherently and utterly human in this man who makes very bad decisions as he progresses from thought to voice and from word to deed. That progression is a very human one and we see it. The audience is privy to the man’s inner directive. The way he argues with his conscience is a very human thing.

Why do you think it’s so important that the audience identify with Macbeth’s humanity?

E: If Macbeth isn’t identifiably human we write him off. We can’t get under his skin. We can’t really get inside his journey to be able to see, even for an instant, how he ended up there. And the audience should be horrified by what he says and does and how he betrays even his own heart and soul. He continues to make bad decision after bad decision knowing that he’s doing it, but feeling, for many reasons, up against a wall as if he had no choice. All of those things make him a very, very attractive character to play because his journey is not black or white; it’s a multitude of shades of gray. He really lives in the gray and then crosses over into the black, into the shadow world, and stays there. His will to go on is strong and that’s optimistic. It’s a will to power; a will to live; a will to move forward through adversity, through challenges. That’s what makes it a tragic story.

Did you learn anything surprising in rehearsal about him or about the play?

E: It was surprising to discover the love and affection that Macbeth has for his wife. Their relationship grounds this play and what grounds their relationship is a deep-seated love. They have lost a child but instead of that fracturing their relationship it has brought them closer. It does get dysfunctional but, at the heart of it when it started out, it was founded in love and that was surprising.

I also set out initially thinking that Macbeth’s journey was a bigger one, meaning that he actually started out as a good guy; as a hero. And there are elements of truth in that but what I discovered is that what’s written, the journey Shakespeare intended us to take, is one where Macbeth is already susceptible to the darkness. His ambition and narcissism and ego are very fortified so his sense of entitlement and his desire for the crown is evident from the very beginning. That was something I denied for a long time. I wanted to figure out how such a good man could be pushed into something that goes against his very nature and what I discovered was that he really does have a proclivity for committing these horrific acts. It’s not such a far stretch.

Another thing we discovered in rehearsal is how much time really plays a character in the play and how deeply influential the mystical or supernatural world is. That was surprising and fun to discover and play with.

Where did you get your love of Shakespeare? Did you study it in college?

E: It was in my final couple years of undergrad school in Michigan when I first heard Shakespeare spoken the way it was intended to be spoken and that actually inspired me to go to grad school at Yale to get a classical education and to learn more about verse work, and Shakespeare, in particular. But even before that, being from just outside of Detroit, I’d go to Stratford, Ontario to the Shakespeare Festival as a teenager. That was my very first introduction. I was always amazed and mesmerized by it but it wasn’t until I started working with my mentor late in undergrad school that I really felt the power of it and it suddenly became accessible to me.

You’ve performed in many places around the country throughout your career. What have you learned during your travels?

E: I spent the last twenty years being a journeyman actor traveling from city to city. I worked in New York and I’ve been on Broadway. I’ve worked in London and all over England on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company where Shakespeare and the theater is part of their daily diet. That was very inspirational for me to see how differently it is treated and how it’s integrated into life in the U.K. I got to work with John Barton and that was a dream come true. I was sitting across the table from him and we were working on his text, an adaptation of The Greeks that he wrote. It was amazing working with the masters who know language and have a deep respect and facility with it.

It also taught me to be present, to come prepared and to make lots of choices. You need to be open to everything, but come in having done your work and be prepared. Hamlet said it best, “The readiness is all.”

I’ve been able to be part of many different communities and I feel like I have many different artistic homes. It’s interesting… I’ve been in search for one artistic home my entire career and what I’ve ended up with is many artistic homes. I’ve been part of so many theatre companies and so many communities in this country. It enabled me to work with many different actors and so many different types of actor and I guess now I have a better understanding of what artistic home means and what artistry means and the kind of community I want to be a part of.

I got to work on some great language plays in my career and I had the opportunity to play some terrific roles. Macbeth is one I’ve wanted to play for a long, long time because I feel like I’ve been intimately involved with this play for a long time. In a lot of ways, things have come full circle from when I first started out as a professional actor.

Where do you go from here?

E: I’m involved in a lot of things now. I think I will always want to act. It’s my first passion but I want to use my acting skills for different things. I have directed and I want to do a lot more of it because I enjoy the collaboration of theatre and I understand the movement of these plays. I’m also attracted to film directing and I’ve done some of that as well. I write spoken word poetry. That all comes from my love of language and my love of music, and the combination of those two things.

I’m also really interested in education. I’m a part of a community called Arts for Humanity that develops projects, whether it be plays, film, educational outreach, that have specific social and environmental issues we’re interested in tackling. I’m in a place now where I’m open to a lot of things using the skill set I have for more than just myself, more than just traveling from city to city. I want to be in one place. I want to develop my own community, so I’m really focusing on doing that these days.

And that’s a really worthy endeavor.

E: It can be. When you’re a lone actor, it’s a lonely lifestyle just by the nature of what it is, especially if you’re traveling through the regions in a different city every three months. You have a different family every three months and then you start over in another city. It can become a little isolating. I started feeling a little disenfranchised so this next chapter of my life is about enfranchisement. It’s about true active community building and working with like-minded artists of all kinds developing new work as well as looking at the classics and re-envisioning them; really figuring out how they are vital for us today; why they’re important; why Shakespeare’s words are so timeless, because I think theatre is in trouble and needs that. It needs a very proactive, forceful, and yet sensitive hand to take it into the next phase.

We certainly hope you’ll do it in L.A.

E: L.A. is ripe for that so I’d like to be a part of that new wave. We live in an exciting time where anything is possible. You just have to make it manifest. And that brings us back to the play. It’s so much what this play is about; what we think, becoming what we create, and really playing an active role in our own destiny.

MACBETH runs March 15 – May 11, 2014, with additional previews on March 12, 13 & 14 at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For tickets, call 626-356-3100 or visit www.ANoiseWithin.org.

Ellen Dostal
Shakespeare in LA


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