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Denzel Washington tackles Shakespeare and life’s fourth quarter with grace

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A portrait of a smiling Denzel Washington
Shakespeare, says Denzel Washington, stands as “the ultimate challenge and the ultimate standard.”
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Denzel Washington and I have been talking for a good, long stretch on a recent late Friday afternoon, discussing life’s fourth quarter, the September of our years, when, pretty much out of nowhere, he starts singing Neil Young’s “Southern Man.”

If you asked me to name, oh, I don’t know, maybe a thousand songs that Washington might serenade me with on this day, “Southern Man” would not have cracked the list.

Southern man, better keep your head ... don’t forget what your good book said,” Washington sings, performing a pretty spot-on approximation of Young’s high tenor. He smiles. “One of my favorite songs of all time.”

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Washington had been remembering when he went away to boarding school in upstate New York as a teenager, following a youth spent in the house of his Pentecostal minister father, Denzel Washington Sr., where secular music wasn’t allowed.

“Listen, you’ve got to understand,” Washington tells me. “I get up there ... my mother is trying to save me from the streets and heroin. And they sent me to a school with a bunch of white kids with acid. So I was introduced to the [Beatles’] White Album on some orange Owsley or orange sunshine or some blotter. So it expanded my experience.”

Number nine, number nine, number nine,” I say, repeating the recurring words in the Beatles’ trippy sound collage “Revolution 9.” Washington does me one better. “Turn me on, dead man,” he says, laughing, evoking what you might hear if you play the song backward.

That song has probably never sounded as good again. “Probably not,” Washington affirms, smiling. “Probably not.”

Denzel Washington as Macbeth in "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
(Apple)

How did we arrive at this place? It began when Washington mentioned that his wife of 38 years, Pauletta, just bought him a new phone, telling him it had a better camera. For Washington, a phone is a phone. And also a jukebox, though he does not stream music. He still buys it from the iTunes store. He asks me to explain Spotify. He shakes his head; he’s not signing up.

“I support artists,” Washington says. “I don’t want you streaming me without buying.”

Washington’s latest movie, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” which earned the 67-year-old actor his 10th Oscar nomination, is available right now only on a streaming platform, Apple TV+. He and Frances McDormand play Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as an older couple making a last, ruthless, desperate bid for power.

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“The arc for me was going ‘from deep and dark desires,’” Washington says, quoting the play, “to ‘I’ve sold my soul. I’ve given everything I could to the devil to be king.’ Watch what you ask for. ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’”

Macbeth’s advanced age resonated with Washington. When we sat down, I asked him about a quote attributed to Will Smith, who said he called Washington for advice when he was in his late 40s. Related Smith: “He said, ‘Listen. You’ve got to think of it as the funky 40. Everybody’s 40s are funky.’ He said, ‘But just wait till you hit the f—-it 50s.’”

Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington in "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
(Alison Rosa/Apple)

“I didn’t say that,” Washington says, taking exception, I believe, to the language. “I know I didn’t say that.”

But he warms to the subject.

“I’m almost done with my 60s,” Washington says, trying out some alliteration for size. “The simplistic 60s. The simplified 60s.” He looks at me. I’m not there yet. “You’re prepping for the fourth quarter, though. The only way to get overtime is doing the work now. If life has four quarters — zero to 20, 20 to 40, 40 to 60, 60 to 80 — you’re about to enter the fourth quarter. Anything after 80 is overtime.” He pauses, then reconsiders. “This is a sliding scale now that I’ve passed 65. Let’s say, 65 to 85. But the principle remains: You prepare for war in times of peace.”

So how do you prepare for the fourth quarter? Washington answers with three words: Body. Mind. Spirit. He elaborates, of course. Washington reads the Bible daily. Usually a chapter. He’ll make notes, then go back and read the same chapter again the next day to review it before moving on. Pauletta gave him a new Bible on Christmas, and he intends on giving his old one containing 30 years of thoughts written in the margins to his oldest son, John David.

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Every time we’ve spoken over the years, Washington has urged me to get the Daily Word, a magazine that offers affirmations and readings. I have not done this. I thought it was an app. Washington has no use for apps. And he has no time for excuses.

“If you have studied your Bible, which I suggest you do ... I know you need to. I feel you, so I know,” he says. “I can feel you, trust me. I know you need to, and, more importantly, I know you want to. But you don’t know how to go about it. But you’ll get to it. You still have your fourth quarter.”

As for nourishing the mind, Washington says that’s a “very tricky business” in this age of misinformation. He tells me to get the Daily Word. I tell him to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.

Washington believes he has the body covered, riding his exercise bike, listening to Fela Kuti’s 12-minute Afrobeat song, “Zombie” three times straight through, which covers some warm-up time and then six miles. He likes “Zombie,” because he can ride and not get caught up in the lyrics too much.

“All right,” Washington says, clapping his hands, leaning in. “Here we go. Five albums on an island. And you only get five. Who are you taking?”

A close-up shot of Denzel Washington as Macbeth in "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
Denzel Washington as Macbeth in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
(Apple)

I say Beatles. He says White Album. I say “Revolver.” We agree on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” I need John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” He loves Coltrane too and goes with “My Favorite Things.”

“You go in my bathroom right now and you see Muhammad Ali, John Coltrane and Nelson Mandela. Because we have conversations.” Washington laughs. “I shut the door and talk to them. No. 1: ‘How’d you do it?’ You know, ‘Go with me today.’” Washington gives me a layout of the room, pointing to imaginary spots in the air where the pictures hang. “John sits right here. Nelson’s right there. Ali’s right there. And I’m sitting on the throne, talking to the fellas.” He lets out another laugh.

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And what’s Coltrane telling you?

“Trust your spirit. Free up,” Washington answers. “Nelson probably says, ‘Sacrifice.’ You know, he gave his 20 whatever amount of years ... he sacrificed. Ali is a photograph of him knocking out George Foreman. But it’s signed to me. So that’s personal.”

The signed photo reminds him of the first time he met Sidney Poitier, in 1978. Washington saw the legendary actor through a window outside a bookstore near the Beverly Wilshire hotel and ran back to the Lincoln Continental he was borrowing from his uncle to retrieve a headshot and résumé.

“Never run so fast in my life,” Washington says, smiling. “I was naive enough or young enough or hungry enough to think, ‘This is my shot.’ He respectfully declined to accept it.”

Ten years later, Washington found himself at the Oscars for the first time, nominated for his supporting work in the apartheid drama “Cry Freedom.”

Denzel Washington, center, stands in uniform with a rifle next to Morgan Freeman  in "Glory"
Denzel Washington, center, and Morgan Freeman in “Glory”
(Tri-Star Pictures)

“Oh, that first time was terrible,” Washington says. “There was a huge traffic jam outside the Shrine Auditorium. I was sick from nerves and had some gastro-whatever-you-call-it, and when I got in there, Sean Connery, who won that year, was presenting an award. And he walks out and gets a two-minute standing ovation. And I was like, ‘Let’s go get the coats, because this is over.’”

Two years later, Washington was back at the Oscars and won for “Glory.”

“My late, great agent Ed Limato said, ‘Denzel, you’re going to win tonight, and we’re going to Spago at table one. We’re going to put the trophy in the middle of the table, and we’re going to open for business.’ And that’s what happened. We got in business. And things changed — or the money changed. And the roles … they got worse, actually. Bunch of garbage, but it paid well.” He laughs at his joke. “One out of two.”

Our time together is almost up. Washington circles back to the project he initiated. “OK. Beatles. Marvin. Coltrane. We’ve got two more. What else?” If you’re going to bring Coltrane, you need Miles Davis. So I nominate “Kind of Blue.” He comes back with Carole King’s “Tapestry.” I finish with Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”

“No Stevie?” he asks. “Stevie Wonder changed my life. I’m bringing ‘Songs in the Key of Life.’” He throws out more artists and albums — Pharoah Sanders, James Brown — and then starts riffing on Shakespeare.

Denzel Washington photographed in Los Angeles.
Something you probably didn’t know about Denzel Washington: Neil Young’s “Southern Man” is “one of my favorite songs of all time,” says the actor.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

“Shakespeare’s the ‘What’s Going On,’ the White Album, the ‘Tapestry’ for me,” Washington says. “The ultimate challenge and the ultimate standard. I had to try to meet Shakespeare where he lives. That’s the joy in it for me. Yes, I fell short. But I look to go back again. You know, Lear’s around the corner.”

Fourth quarter, I tell him.

“Fourth quarter,” he repeats. “And I look forward to opening that door and seeing who’s in there.”

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