Interview with Derek Luke: "Antwone Fisher"

Derek Luke: a rising talent

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Gerardo Orlando and Jamey Codding recently sat down with other members of the press to talk with Derek Luke (pictured below, left, with co-star Denzel Washington), the star of Fox Searchlight's upcoming film, "Antwone Fisher," written by Cleveland native Antwone Fisher and set to open nationwide on Christmas Day. Derek, who just won the Best Breakout Performance Award from the National Board of Review, brilliantly portrays the title character in his first film appearance, and after speaking with him it's obvious this up-and-comer is thoroughly enjoying the excitement the movie and his emotional performance are generating. And be sure to read Gerardo's review of "Antwone Fisher," which also marks Denzel Washington's directorial debut.

Press: Antwone Fisher had a rough start and you were working at the Sony Pictures gift shop in LA. Do you feel that your rise to the top parallels his and in what ways?

Derek Luke: I hate to make my story like his. I just say that, one thing I learned from Antwone Fisher the person, and the script, was about achieving no matter what obstacles. There's a realm beyond emotion worth fighting for. If there is a parallel, then I can parallel with that when it comes to chasing any career, any profession, especially in Hollywood.

Press: When did you move out there to pursue acting?

DL: I moved out in (laughs) August '95…. I know the exact date and time, as a matter of fact. It was August 1995. I just try to act like I don't know. "I think it was '95 -- I was young."

Press: How old are you?

DL: I'm 28.

Bullz-Eye: So tell us the story. How did you get the role? We've heard a little bit about it -- you were in the gift shop. Did you meet Antwone first?

DL: (Smiles) What'd you hear?

B-E: We've heard you met Antwone (pictured below, left, with Derek) first and then that sort of led to you meeting Denzel Washington.

DL: Well, somebody told me that Antwone said that I knew about the script before I met him, but I don't remember that. I remember one day, [I went to lunch with] a girl that we both knew that worked on the lot…and I bumped into Antwone. But I don't remember whether I knew about the script before. Anyway, when we befriended each other over the conversation through lunch, it wasn't no big thing. He's an actor, a writer. Then he said "Denzel," and I was like, "What? Denzel what? What about Denzel?" He said, "Denzel is directing," and I said, "Oh man, oh my God. My film." So I really tried to play it cool, I really started acting then. I was like, "Oh wow, so uh…Denzel's going to do this?" After the conversation I said, "Hey man, would you mind me reading the script?" And I remember I got it, it had a yellow cover on it, it said "Antwone Fisher" and I think it said "Fox Searchlight," something like that. And from that, it was in '98 or '97, I busted in on an audition. I tricked my friend -- I was at lunch with him and I told him I had to use the restroom, but I went to the casting director. He found out about it and he said, "Derek, don't get me into this. You're going to get blackballed from the business." So I said, "Yeah, probably, maybe." But I took the voyage and went up there, and I was so terrible I started crying. And he (Christian Kaplan, Fox casting director) told me to come back…. He says, "This raw talent, this crying, this is something Denzel is looking for." So basically, he let me come back the following Thursday, and he says, "You've got to be ready this time."

I went, and it felt like everything stopped. I went in, it went good, and I was waiting to hear for a long time, I think months. And in the midst of [waiting], I heard the film just went on hiatus for, like, two and half years, three years. I never thought my hopes were up, I always thought Denzel was going to make it, I never knew what was going on behind the scenes.

Press: So what did you do in the meantime while the movie was in hiatus? Were you just biding your time?

DL: Biding my time by failing every audition I went on. I think I went to over 100 in that time.

Press: Anything come to mind that you auditioned for?

DL: Oh boy. I auditioned for "The Rookie," "Finding Forrester," "Touched by an Angel," and they didn't touch me, "E.R." because my résumé really needed surgery. Those are the [main ones] but…I think I was on an audition four times a week.

B-E: Your performance was so powerful and so moving. To what extent did Antwone himself influence how you approached your character? Had you read the book and did that have any impact on how you approached your role or was it more you and Denzel looking at the script?

DL: I thought I was set once I read the book because the script came first and then the book came in 2000. I remember running out of my house at night -- I was living on Lake Avenue in Pasadena. I was reading the book and it was a powerful story, but it seemed different. I thought, "Man, I'm going to be so prepared for whenever they audition." I get to the audition and they say, "Even though it's the same, we want you to bring something different to the table." And you know, I'm in there talking with Antwone and Denzel, and I'm like, "Yeah, sure." But in the back of my head I'm like, "How can I do that?" (Laughs) But how I went about was I had a lot of friends who were exteriorly outraged, and I assumed that they had a lot of issues. A lot of them were withdrawn, so my observations really came from watching everybody on the outside because, I think the rule of thumb was find the Antwone that you can play for today. So I looked at everybody. I looked at black, white, I looked at kids that came from suburban homes who had dads that lived in the homes but still felt rejected. So everybody had a balance, and I was just looking for equilibrium with everybody and then creating something new with the character.

Press: So did you sit there and study Antowne's mannerisms for two weeks or anything like that?

DL: I tried (laughs). I would follow Antwone around and he'd be like, "Get off me, man! Look, make up your own Antwone." And I was like, "You shouldn't have used your own name, then." …Denzel challenged me to start walking in [Antwone's] shoes, and when I started walking in his shoes, mostly with his direction, I think the person of Antwone -- in the script -- presented himself, showed up. I pray that he did, for Antwone's sake.

Press: Being a virtual unknown before this role, were you under a lot of pressure from studio executives because Denzel chose to go with some lesser-known talents?

DL: I remember meeting the studio heads…and I remember having a pink shirt on -- don't laugh -- and I was just smiling. I didn't know what was what. Really, you put any name [next to] Denzel's and it's really a lesser name anyway. To me, it didn't matter but I don't know what happened behind the scenes. I think more counterparts were saying, "Hey Derek, this doesn't usually happen." I think I got more discouraged from people who were seeking the same thing…. And I think I understood both sides.

B-E: Tell us about Joy Bryant (pictured below), your female co-star. She's beautiful and talented -- what was she like to work with?

DL: She was a breath of fresh air. Those were my most challenging days of filming. Mostly every scene with Joy was my hardest take.

B-E: Why was that?

DL: Well, you know the rhythm of the film? I think Joy was the exit. I didn't know how to come out of Antwone when I met with her on the set. They'd be like, "Be shy," and I was like, "No, I feel angry." I think one time I was waiting for her outside of the store, and we did 23 takes, or 19…just a lot of takes. And it was challenging because it was this softer side [of Antwone] coming to spruce the character up. It was hard to interact but…she helped me out a whole lot.

Press: Was her character based on one person or was she more of an invention for the movie?

DL: I believe she's more of an invention. I can't really comment because I heard there's 40 rewrites or more so I don't know the original draft and where he took her.

Press: Did working with Denzel live up to all your expectations?

DL: (Smiles) Hell no, more. More. This dude, he's fantastic because he's this icon but an icon with no pressure, an icon with no delivery expectation but what your own is. Man, I was thrilled! I would walk off the set and all these women and children would call out to Denzel and I would try to walk close to him…. Man, it was incredible, really incredible.

B-E: Did you enjoy your time in Cleveland?

DL: I did, [but] I didn't see much of it. I had to leave right away but this is the stomping grounds for my acting career. This is the first place I did any film acting…so it was very momentous.

B-E: Did the Cleveland scenes come earlier or later in the filming?

DL: It was in the beginning.

B-E: There's a subtle progression that your character undergoes throughout the movie. Is it difficult on you when the timeline of the film is broken up because you're hitting different parts of the script at different times?

DL: (Smiles) Dude, seems like you were there! The scene…where Antwone meets his mother, we shot the reaction of Antwone first before we shot the speech, then we shot the entrance, then we shot the speech, then we shot the middle. And I said, "Who's going to do that one? Do you have a stunt?" (Laughs) The out-of-sequence was a major challenge for me because a lot of times I couldn't find my place, I felt numb. I remember losing lines…I'd be looking at Denzel but my whole brain unit would shut down. It was on vacation. I felt like if I said another word my tongue would fall off. So yeah, it was a challenge, a major challenge.

Press: The movie's generating a real buzz. The newest Rolling Stone says you may get some Oscar consideration as "Best Actor." What do you think about that?

DL: It's an honor because all the guys that are nominated for best actor…are the same guys [nominated every year], and these are the same guys that inspired me. So to be watching TV and films for that long and be inspired by these guys is an honor. I think they left a legacy for me and just to be a part of that is awesome.

B-E: Besides Denzel, who are some of your favorite actors and actresses?

DL: Hmm, I think Denzel tops it for me, but Al Pacino, I like Hugh Grant, Anthony Hopkins. The list goes on and on.

B-E: What was it like working with Kid Rock? (Derek stars with Kid Rock in "Biker Boyz," set to open in January of 2003.)

DL: Good question! [Laughs] The only thing I can say about him…is we had the most fun. We'd be doing a serious scene in "Biker Boyz" and, man, we could not keep a straight face. Kid Rock -- he's so down to earth. We would sit outside the trailer and we'd just talk about random stuff, [but] I am not going to go into anything more than that…. (Smiles)

Press: Did you have a favorite scene in "Antwone Fisher"?

DL: I remember a favorite feeling. The day I left Cleveland and I didn't see Denzel for a while. The next time I saw him he was literally waiting in the office to play opposite me. I think that hit me -- he was a totally different guy. I couldn't place him when he was directing me in Cleveland because he was down low, growing his gruff. But when I saw him sitting in front of me….

Press: Was that the first time you acted with him?

DL: I think the first scene I did with him was the very first scene when Antwone meets Davenport, and I lost it. And I remember that moment, I remember him directing me and I was thinking "Philadelphia," you know, everything he'd done. That was my favorite moment.

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