Derek Luke was an unknown actor who worked in a studio gift shop in Hollywood when Denzel Washington cast him in the title role in Antwone Fisher, the 2002 biopic that marked Washington's directorial debut. Luke went on to impress critics in several other films, including Catch a Fire, a 2006 project based on the true story of a freedom fighter against South Africa's brutal apartheid regime. The struggling actor's rags-to-riches tale quickly became part of Hollywood lore. "My career was going but it was going real slow, let's just say that," he told Back Stage West writer Lori Talley about working in the gift shop. "There were thoughts of quitting—I mean, a thought always came into my head, but I never acted on it. I'm boarding a dream. That's how I've always felt."
Born in 1974, Luke spent his earliest years in Jersey City, New Jersey. His father, Maurice, was from the South American nation of Guyana and had worked as an actor in England in his younger days. Luke's mother, Marjorie Dixon, was pianist, and raised Luke and his two brothers after her divorce from Maurice. The
family moved regularly, and at times lived in less than ideal neighborhoods in the New Jersey communities of East Orange, Woodbridge, and Linden. As a new kid at school, Luke was often bullied by older boys. "I had to learn how to street fight," he admitted to People writer Julie K.L. Dam. "That's when I became an actor. I studied the cool guys with their hard faces, hard walk and hard talk."
Met Antwone Fisher
Luke graduated from high school in Linden in 1992 and spent a few semesters studying drama at New Jersey City University while working for the post office. He decided to move to Los Angeles in 1995, staying with friends when he first arrived and working as an usher at a television studio, waiter, and cashier in the gift shop on the Sony Pictures studio lot in Culver City. It was there that he met the real-life Antwone Fisher, who had worked as a security guard on the Sony lot back in the early 1990s, but had quit to write an autobiographical screenplay. When Fisher would come into the store, "we'd just start talking," Luke recalled in the interview with Talley in Back Stage West. "I thought he was a cool guy. We developed a friendship without me ever knowing he was writing a script."
Eventually Luke learned about Fisher's writing project, which recounted his difficult childhood in an extremely abusive foster home. As a young man, Fisher escaped homelessness by enlisting in the Navy, was almost discharged because of his explosive temper, and found personal and professional success thanks to sessions with a sympathetic Navy psychiatrist. When Luke heard about the planned film version, he used a contact he knew at Fox to get an audition, but his tryout went poorly. Then Denzel Washington agreed to direct the project, and Luke fared better at subsequent tryouts. Finally, on the fourth callback he met and impressed Washington, who showed up at the Sony studio gift shop on August 1, 2001, to tell Luke that he had won the role. "Isn't that something? I will never get tired of telling that story," the actor said of his lucky break in the Back Stage West interview. "It's true, man."
Antwone Fisher was Washington's debut as a director, and there was already some media attention attached to the project; the fact that he had cast an unknown actor in the lead—Luke's only roles to date had been very brief parts on episodes of The King of Queens and Moesha—only intensified the anticipation surrounding the film's release. For his part, Luke was anxious during the first few weeks on the job, telling the New York Post that he was physically ill at first from nausea. His "very worst day," he remembered came during "the first scenes we shot in his office." He lamented: "I couldn't get my lines to stick, it wasn't making any sense. But Denzel was incredibly patient and helped me be honest with the material."
Novice Actor Wowed Critics
Luke's screen debut earned a slew of positive accolades from critics, with Stephen Holden in the New York Times commending the "compelling and complex character study that strikes a universal chord. Mr. Luke's performance is hands down the year's most auspicious screen acting debut." In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Roger Ebert confessed that he rarely cried at screenings, but wrote that Antwone Fisher "ends with scenes so true and heartbreaking that tears welled up in my eyes both times I saw the film." Ebert concluded by noting that it was "hard to believe Derek Luke is a newcomer; easy to believe why Washington decided he was the right actor to play Antwone Fisher."
Luke won the Independent Spirit Award for best actor for Antwone Fisher, and in his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony confessed that just four years earlier, in 1999, he had worked as a waiter at the very same event. His starring role opened many new doors in Hollywood, and he went on to appear in the motorcycle-racing flick Biker Boyz alongside Laurence Fishburne and Orlando Jones. He then turned in a more understated performance in Pieces of April, a sweet comedy that starred Katie Holmes as young woman determined to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for her family at her hovel-like New York City apartment. In 2004, he appeared in Spartan—which also featured a role for his wife, Sophia Adella Hernandez—and then Friday Night Lights, but disappeared for much of 2005 while shooting his next project in South Africa.
That movie was Catch a Fire, a 2006 drama that gave Luke another solid, highly coveted role based on a true-life tale. In this case it was the story of Patrick Chamusso, who served time in prison for committing a spectacularly daring act of sabotage at the Sasol oil refinery in Secunda, South Africa, in 1980. The action takes place during South Africa's apartheid era, when the country's black majority had virtually no political rights within a system pinned down by the force of a well-armed white regime. Chamusso carried out the deed on behalf of the outlawed African National Congress, and the film recounts his transformation from an ordinary man—a foreman at an oil refinery, wholly uninterested in politics and devoted to the game of soccer—into freedom fighter.
At a Glance …
Born on April 24, 1974, in Jersey City, NJ; son of Maurice (an actor) Luke and Marjorie (a pianist; maiden name, Dixon) Luke; married Sophia Adella Hernandez (a singer and actor), 1998. Education: Studied drama at New Jersey City University, c. 1992-95.
Worked for the U.S. Postal Service in New Jersey, c. 1992-95; in the Los Angeles area held a variety of odd jobs, including television studio usher, waiter, and cashier in the gift shop on the Sony Pictures studio lot; made film debut in the title role of Antwone Fisher, 2002.
Independent Spirit Award for best actor, 2003, for Antwone Fisher.
Agent—International Creative Management, 10250 Constellation Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90067.
Catch a Fire also starred Tim Robbins as the South African police colonel, who is hunting Chamusso, and South African actress Bonnie Henna as Chamusso's wife. Luke spent months on location and even learned Zulu for the role. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan noted there had been several previous movies set during South Africa's heinous apartheid era, and "though this story is way more than twice told…it has never been told by Derek Luke. The young American actor gives such an intense, passionate performance as South African Patrick Chamusso that he just about dares you not to be involved with the tale he is telling."
Credits Positive Thinking for His Success
Luke went on to appear in Glory Road, the 2006 story of the first all-black starting line-up during the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament in the 1960s. The Texas Western College team went on to beat an all-white team in the finals, and Luke was cast as its star player, Bobby Joe Hill. In 2007, he appeared in Lions for Lambs along with an all-star cast that included Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Robert Redford. He was cast as one of two U.S. Army rangers caught behind enemy lines in Afghanistan and whose plight turns into a political circus back in Washington.
Even pre-production press for Lions for Lambs mentioned that Luke was the actor who worked in the Sony gift shop before playing Antwone Fisher, and he was often asked about his sudden lucky break more than five years afterward. He usually credited his success less to being in the right place at the right time than to a book his mother gave him just as he was about to move to Hollywood. Titled Understanding Your Potential, the self-help tome by Myles Munroe contained a passage in which Luke read that "the richest place on earth is people who take their dreams and visions to the grave, who go through life without tapping into their potential,'" he told Nicole Porter for Back Stage East. "That just put something inside my heart—like a V-12 engine. That was the moment that changed my life."
Antwone Fisher, 2002.
Biker Boyz, 2003.
Pieces of April, 2003.
Friday Night Lights, 2004.
Catch a Fire, 2006.
Glory Road, 2006.
Lions for Lambs, 2007.
Back Stage East, December 14, 2006, p. 30A.
Back Stage West, December 19, 2002, p. 6.
Chicago Sun-Times, December 20, 2002.
Independent on Saturday (South Africa), February 10, 2007, p. 14.
Interview, November 2006, p. 64.
Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2006.
New York Post, December 16, 2002, p. 37.
New York Times, December 19, 2002; October 15, 2006.
People, December 23, 2002, p. 103.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), December 21, 2002, p. 19.
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