Maybe it was fate or divine inspiration - or maybe it was just an
old-fashioned Hollywood dreams-can-come-true story. Maybe it was all those
things that worked for Derek Luke, a young, untried actor who, in his first
feature film, got the title role in "Antwone Fisher," Denzel Washington's
directing debut that's now playing in theaters nationwide.
"It just belonged to him," Washington says of the decision to cast Luke as
the film's lead. "He was just the right person, the right spirit for that part."
For Luke, the road to the role started when he was young. "My mother says I
was 4 when I asked her to let me pursue acting," he says, but cannot point to
any single motivating factor or inspiration. "I just believe it was in me."
The movie is based on the true story of how Fisher's volatile temper
impacted on his service in the U.S. Navy. After a spate of violent outbursts,
Fisher is ordered to see a naval psychiatrist (Washington). The film intercuts
between the present and flashbacks to Fisher's childhood in an abusive foster
home, as the doctor helps him examine the cause of his deeply rooted anger. The
screenplay was written by Fisher back in 1993. He later told his story in the
memoir "Finding Fish," published in 2001.
Luke, 28, grew up in Jersey City, N.J., his stable upbringing a sharp
contrast to Fisher's chaotic life. With his open face and youthful demeanor,
Luke is believable as both the teenage Fisher in some scenes from the past and
the troubled sailor in the present day.
During a recent interview near his home in Pasadena, where he lives with
his wife, Sophia, Luke spoke with quiet confidence, his conversation peppered
with references to fulfilling one's destiny and a lifelong determination to
follow his heart - straightforward beliefs grounded more in spiritual faith
than New Age platitudes.
Luke's journey brought him to California in 1995. He had a $1,000 nest egg
from a job back home (which lasted little more than a few weeks) - and no show
business connections. But he was savvy enough to find work on the periphery of
the industry: For about a year he was an usher for Audiences Unlimited,
shepherding viewers to sitcom tapings at Universal Studios. That job, he notes,
"kept me in the zone."
Luke remained in the zone once he began working at the retail store on the
Sony Pictures Studios lot in 1996. At Sony he met the real-life Antwone Fisher,
who had segued from on-lot security guard to screenwriter with a development
deal. When Luke learned that a film was being developed based on Fisher's
story, he made sure to keep up to date on the project. "I sold the trades
[trade magazines] at the Sony store," he said. "They came in the morning, and I
Hearing of auditions for "Antwone Fisher," Luke showed up, unannounced and
uninvited. But no one was there. He'd gotten the time wrong. When auditions
really happened, Luke finagled an appointment with the help of a friend.
Although he admittedly "bombed the audition," Luke made enough of an impression
to be called back. That audition went much better, but then the project was
shut down because of Washington's acting schedule. During the next few years,
Luke took a handful of acting lessons and appeared on the sitcoms "Moesha" and
An audition with casting director Robi Reed-Humes went well enough that Luke
was called in to meet with Washington, who was now going to make his directing
debut with the movie.
"It was magical," Luke says. "I just told myself, I'm going to let my heart
take over, and left it at that."
Several weeks later, Fisher came by the Sony store. After chatting for a
while, Luke walked Fisher outside and spotted Washington with producer Todd
Black. He didn't know at the time they were on the way to tell him he'd gotten
the part. "I saw Denzel, and I saw Todd, and I like to froze," Luke recalls.
"[Denzel] called me Antwone," he says softly, repeating himself as if it's
still a little hard to believe. "He called me Antwone."
When it came time to get to work, Luke put his personal philosophy to
professional use. "Read the script, be honest and listen to the heart of the
character," is all he can say about how he prepared for his film debut.
As to how Washington helped most with his performance, Luke says he offered
guidance and made suggestions, but always "it was carved around freedom."
When Washington first heard about "Antwone Fisher," he was attracted to the
story and the man behind the intense personal tale. So how receptive was a
two-time Oscar- winning actor to taking orders from a novice director?
Washington laughs at the question.
"He was very difficult to work with, very difficult on the set," said
Washington. "I almost had to fire him." More seriously, he adds, "I prefer just
directing to acting and directing at the same time. I didn't like that. I
really wanted to take the time to work with Derek, and it was hard to split the
Luke is finishing work on the film "Biker Boyz," in which he co-stars with
Laurence Fishburne and Eriq La Salle. He's also in "Pieces of April," opposite
"I'm just looking for more predestined roles," he said. "I believe a
message is written on every man's heart, and based on that message he can't
help but attract what belongs to him, like a magnet."