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Shop Clerk to Star

Studios might experience a sudden influx of actors applying for positions at their gift stores. As the story has been told, actor Derek Luke was working at the Sony Pictures gift shop where, unbeknownst to him, he befriended Antwone Fisher, whom he would later portray in Denzel Washington's directorial debut, The Antwone Fisher Story. Luke was a struggling young actor and Fisher a former Sony security guard who was writing a screenplay about his life.

"Actually we met not too far from the store on the Sony lot," Luke told Back Stage West. "He would come in and we'd just start talking. He told me what he does and I told him what I do. I don't think there was any interest more than that. It was all done in passing. But we just seemed to click. I thought he was a cool guy. We developed a friendship without me ever knowing he was writing a script."

It was during one of their many conversations that Luke learned about the script that changed his life. Rumor has it that Antwone Fisher floated around Hollywood for almost a decade and went through numerous rewrites before Washington scribbled, "I will do this movie after Training Day," on a napkin and gave it to producer Todd Black.

"When I found out that Denzel was interested in the script, then I became interested in the script," said Luke. "I asked him if I could read it. Then I followed the project. I followed its progress. I would read about it in Variety while I was working at the Sony store." It was the first time Luke ever followed a project so closely. He felt he had to because no other project had affected him this way. "It spoke to my heart and spirit. Nothing stood out like that," said Luke.

With the help of a friend who worked at Fox, Luke managed to get into the casting room and read for the lead role of Antwone Fisher. "When I read for the first time with [Fox casting director] Christian Kaplan, it could have been in 1997 or 1998. Then the project went down. It didn't come back up until late 2000 or early 2001. I started to pursue it again because I heard it was back up. That's when the callbacks started happening. I met Denzel on the fourth one." Among hundreds of young hopefuls, Luke caught the attention of Washington—so much so that Washington took it upon himself to tell Luke in person while he was on the job at the studio store that he had landed the role. "Yeah, isn't that something?" recalled Luke. "I will never get tired of telling that story. It's true, man."

Stuff of Dreams

Luke's voyage is the kind of Hollywood fairy tale that strengthens the dreams of new actors. He left his mother's New Jersey home at the age of 18 and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. He managed to land representation in little over two years. Prior to his role in Antwone Fisher he was a relative unknown except for appearances on Moesha and The King of Queens. "My career was going but it was going real slow, let's just say that," said Luke. He remained persistent: Not once during his five years at Sony's gift store did he ever abandon his dream. "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."

Luke's perseverance and determination have paid off in a big way. For his feature film debut he fully inhabits his character and admirably stands toe-to-toe with one of Hollywood's biggest and most talented movie stars, Washington, who also stars. Critics have taken notice and are praising his breakthrough performance.

Some may be surprised to find out Luke did not enlist the help of any famed acting teacher/coach for his ambitious portrayal. "We had read-throughs and breakdowns of the characters when I first saw the Antwone script. I tried to go over it with an acting coach, but, you know, sometimes the classroom is not what you need at that time. The chemistry is not there. There are great teachers who bring out potential in a lot of great students. But that formula was just not unfolding for me. I took about 10 to 15 acting classes in my lifetime." He relied on his innate abilities and the guidance and direction of Washington: "He's a powerful man. I've had the heart for Denzel since the first time I saw him."

The film has garnered a lot of Oscar buzz for Washington's direction, as well as for Luke's efforts. Though Luke is getting a lot more attention from Hollywood than ever before, and though he'll appear in two more films after Antwone Fisher—Biker Boys, due out early next year, and Pieces of April—he remains grounded and genuinely appreciative of everything that is happening to him.

"My perspective on interviews has changed some. It's something that I'm getting used to. Things are really, really good. It's so exciting. I don't want to sound like it's bothersome, you know. Like, man, I got to go here and do this publicity tour thing. Let me tell you something: This has been the most exciting, most important part of my career. I've dreamt of this. I've dreamt of riding in first-class, eating and staying at five-star restaurants and hotels. I mean, the closest I got to five-star hotels was drawing a star with my own five fingers. You know what I mean? I'm living this up and enjoying it graciously." BSW

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