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The Big Break

On Jan. 11, a large and enthusiastic crowd convened at the Director's Guild of America theatre to hear actor Derek Luke, star of Fox Searchlight's Antwone Fisher, discuss his life-changing role in Denzel Washington's directorial debut film. This was the fourth event presented by Back Stage West as part of its "Evening With" series. Following a screening of the film, actors and fans listened to Luke's story of how he crashed the audition, which led to him landing his first lead role in a feature film. He also discussed what it was like working alongside one of Hollywood's top talents.

For his emotional turn as Fisher, Luke has received the National Board of Review Award for Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actor, the Golden Satellite Special Achievement Award for Outstanding New Talent, and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead. Luke acknowledged that the success of his performance was, by and large, a result of the guidance and support he received from Washington: "I've taken around 10 to 15 classes in my lifetime. All of those emotions you see and what I was able to do is because of Denzel. He's a brilliant man. He knows how to get the right things out of you. He brought out those emotions you see on film. There were a few moments when I didn't want to go there. But in his smooth way he made me. He's just brilliant."

The actor confessed that during his very first audition for the role he didn't wow the casting director. Indeed, he said, he was "horrible." But as production of the film stalled for nearly two years, allowing Luke to prep himself and again go in and go after the role he felt he had to play. Luke also shared with the audience how he felt when it came time to audition opposite Washington: "I auditioned very nervously. But the funny thing is, when he came in he had the nerve to introduce himself. He was very cool, very smooth. He made the whole thing very comfortable. I was able to relax and just do the scene."

Luke still seems to be pinching himself, realizing his dreams about a big break—while working at the Sony gift store as, he put it, a "folding technician"—are finally a reality. He remains deeply humble in the midst of his newfound celebrity and gives a lot of credit for his perseverance to his wife, Sophia Hernandez. "If it wasn't for my partner and best friend, my wife, I wouldn't be able to enjoy any of this. There was a time when we were homeless, living out of her car, because all I had was a BMX bicycle."

The evening concluded with uplifting and encouraging words from Luke to beginning actors urging them to continue to pursue their dreams. "Just as you are supporting me with my dream, I am supporting you with yours," he said.

The next Back Stage West event will be a Jan. 15 screening of Chicago and a post-screening interview with stars Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere, and John C. Reilly at the DGA. There will also be a Jan. 21 screening of Far From Heaven, with star Julianne Moore and writer/ director Todd Haynes in a post-screening Q&A, at the Harmony Gold Theatre.

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