It's just like in the movies: A novice hits the big time

Special to The Times

Maybe it was fate or divine inspiration or maybe 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.

"It just belonged to him," Washington says now of the decision to cast Luke as the lead. "He was just the right person, the right spirit for that part."

For Luke, 28, the road started when he was young. "My mother says I was 4 years old when I asked her to let me pursue acting," he says, but he can't point to any single motivating factor. "I just believe it was in me."

The Fox Searchlight film, which opens Dec. 20, is based on the true story of how Fisher's volatile temper affected his service in the Navy. After a spate of violent outbursts, Fisher was ordered to see a naval psychiatrist (Denzel 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 himself, his story first told in the memoir "Finding Fish."

Luke grew up in Jersey City, N.J., his stable upbringing a contrast to Fisher's chaotic life. With his open face and youthful demeanor, Luke is believable as the teenage Fisher in scenes from the past and the troubled sailor in the present. 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 destiny and a lifelong determination to follow his heart -- simple, 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 (the money didn't last long) 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 on the Universal Studios lot. That job, he notes fondly, "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. What's more, 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 based on Fisher was being developed, he knew it was "a supposed-to-be place for me" and kept up to date on the project's status. "I sold the trades" at the Sony store, he says. "I read them. They were my friends."

Hearing of auditions for "Antwone Fisher," Luke showed up, unannounced and uninvited. But no one was there. He'd gotten the time wrong. Later, when auditions did take place, Luke finagled an appointment with the help of a friend who worked in another casting office. Although he "bombed the audition," Luke made enough of an impression to get a callback. That audition went much better, but then the project was shut down because of Washington's schedule.

Luke continued working at the Sony store. During the next few years, he took a handful of acting lessons and had brief appearances on the sitcoms "Moesha" and "The King of Queens." In mid-2001 he heard that "Antwone Fisher" was back on. An audition with casting director Robi Reed-Humes went well enough that Luke was called in to meet Washington, one of Luke's childhood idols.

"It was magical," Luke says of that encounter. "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 while Luke was working. After chatting, Luke walked Fisher outside and spotted Washington walking with Todd Black, the film's producer, toward the store. Unknown to Luke, the two were on their way to tell him he'd gotten the part. They didn't know Fisher would be there too.

"I saw Denzel, and I saw Todd, and I like to froze," Luke recalls. "I thought, I'm not going to speak to [Denzel]. I figured, if he comes to speak to Antwone, maybe he'll remember my face. And then" -- even now, he is briefly overcome at the memory -- "he 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 big-screen debut. Luke believes that the message behind "Antwone Fisher" is "heal the past and be clean in the now."

As to how Washington helped most with his performance, Luke responds with one word: "freedom." The actor-director offered guidance and made suggestions, but always "it was carved around freedom."

When Washington first heard about "Antwone Fisher," he was attracted to both the story and the man behind the intense personal tale. He also liked the fact that "this is a performance kind of story, and I think that's my strength." Washington enjoyed sharing that strength with the young actor in the lead -- but was not nearly as keen on directing himself. 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. 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 time."

After finishing "Antwone Fisher," Luke found himself in demand; he's just finishing up work on the film "Biker Boyz," in which he co-stars with Laurence Fishburne and Eriq LaSalle. He's also in the upcoming "Pieces of April" opposite Katie Holmes. And in December, he'll be on public view in more than just "Antwone Fisher," having recently posed for a series of Gap ads.

The approaching "Antwone Fisher" opening and media spotlight are "pretty much breathtaking," Luke admits. As to what he'll do next, "I'm just looking for more predestined roles," he says. "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."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday November 07, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 304 words Type of Material: Correction Antwone Fisher -- The screenplay for "Antwone Fisher" was written eight years before the memoir "Finding Fish" was published. The screenplay and the book were written by Antwone Fisher. A story in the Nov. 3 Sunday Calendar incorrectly stated that the screenplay was written after the book was published. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday November 10, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 5 inches; 196 words Type of Material: Correction "Antwone Fisher" -- The screenplay for "Antwone Fisher" was written eight years before the memoir "Finding Fish" was published. Both were written by Antwone Fisher. A Nov. 3 story about the movie incorrectly stated that the screenplay was written after the book was published.
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