Talk about a life-changing role

Times Staff Writer

DEREK LUKE was a man of few words when he showed up for his audition for the anti-apartheid drama “Catch a Fire,” which opens Friday.

Luke was reading for the role of a real-life South African hero, Patrick Chamusso, who, after being arrested and tortured for a crime he didn’t commit, became a rebel fighter in the early 1980s.

The audition scene would become one of the most harrowing sequences in the film -- in which a beaten and bloodied Chamusso falsely confesses to the crime of sabotage in order to save his wife, who has also been imprisoned and tortured.


Director Phillip Noyce said Luke was like “a man with a burden he wanted to get rid of.”

“He didn’t want any advice,” said Noyce (“The Quiet American,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence”). “He just sat down quietly and said, ‘I just want to do the scene.’ ”

Sitting poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel recently, Luke explained that he had mentally prepared for the scene and didn’t want any chitchat to get in the way.

“When you do a scene like that, it requires you to have nothing left,” said Luke (“Antwone Fisher,” “Friday Night Lights”). “So when I went to the audition room, I thought that maybe Phillip was a little more of a conversational-type person. I couldn’t speak to him because there was a fire burning in my belly. The only way I could speak at that point was to do the scene.”

Noyce said Luke “absolutely defined” the character. Luke’s audition not only affected the director but also the actress who was playing Chamusso’s wife. “She was there rocking and crying for a half hour after he left,” said Noyce.

There is already award season buzz for Luke’s revelatory work. The actor said he’s getting e-mails from friends and even strangers, all lauding his performance: “It’s cool.... It’s so exciting.”

Not everyone was thrilled with Luke’s casting. Chamusso, who now runs an orphanage in South Africa for 90 children, said he was dubious when he learned the lead would be played by an American.

“I was worried about the American accent,” Chamusso said during a telephone interview.

Plus, when he heard it was an American, “I was expecting Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes,” saying that he had never heard of Luke before.

But then the two met before production began and found they had something in common. “We are both religious,” said Chamusso.

“I say ‘spiritual,’ ” Luke later recalled with a smile. “He said ‘religious.’ ”

The two men became so friendly that Luke bought the orphanage its first Christmas tree last holiday season. Not only hadn’t the children seen a Christmas tree before, reported Chamusso, neither had anyone else in town. “They all came to see the tree,” Chamusso said.

THE men had something else in common.

“My mother is my hero,” said Luke, 32. “She raised three boys. A lot of kids didn’t make it in Jersey City [N.J.]. A single mom raising boys is difficult, so that’s what attracted me to Patrick. When they told me he raises 90 orphans plus his own children, you don’t find men who do that. My mother, my grandmother and my wife are all heroes. And now here is this man who is also my hero. You can’t fake raising three children and you can’t fake raising 90.”

Production didn’t begin on “Catch a Fire” until nine months after Luke was hired. “The film was sort of on again and off again,” said Noyce. “But Luke kept turning down work. He said, ‘I don’t want anything to get in the way.’ ”

Six weeks before production, Luke went to South Africa for his “training program.”

“Although he had the emotional range and had shown that well in advance, he had to make the technical leaps,” Noyce said. “He needed the body language and the lifetime of experience of a South African that he could draw on any moment that was required.”

Added Luke: “It was learning Zulu and how to speak South African English. I was also asked to drop 10 to 15 pounds of muscle.” Luke was put on a limited diet.

“For breakfast I had apples and almond crumbs and a spoon of honey,” he recalled. “For lunch, I had steamed vegetables and for dinner a green salad with lemon juice. You walked everywhere [back in the 1980s]. No one had a Metro card. These guys were very lean.”

He also traveled to every significant place Chamusso frequented, including the Secunda Oil Refinery, where Chamusso had worked and later attempted sabotage.

But the most life-changing experience for Luke was visiting where Chamusso spent 10 years in prison before being released in 1991. Robben Island Prison was also the place where South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.

An ex-inmate escorted Luke into Mandela’s former cell. It was tiny, dehumanizing.

“I asked them to close the door to see what it was like to lose sight of everything. At that point I knew what it was like to be Patrick.”

Noyce noticed a real change in Luke after his visit to the prison.

“After five weeks into the training, he was almost paralyzed,” Noyce recalled. “The more information he got, the more of the burden he felt. He felt the burden of having to represent South African history and having to play this real person. What I saw happen when Derek came out of the cell was all the burden was lifted. He discovered the universality of Patrick Chamusso.”

Several of Luke’s most emotionally powerful scenes are opposite Tim Robbins, who plays the coolly efficient torturer Nic Vos.

The two purposely didn’t rehearse. “I don’t like rehearsals,” said Luke.

“I like to have the needle and the thread, but I don’t like to start knitting until I get on the set. We had a couple of run-throughs and we talked about it, but we never performed it.”

In addition to being changed by the role, Luke said, he was changed by South Africa itself.

“It was a real eye-opener,” he said. “You always hear people say it’s going to change your life and make a difference, and then you say, ‘How?’ Then you go.”

South Africa “takes all the complaining out of you. You become less selfish. You really prioritize what is a necessity -- they are living off of 150 American dollars a month. There is a huge gap” between rich and poor.

Noyce said that Luke didn’t work for nine months after returning home -- not until the actor did his last voice-over for the trailer.

“I couldn’t let go,” Luke said. “I think I was really wound up when I got back.”