Talks About His Career and the Women
Who Inspired Him
By Beverly Cohn
erek Luke's life reads like a lovely and sometimes not so lovely
fairy tale. Born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, his early
years were less than idyllic. Abandoned by his father when he was in the
third grade, his mother, a pianist, struggled to support her two sons.
He survived growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood and eventually,
the aspiring young actor made his way out to Hollywood where he
worked odd jobs while pursuing an acting career.
Derek Luke currently co-starring with Paula
Patton in "Baggage Claim." Courtesy photo.
His breakout role was the lead in "Antoine Fisher"
with Denzel Washington, who also directed. His stunning performance
garnered him an Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor,
a Black Reel Award for Best Actor as well as a BET Award for
Favorite Actor. Since then, he has appeared in an assortment of
films including: "Glory Road," "Catch a Fire,"
" Lions for Lambs," "Miracle at St. Anna,"
"Notorious," "Madea Goes to Jail," "Captain
America: The First Avenger," "Seeking a Friend for
the End of the World," and "Sparkle."
Photo: Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
Derek is currently co-starring in "Baggage
Claim," a sweet fable about a woman's determination to find
her soul mate. The film, written and directed by David E. Talbert,
co- stars Paula Patton, Taye Diggs, Boris Kodjoe, Tremaine
Neverson, Jill Scott, Adam Brody, Jenifer Lewis, Djimon Hounsou, Lauren
London, Christina Milian, LaLa Anthony, and Ned Beatty.
Derek recently sat down with your reporter for
an exclusive interview and the following has been edited for content
and continuity. It should be noted that before the interview began,
Derek, along with his wife Sophie, his publicist and a
few of his close friends, surprised me by singing Happy Birthday,
which I was told a little birdie revealed to them.
You had a lot of adversity growing up no father
and economic challenges so how did you overcome such a rocky
Derek: Wow. That's a good question. You're trying to
go deep, aren't you?
If it's uncomfortable, let's skip ahead to the next
Derek: Let's go. I'll see where my heart is. The honest
answer is that I believe I'm standing literally on the shoulders of
a lot of women. My great grandmother was a mid-wife, but not by being
taught in school because they wouldn't allow her to be taught in school
and so her science was healing people by any means necessary. I always
felt like my mom and her mom, were all in the healing business and that
kind of denotes to some of the movies I've been a part of like "Antoine
Fisher," so growing up I always heard miracle stories. I think
everybody needs a so-called mid-wife and my great grandmother really
left a moral and spiritual foundation. I think there are a lot of people
that have been raised in a difficult environment but her key was don't
let the environment raise you. I think we all have challenges but I
had great, strong women and have been a momma's boy for a long time
until I got married. So, I really pay tribute to all the women who went
to work under crazy conditions and fed us by any means necessary. They're
really like the heroes and I'm just telling the stories of how I kind
of came out victorious.
Let's talk a bit about your solid work in "Baggage
Claim. What attracted you to the script and to the character of William?
Derek: I just thought that William was every
guy, but he was the rejected guy. I thought that gentlemen who are nice
are not popular, but they should be, and if any man or woman is looking
for clues, let William be a journey on how you get to your promised
land. I thought he was fun. I've been friends with many women so I knew
how it felt not to be the one. In the film, the girls talk about the
guy with car and he has this and he has that. I'm like what about me?
I'm right next door.
Derek Luke with Paula Patton. Photo:
Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
Had you worked with Paula Patton before and how was
she to work with?
Derek: We only met in passing. I had a great time working
with Paula. I didn't know she was so bubbly because the movie
I saw her in was "Déjà vu" with Denzel
(Washington) so I thought she was a very subdued type
of character. When I walked into the audition, I said is this character
work she's doing or is this the real person? So I wasn't sure until
I got on the set with her. What I love about Paula as a talent
is that she never came on set as just an actress or woman of color.
She came the way Denzel impacted our lives. He would say be excellent.
Be the best you can be. So in every scene she was looking for something
Did she give a lot as an actress?
Derek: You know what. She really did. Some people have
related to the business as masculine, but I think the approach to acting
is passion, not masculine, and she was very committed and I will defend
her. I like her, and I think her and David (director David
E. Talbert) and myself wanted the best team. We wanted to win
the Olympics so to speak.
How relevant do you think "Baggage Claim"
is in today's dating world?
Derek: That's a good one. I like that. Socially I think
the movie is on time because marriages and relationships have been at
an all-time fatality. I think movies should move you towards goals and
success and shouldn't bring you further away. So this movie, "Baggage
Claim," would have been a movie I would have wanted to see
when I was kid, like when I saw "Boomerang" with Eddie
Murphy. I was young and I didn't go to the movies to see a romantic
comedy. I went to the movies to be entertained but was educated at the
L-R: Derek Luke with Denzel Washington in "Antoine
Fisher" which earned Luke multiple accolades for his performance.
I'd like to go back to Antoine Fisher in which you
gave an extraordinary performance. How was it working with Denzel and
did you take something away with you from that experience?
Derek: Oh boy. Have I taken anything away? You know,
I have. A lot of times I don't recall what I learned from Denzel
because he didn't give a lot of direction. When a director would come
to me, either for a job purposes or inquiring about Denzel because that
was my first movie, you would have to ask him whether he had to direct
me a lot. He would have to give me a score. I'm not going to give myself
a score but what I learned from him is being honest. You have to be
truthful and what I like about the legendary people I've met David
Mamet, Robert Redford, and even Tom Cruise is that
they have been the most approachable people, while some people who haven't
had half the light they've had, have been the most difficult. So I think
a leading man is not just the role you're playing, but is the character
you play in life.
In your early days as an actor, you were auditioning
four or five times a week and got a lot of rejections. Why didn't you
Derek: What kept me going forward was that again, there
was a lot of sacrifice that happened on my behalf. When I got to LA,
I didn't have a Master Card or a Visa, but somehow, in
my heart, I believed that I had enough foundation to make it. I had
enough faith to go from facts to action to the miraculous. In Hollywood,
I never think it's about the resume. I always think it's about the revelation.
If you don't have a revelation of who you are, then who you're trying
to become could swallow you up and again, I have to go back to my mom
and my great grandmother who sowed a great awareness about becoming
the best you, you can be. Also, every time I would leave an audition,
I would always turn on or listen to a mentor, not in the same business,
but someone who would talk about how they would win through adversity.
That was a brighter side because if I'd fed off of fear, I would have
never gotten here.
As you continue along your career path, are you carefully
picking roles that won't type cast you?
Derek: That's a good observation. I think Tom Hanks
said I'm typecast as Mr. Nice Guy and he said I don't have a
problem with that. He was saying if nice is a demand, then let me go
ahead and be in demand. I don't look at it as being typecast, but more
like being in your own lane. I think sometimes when people are not in
their own lane they hit unnecessary frustration and turbulence. So,
I do look at other roles, and my heart is the only strategy for selecting
movies. If my heart and spirit don't relate to it, and if I can't see
it, then I can't be it, so I've turned down a few projects. You know
what I'm saying? So that's how I select roles that either come to me
or I go after them.
Is there one director or actor with whom you would
like to work?
Derek: I think about Francis Ford Coppola, Al
Pacino, Steven Spielberg, and Sam Mendes. I have a
different reason for working for them. I call it a master's class because
if you talk to Denzel or Robert Redford when you were
very young, you didn't know or appreciate it when you were in a master's
class, so now I want to work with directors who can enhance what's in
me and bring out more qualities.
What were you acting goals when you came to L.A.?
Derek: When I came to LA I wasn't into all that
drama. I wanted to do TV. I wanted to do "The Cosby Show."
I wanted to do sitcoms. I wasn't that aware or interested in drama.
It didn't do anything for me, but it was where I was supposed to be.
Did you take acting classes?
Derek Luke with his wife Sophie. Courtesy
Derek: You know, I did, or I should say I began but
I never really liked the classroom setting. You were in there with guys
ten years younger than you and they were grooming them as well as you
because they thought they could make money off of those guys. So, I
didn't study for a long time. I took two classes and took away things,
but then I got married pretty early.
When you develop a character, do you do a back-story?
Derek: I do. But, sometimes roles happen so quickly
where you can be on a set within 24 hours and at that point you
just have to act because you have to get right into it.
Tell me about "Second Sight?"
Derek: Yes, it's a television pilot in which I play
Detective Paul Giroux. A pilot is sort of a new world for me.
I thought it was fun. Good collaborators. Executive Producers
from "Homeland" and "CSI Miami." It
was visually stimulating but I don't know if it all came together.
What kind of roles would you like someone to write
Derek: Teacher. Attorney. So many roles
that Sidney (Poitier) and Denzel (Washington)
played. I'd like anything that is brown, has integrity, is noble, and
Most actors seem to have some fear. Do you have a
Derek: I don't believe it's necessarily fear. There's
a quote that says fear and faith don't occupy the same space and faith
has served me well, where fear hasn't. Fear has backed me up and faith
has moved me forward so I tend to lean more to faith in the environment,
words, and people, so my continued progress is based on faith and light,
Thank you for a wonderful interview and for your
kind birthday wishes. I look forward to hearing your Oscar acceptance
speech in the foreseeable future.
Derek: It's been a pleasure.