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Derek Luke was working in the shop at the Sony Pictures Studio lot, an out of work actor looking for a chance. Along comes Antwone Fisher with his life story written for the screen, and the chance meeting changes Luke’s life, he tells Andrew L. Urban. 

“I used to go to auditions – now I do meetings,” says a cheekily grinning Derek Luke, when asked about the impact of his career-launching role as Antwone Fisher in Denzel Washington’s directing debut film based on Fisher’s life. Indeed, he’d been to some 200 auditions and was without acting work for nearly three years. In April 2003, he starts making his fourth film, Spartans.

Now, Fisher is lapping up his first international star tour, sitting in a Sydney harbourside restaurant beside the Opera House. His wife is in the city, window shopping. They've just come back from a harbour cruise and for the first time in his life, he’s living First Class. All thanks to Antwone Fisher’s traumatic childhood. And Luke’s own belief that he could play the role.

A few hours earlier, I was talking on the phone to Antwone Fisher himself. When I told him I’d be meeting Derek Luke, Fisher told me to ask Luke if he shaved his legs. This was a Fisher jive, and when I told Luke he burst out laughing. “He’s telling everyone that!” But the joke has a point: as Luke says, it shows a different side to the Antwone Fisher hiding behind his tragic story of abandoned and abused childhood. “There are two Antwones,” says Luke. “He was a redeemed Antwone . . . that was not the same guy you see in the film. And that made it interesting to play him.”

"I begged him to let me read it"

When the two men first met in 1997, Luke was an out of work actor working at the shop on the Sony Pictures Studio lot. He was invited to a studio lunch by a mutual friend. “Antwone was there too, and I was struck by how humble he was (for a Hollywood). He said he’d written a story and Denzel Washington is set to direct. My eyes popped and I begged him to let me read it.” The hungry young actor saw his chance. There was enough similarity between him and Antwone to encourage him to try for it. He was determined to get it.

By another coincidence, sometime later, Antwone Fisher was at the shop the very day Denzel Washington chose to visit the shop to tell Derek Luke personally that he’d got the role. “That’s pretty unusual, yeah, your agent usually rings…” 

Washington walked up them and called out “Antwone...and I knew he was talking to me,” says Luke. “I cast you, man.” 

Luke took the news well. “Oh, I think I grabbed him and squeezed his neck and kissed him on the cheek and fell on my knees, crying, and saying ‘thank goodness, oh wow, this feels like a miracle…” And the odd thing is that Washington didn’t realise that the two men knew each other.

Luke waited eight days before leaving his job at the shop. 

Then it was time to face the challenge – not that Luke ever felt intimidated by it. He once attended acting school but after 20 classes he had to leave. “I hated it; it just didn’t work for me.” He felt comfortable around Denzel Washington, which helped. “He treated me like a peer,” Luke recalls, “and I thought I was feeling TOO comfortable…I thought maybe I was being cocky and that’s when I need to be scared. So I tried to intimidate myself . . .” 

"I got to witness a great man at his best"

Strangely enough, the thing that remains with Luke since the shoot is “Denzel’s vulnerability; I got to witness a great man at his best, facing the unknown. We’d be working on the script, making a few changes and working things out … but quite a few times I’d see this man with no idea what he was going to say. He’d say ‘forget what people say about me…. this is something new for me everyday.’ And he’s a genius, so that encouraged me!”

Published March 13, 2003

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Derek Luke



Antwone Fisher (left) and Derek Luke

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