Ever since his breakout role in “Antwone Fisher”, 34-year old Derek Luke has been in high demand. Currently part of the ensemble cast in Spike Lee’s “Miracle of St. Anna”, the award-winning actor has much going on, including playing Sean Combs in the upcoming Notorious.
In ‘St. Anna’, Luke plays 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps in the World War 2 drama which tells of of four black American soldiers who get trapped in a Tuscan village during WWII.
In a Toronto hotel room, Luke spoke exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: Having been young, cutting your teeth, working with Denzel, and now working with Spike – what are the major differences between these two guys who have such an iconic sense about them?
Luke: Well, I think one of the things about Denzel is, he usually knows what he wants before he starts something and so does Spike. Spike is like one of the guys who you can imagine he has a camera, and it’s on a tripod. It has a timer on it, he sets it, and then he runs in front of the camera to take the picture. And Spike makes sure that the preparation is done before we start shooting. Denzel is a professional by courage. And so is Spike. And they’re both different, but they’re the same in the fact that they are visionaries.
Question: When you see a script like this, when there are so many characters and I guess so many points of view – what do you look for? Was it the opportunity maybe to work with Spike? Or was it the character, or a combination of the two?
Luke: It was a combination of telling the story and working with Spike, because Spike only does – goes down unpaved roads. And I like the unpaved roads myself. You know? I like the fact that he’s a classic filmmaker, meaning that he – his films usually touches on the pulse of the human activity, which is the human spirit. Emotions. And the soul. And I like that, because they never – they always transcend, and they never die. Because even the war, Miracle at St. Anna, people were taking their beliefs all the way to their grave, all the way to – they pick up weapons. And today, things have not changed. We’re talking about war. You know? Fifty, 60, 70 years. And 70–50 years from now, it could just be the same thing.
Question: How much research did you do on the war itself, that only – I guess the African-American involvement in the war? Because audiences — and I’ve seen a lot of, studied war – are not really aware of the black involvement in World War Two in particular.
Luke: No. I was not aware of the African-American involvement, and their patriotism during the war. As a matter of fact, there had never been a political conversation in the school or classes I went through. The war, or being a military soldier, was a means of a beginning or end. You only joined the army because you wanted to go to school, or you didn’t want to go to jail, or you just were looking for a job. So there was no connection, and there was no proudness, when that meant going to the military when I was a kid or in high school. The military would come on Career Day and say, “Would you like to join?” I’m like, “No.” You know? Never go to their table. But now, when I found out about the 92nd, it totally changed my mind. The fact that they were under fire psychologically and physically, in Germany and also back at home, but they still felt like – above it all, I must rise for the occasion. And I’m doing this for my children and my grandchildren. Like, my character, Aubrey Stamps, called it in the movie.
Question: Could you identify with this character?
Luke: I did. I did. I could identify with him a lot.
Question: In what way?
Luke: Well, I was raised by a group of people that believed in hope. And I was fed hope. I would have never come to Hollywood if it wasn’t for those people. And they told me that, “You know, Derek, no one else knows the creation like the creator. So before you go get confirmation from man, make sure you get it first from God.” And I felt like Stamps, what people called “optimistic”–I thought he was really spiritual. Because he felt, even though there was war and chaos and sometimes he came up to situations that made it hard to leave these guys – because of one, he called in coordinates for his Army to bomb a certain point, and they let him down. And he had to swallow, and still lead. And he had a conflict with Bishop, who represented the certain mentality of black people during 1944, which they had a right to. And he – you know, these were just some of the conflicts. And I enjoyed playing Stamps. Because when I grew up in my home, I wasn’t that popular either, because they called me “quiet.” And they knew that I wasn’t just quiet because I wasn’t thinking. They called me “quiet” because I wouldn’t say what I was thinking.
Question: And you became an actor, which is an interesting career place for a quiet guy.
Luke: Well, my Dad was a preacher. And acting is another form of expression.
Question: Do you consider yourself to be still a spiritual person?
Luke: I don’t think you can get away from it. I think that if you plan a orange tree, and you put orange seeds in it, you’re gonna get orange fruit.
Question: How does that – that’s very interesting. Because I was curious to know how that meshes with working in an industry that can often be perceived as not being a particularly spiritual industry, in a way. I mean, the movie business in Hollywood.
Luke: I think Hollywood, or – television is totally based on faith. Like, the movie Miracle at St. Anna. There were so many miracles on this film. Spike Lee started the film in July, held a press conference, but he had no money. Only thing he says, that – “I just believe if I don’t start now, then I’ll never.” So he started acting on what he believed. And people call it revisionist spirituality. Acting on what you believe is really relationship. And, you know, Hollywood, or your job, should never steer your heart, you know? And that’s why I consider myself not to just be an artist. I consider myself to be a person, you know? You know, we’re an industry – Hollywood is self-imposed. You can be anything you want to be. You know, you don’t have to be what Hollywood says. If I want Hollywood to work for me, then Hollywood has to work for me, because I believe a certain thing. You know?
Question: What surprises you the most about your growth as an actor since you started – since first met you at Antwone Fisher?
Luke: What surprises me most about my growth? That I think I kept the same views. I think that I have a different haircut, but I still – the legacy of films that I have left has all screened the same. I think since Antwone Fisher, I gained a powerful man audience. On Antwone, men put me in a corner and cried, and told me that they were fatherless and abandoned. And they understood that even though I was playing a role, that I was speaking. On Pieces of April, you know, it was the same thing. It was about a man in a different situation. All the movies I’ve done, I felt like it was an outreach to men. Men of all colors. So I felt like what’s surprising is that no matter what film I’ve done, there’s always a message to manhood. And men.
Question: Is that what you look for in a role? Is that important for you?
Luke: No. No, many times I call my agent, and says, “Get me a boom boom shoot-em-up movie. Some – with Matt Damon. Maybe we can both chase some cars together.” And every time, my heart is buried in my mouth. Because my heart drifts to projects that are –
Question: More emotional.
Luke: More emotional, and meaty, and more conversational.
Question: Do your agents tell you, “You know, you should do one of these big movies, so that we can make some more money out of you?”
Luke: I have a great agent, Ed Limato who is a seasoned agent, and that’s why I actually went with him. He’s not the regular young agent who is non-settled. He’s settled and says, “Hey, Derek, you don’t want to do that one? There will be plenty others.” So. They say that I kind of have a thing for old guys, or old souls. I love Ed.
Question: Is this a great year to be an American, given what’s going on in American politics at the moment, with the Obama campaign, and the way in which the young people are flocking to somebody who clearly has a passion for what he believes in?
Luke: Yeah. It’s – and it’s also a great to be a part of this film. Because history has an unseen timer on it. And no matter how much Hollywood or any ‘wood or any industry felt like they’re in control, movies just don’t happen. This movie could have happened 50 years ago, when Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson. But this movie comes out parallel to things that are happening. And I believe that the studio didn’t plan it. Denzel didn’t plan it, Spike Lee didn’t plan it. So it lets me know, if you look at the scope of things, that man is only in control as much as they yield their will. So. It is a very exciting time.
Question: Do you think Obama will win the election?
Luke: I think he will. I think it would be no contest. I think that – because it’s not about – like he says, he’s only a man. And America has said that, “We want everything you represent.” And he happens to be a person of color.
Question: What are your future plans? Have you worked on anything since filming this?
Luke: Oh, yes. I shot two other films.
Question: Really? Busy lad, you are.
Question: Oh, well, yeah. Better than the alternative, right?
Luke: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It’s a blessing. I finished two films.
Question: What are they?
Luke: One is called Notorious, where I play Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Question: How is that, to play such an iconic character? Pretty scary!
Luke: [LAUGHTER] It was.
Question: He’s a pretty tough cookie, this guy.
Luke: Yeah. But you know what? The good thing about Puffy, or Diddy, or Sean, is that he has layers. And the Sean that you see today was not the Sean 12 years ago.
Question: How much do you hang out with him?
Luke: Well, you know what? I hung out with my script. Sean is a mogul CEO now, and he’s always on the move. So we met a couple – just a couple of times. And he said to me that, “I know what you can do. This is why I want you to play it. And it’s in the story. I trust you, so get busy.” And that was the conversation..
Question: This is about Notorious Big?
Question: Sounds like a very interesting project.
Luke: Yeah, it is.
Question: Who else is in that?
Luke: Everybody is new. But they’re all very fine actors. Broadway. Some – I think one of the lead girls is from Rent. Was the lead girl from Rent on Broadway. Another girl is from a very talented music group. Another guy that plays Biggie is from Brooklyn.
Question: Did you watch a lot of footage of that period?
Luke: I did. I did. But I was affected by that period, because I worked as a teenager in a retail store. And because of Puffy’s success, even the retail business went up in my neighborhood. You know, I lived in Jersey. So I knew the story from a different angle. And also – I mean, hip-hop at that time did not just affect his pockets, but it also affected the pockets around my neighborhood.
Question: And what was the other film you did?
Luke: I did a film called Madea Goes to Jail, with Tyler Perry. [LAUGHTER]
Question: I can’t see you in a Tyler Perry movie!
Luke: Yeah. I love Tyler Perry. I love him.
Question: It’s obviously a comedy.
Luke: His side is the comedic side. Mine is the more – more romantic or dramatic side. Yeah.
Question: And have you signed up for anything else?
Luke: I will be in a couple weeks.