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Turning the tables

Derek Luke went from waiter at a film awards event to honoree for acting.

March 14, 2004|Mark Olsen

His story is exactly the one people like to hear. Having moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey with little more than his dream of becoming an actor, Derek Luke struggled through year after no-luck year.

Then one day Denzel Washington walked into the studio gift shop where Luke was working to tell him he had gotten the lead in "Antwone Fisher." The role garnered Luke acclaim, attention and an Independent Spirit Award for best male lead.

Since then, Luke, 29, has appeared in "Pieces of April," "Biker Boyz" and now "Spartan," a politically charged action-thriller written and directed by David Mamet. On the phone from the Texas-based set of his next project, "Friday Night Lights," Luke took time to discuss his career, his rise and the finer points of catering etiquette.

David Mamet is known for being very exacting with his writing, very precise. How aware were you of his reputation before you took the role in "Spartan"?

Before I took the part I asked a few friends what they thought, and each one would say, "Oh, David Mamet ...," and I realized I didn't want to know. I didn't want to approach the personality, I wanted to approach the person and talk to him, hopefully as a friend. David does have his own style, but I went on set deliberately not knowing a lot about his style. I just wanted to get to know him as him and not have the personality of David Mamet get in the way. One thing that amazes me is that you work in a business that's about painting perceptions and yet people's perceptions about each other are always very different.

Your role isn't necessarily written specifically for an African American actor. Are you offered many color-blind parts? Do you feel any special responsibilities to take on roles that reflect the African American experience?

I'd say it's probably about half and half. But any role I play is relevant to the African American experience. I like movies that speak to the masses. As a kid I loved "Return of the Jedi," I loved "Annie." When I came to believe that [acting] is what I wanted to do, I never looked for African American roles, I just looked for a good story. I was in Austin for a while during this shoot and this sorority girl who I would not have thought had seen "Antwone Fisher" came up to me and started talking about it. Out of nowhere. When people say, "I can relate to that," it makes me happy, to be a part of a universal message.

When you won an Independent Spirit Award last year you said that just a few years before you had been a waiter at that very event. What was that like?

I heard you could get a hundred bucks for working a couple of hours. To me it was like a million bucks because I got to soak my teabag in the waters I wanted to be around. I remember the thing to do was wait to get the gift bag, if somebody left one behind. But those jobs were different for me. Those weren't jobs, they were dream-fulfillment opportunities. To be alone in that tent.... I remember coming in to set up one event and I would touch certain chairs and look at the stage a certain way and I would get a kind of rush of belief and hope. And it wasn't that I thought about becoming a winner, but I wanted to mark my ground. On auditions I'd always look at the building, look at the room, and think, "I'll be back, you will know my face."

So do you get the gift bags now?

I do! But now that I'm there, my wife and I like to give them away to the drivers and the guys working hard. We remember.

-- Mark Olsen

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