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Denzel looks to Denzel for direction

December 24, 2007|Robert W. Welkos

Call it a blessing. That's how 17-year-old Denzel Whitaker describes being cast alongside his namesake, Denzel Washington, in "The Great Debaters." "My dad and mom named me after Denzel," he explains. "They thought it was a unique name."

Whitaker, for the record, is a pretty unique teenager. The young actor had a small role in Washington's gritty 2001 cop film "Training Day" and has appeared on television shows such as "One on One," "All That," "The War at Home," "ER" and "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody." But "The Great Debaters" could take his career in a whole new direction as a dramatic actor.

In the film, Whitaker plays 14-year-old prodigy James Farmer Jr., who in real life was a member of the Wiley College debate squad and became a leading figure in the U.S. civil-rights movement as a principal founder of the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer died in 1999.

"It's a lot of pressure," Whitaker said of the role. "You want to do the character justice. You want to make sure that if they were living today they would say they're proud of how you portrayed them. It's definitely a lot on my shoulders."

Oddly enough, Whitaker said, his research turned up little information about Farmer. "In my history book, there is only one line on James Farmer Jr. -- one line. It said he started CORE, and that's it."

Instead, Whitaker relied on first-hand accounts from Melvin Tolson Jr., the eldest son of Wiley College's debate coach, Melvin B. Tolson, who said Farmer "loved women, and on campus he was always very active and very into his debates."

Whitaker said Washington, who directed the film and starred as debate coach Tolson, told him from the start that he wanted Farmer to be a "very humble character, very natural."

But when it came time to shoot an emotionally taxing scene for Whitaker -- a late-night confrontation with his parents, played by Forest Whitaker (no relation) and Kimberly Elise, he relied on solitude rather than advice from the Oscar winner. "To get to that emotional state, I would sit in a dark corner and I would ask everybody [on the set] to please leave me alone for the day," the young actor recalled.

Raised in the South Bay area, Whitaker is a self-described technology geek skilled in computers, especially "2-D and 3-D animation." He has even directed and edited his own animated program based on the video game Need for Speed: Most Wanted.

"I actually made my own take on it," Whitaker said. "I taught myself how to do all this. I want to go to USC or UCLA to learn directing. I hope they're reading this, by the way."

-- R.W.

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