Nate Parker was an All-American wrestler at the University of Oklahoma pursuing a career in computer programming several years ago when a friend, who was trying to launch a modeling career, asked Parker to accompany her to Dallas. The trip would change Parker's life in ways he never imagined.
While he was waiting for his friend, "this guy came in and asked me, 'Are you an actor?' " Parker recalled, referring to talent scout Jon Simmons, who would later become his manager. "I said, 'No.' He said, 'Are you a model?' I said, 'Absolutely not.' Then he said, 'I want you to do this monologue.' " Parker complied, reading a passage from "The Fast and the Furious" screenplay, and before long, he was reading for an agent.
Fast forward to 2007 and Parker, 28, is living in a North Hollywood apartment with his mother and sister, chasing the dream of becoming a movie star. His career is receiving a big boost in the new film "The Great Debaters," in which he portrays Henry Lowe, a member of the 1930s-era Wiley College all-black debate team.
With his lean physique, closely cropped hair and chiseled features, Parker looks as if he just stepped out of the pages of GQ. But onscreen, he has no trouble morphing into the character of Lowe, a talented debater whose search for justice often leads to explosions of anger.
Parker noted that Henry Lowe is a particularly complex character to play: "On one hand, you've got a guy who drinks, he's a womanizer, he's a rebel, while on the other hand, you have this guy who is tormented by his environment. He is someone who [if he lived in 2007], who knows? He could have run for president, or he could have been captain of the Harvard [debate team]. But in this period, he's a man who has to submit to the system of Jim Crow every single day."
Parker, who grew up in Norfolk, Va., hopes to channel the same energy he tapped for his portrayal of Lowe into building his career.
He recently completed two independent films: "Tunnel Rats," about a special U.S. combat unit in Vietnam that hunted the Viet Cong, and "Felon," starring Val Kilmer as a penal system officer trying to resist corruption.
"Hopefully, in 35 years, I can look back at my body of work and be proud -- like Denzel," Parker said. Acting, he said, "is my life."
-- Robert W. Welkos