Derek Luke: The Good Fight

There is nowhere to go but up when you start your acting career in a leading role opposite Denzel Washington. Ten films later, Derek Luke is sharing opening credits with legends Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and a man he calls ‘Bob’- director Robert Redford.

The United Artist/MGM release Lions for Lambs opens in theatres nationwide tonight [November 9], and Luke plays another strong and driven character, Arian Finch. Consumed by his patriotic duty to put his money where his mouth is, Arian volunteers to go to war. The War on Terrorism is a relevant and especially touchy subject to tackle, yet nothing short of characteristic for Derek Luke’s cinematic resumé to date.

Derek exudes confidence as he speaks superstars and Jersey swagger. He also claims to be on assignment by his generation, on the rise and at the top, all at the same time. It’s been a full year since we last spoke with Derek, so we linked with the Jersey native briefly this week to discuss his new work, the influences of his mother and community, and the ways Hip-Hop moves and inspires him. How were you and [Lions for Lambs] co-star Michael Pena able to connect so well on screen?

Derek Luke: We discussed the subject of the movie and where we stand on it, and basically we vibed on what we had in common. Michael is a great guy and has a lot of experience in different roles. Our chemistry lies in our similar goals and experiences. How did you research your role of the patriotic solider?

Derek Luke: I talked to a lot of active military men and women. The most interesting thing about these soldiers is that their opinions are sometimes totally different from the government’s. What I found out was that the people that have the least and [who have] the most difficult times in life were the ones that volunteered to serve their country. It’s not about the money. These people really feel that they are a part of this country and their words aren’t just words, there is action behind them. I look at the military and think how structured and disciplined they have to be. To be a solider is deep. You [worked] with Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep. What did you learn from or about them during the filming of Lions for Lambs?

Derek Luke: Although me, Tom and Meryl had different schedules, I’d get dressed after shooting and go back into the studio to watch their rehearsals. Meryl and Robert would just be conversing and I’d be starring at the monitors, amazed. I learned that only passionate and emotional people can be actors. Tom is passionate in front and behind the camera. On the second day of shooting, I heard somebody on set call Robert Redford, “Bob”. So I had to get a chance to call him Bob. When one of my neighbors asked me to get an autograph, I went up to him and said, ‘Bob”…he turns to me and says, “What can I do for you Derek?” When he’s on set, he’s all about you and how he can help you do better. Lions for Lambs makes your eighth film and by 2008, you’ll have acted in 10 films. Which character was the most challenging and which was the most rewarding?

Derek Luke: Patrick in Catch a Fire was definitely the most challenging role to play. He was a very challenging person. Antwone Fisher was the film that I enjoyed the most. It was my first time, and I just wanted to honor all the people that make it happen for me. Which directors are you looking forward to working with again, and are there any that you’ll like to work in with the future?

Derek Luke: I’d love to work with Denzel again. I hope he keeps directing. You know when chemists and scientists make the perfect type of fragrance? Working with Denzel felt like the right kind of fragrance. He’s easy to talk to and very down to earth and he uses his acting for a movement… for a cause, a message, and I’d love to work with him again. Of course, I’d love to work with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Who wouldn’t? How did your dreams of acting start growing up in Jersey City?

Derek Luke: I got my swagger from the east; especially my slippery church shoes. I was the dude in school that didn’t have the best talent, but always got an "A" for effort. I’d be the one singing my heart out in the choir, off-pitch, but still singing strong and hard. My mom was a single parent and she taught me to do the best at everything. I grew up listening to women and was always very passionate and expressive. When I would watch a show or a movie, I said, “I wanted people to feel me.” I always thought that I was on assignment for my generation in Jersey. How does music, especially Hip-Hop music influence your life and your craft?

Derek Luke: No matter what I’m doing, music shapes how I do it or how I say it. There’s a beat running through my head pushing me on. I listen to music to feel something and to express my emotions. I have to credit Hip-Hop for what I’m doing now, because the movement opened doors for Jersey brothers like me and I represent in everything that I do. Who are your favorite artists?

Derek Luke: Hands down, Nas and Jay-Z.