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Derek Luke reports for duty

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by Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger

The last time I saw Derek Luke was five Toronto International Film Festivals ago. The season before he had come with his first film, Denzel Washington’s “Antwone Fisher,” and it had jump-started his career; now, in 2003, he was promoting the indie “Pieces of April,” with Katie Holmes, and just happy to note that this time his studio had booked him a much nicer hotel room.

This year, I’m sure he has a suite.

Because in the last five years the Jersey City native has been busy, racking up credits in movies like “Friday Night Lights,” “Catch a Fire” and “Definitely Maybe.” And now he has the lead in Spike Lee’s upcoming epic, “Miracle at St. Anna,” playing 2nd Staff Sgt. Stamps, an African-American soldier on a perilous mission in World War II Italy.

Considering that the role had first been cast with Wesley Snipes – who had to drop out, once he started his own war with the I.R.S. – Luke, 34, is still a little shocked. And, as he sat down in one of Toronto’s very best hotels recently, completely thrilled.

As he said at the start of our chat, “I’ve really been blessed. Things are just going up and up.”

Q: You hadn’t worked with Spike before. Big shock to get the call?

A: It was the call from the Big Daddy. It was top-notch working with Mr. Washington, but working with someone who had hired him was eerie. I had never spoken more than two words with Spike before. And to receive a role that Mr. Snipes was set to play was an honor. Wesley Snipes, man.

Q: This is a fictional story, but it’s also a history lesson, in a way. Were you aware, as a kid growing up, of the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, of the history of African-American units?

A: No, I had never heard of it. I heard about Martin Luther King, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, but I never really heard about the Buffalo Soldiers. I mean, through Bob Marley, but I just thought it was a myth… So I think this movie is important. You can use movies and TV to educate, and to heal. You can use them to mentor. I heard an actor once who had done a part said he got a letter from a student saying `I never knew I could do this — until I saw you do it in a movie.’

Q: You’re promoting this film you made with Spike Lee. You’re shooting a Tyler Perry movie. You just finished making the Notorious B.I.G bio, where you’re playing P.Diddy. And I’m thinking: All of these are guys who really created their own opportunities. Is that important for everyone to do? Is it more important for African-American artists?

A: Well, I think the American message is, You can make it whatever you want. And people like Denzel Washington, Michael Jordan, they symbolize that — the American dream achieved with style and grace at the highest level. But I don’t think it’s just for African-Americans… If you want to really heal a generation you’ve got to encourage everybody to make an impact on society.

Q: Of course, you’re not only playing Diddy in “Notorious,” he’s also one of the executive producers of the film. Any trepidation there, knowing he’d be watching?

A: Triple trepidation at first. I had to go to him for myself, I needed to know, OK, what do you want from me? Why me? But he said, “I trust you, I like you, I’ve seen some of what you’ve done. Go do your thing.” And that was it. If ever I asked him questions it would be, “It’s cool, just go do your thing.”

Q: And how did you prepare for this film? Obviously you read the script, but what about physically?

A: We went to a boot camp, for about two weeks. And Spike Lee, he had set it up to spiritually, socially and physically malnourish us and put us really into a mind frame. He told the people running it, don’t give them hardly any food. He told us, no cell phones. We had to interact with each other, become one. Of course we also learned weaponry and other stuff, and did war games.

Q: And what was harder? The physical stuff? Or giving up your cell phone?

A: It was definitely harder not being able to call my wife for two weeks. It made me sad, `cause in a sense I began to know how these men felt, when the best you could do was write a letter. And it made us (guys) all talk, and communicate and joke among each other more… You really started seeing that camaraderie. That feeling of, we’ve really got to do our job and get home. So it gave you a little bit of a sense of how it was.

Q: The movie opens on September 26. Obviously you want it to do well. But do you have any worries? Because it’s a period picture, it’s a war movie, it’s more than two-and-a-half hours long — and those aren’t always the easiest things to sell.

A: Well, I pray that the seats are filled. I pray that a lot of people have gotten the action bug out of their system after the summer. The fall is a time when people cozy up together with their emotions, so that’s what I’m saying: There’s nothing for the season like hot cocoa and `Miracle at St Anna.’


Written by Symphony

September 9, 2008 at 5:40 am

2 Responses

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  1. I sea to your movi.


    September 9, 2008 at 6:23 am

  2. The fact that he never heard of the Buffalo Soldiers is proof positive why this movie needed to be made.


    September 9, 2008 at 12:44 pm

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