Derek Luke burst onto the scene in the title role of Denzel Washington's directorial debut Antwone Fisher. Since then, Luke has enlivened Biker Boyz, Spartan, and Friday Night Lights. In his latest film, Glory Road, Luke plays Bobby Joe Hill, one of the historic starting players in the 1966 NCAA championship. I had a few minutes of Luke's time during the Glory Road junket at San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: What makes Bobby Joe Hill such a great player and what did you learn about him as a person?
Derek Luke: Well, he made the team better. And even like being on the screen with Denzel Washington, Billy Bob Thornton, Laurence Fishburne—these guys are like captains of ships. And just their presence on the court, or their presence on the set makes all the actors step up. And Bobby Joe was that way. You know, he was unhindered with his heart. He spoke. Don Haskins didn't see black and white nor did Bobby Joe. As a matter of fact, the real Bobby Joe, in 1966, called him "Don." You know, he says, "Hey, Don. Listen, man. This is what I'm about to do, man. You know, listen. This is just how it is, man." And he would talk to him like he was his comrade, you know, his boy. And I admired it, because you can be in this business and, you know, like I'm talking to you now, I can be thinking so much what to say, but Bobby Joe wasn't like that. He just said it, and I admired that about him—
G: What did it take you to get you where you needed to be to play this character?
DK: I don't know. (Laughs.) We had Pat Riley, we had Tim Floyd, we had the real Don Haskins. And Bobby Joe Hill passed away 2002, so I was kind of left, like, in the day care. You know, when you get the day care, all the kids are gone? There's no more cookies, no more milk. And you're just watching all the kids interact with their parents. Well, all the other teammates interacted with their real players, and I'm sitting like, you know, "This is weird." So I'm asking them, "Hey, you know Bobby Joe?" And they're like, "Yeah! Bobby Joe was our leader." I'm like, "Dude, I need more than that." So what happened was, it was like shadowboxing. Because when I got on the court, I had to retrack every step that Bobby took. And it was almost like I was playing against him. And when I did, I started seeing things. And then it wasn't necessarily the lines anymore; it just became organic. It was in my heart. I started to develop a swagger. You know, people call it rebelliousness. I call it "innovative pregnancy," you know what I'm saying? So that's how I came into it—
G: Are you going to keep playing, or are you back to your Playstation?
DK: Uh, playing is Playstation! (Laughs.) I shoot when I go past a court. You know. But I don't pick that ball up, man. It's a respect. I leave it alone—
G: I have to ask you about Spartan, because it's a favorite film of mine.
G: David Mamet—what did you take from working with him? What kind of direction does he give?
DK: Hmm. (Laughs.) Rrrr. Nnn. Have you guys interviewed David Mamet?
G: I have, actually.
DK: Oh, you have. I think, he's like an A-frame.You know, it's like when you go on the set, things are set for you. It's like walking a line but walking with your head up. And I think David Mamet—because I didn't agree with him. I didn't like his style, so to speak. And because it was a film where I could not grab on to say, "I know this style." Val Kilmer seemed very familiar, but I'm more of a—like when Denzel directed me—I'm more of a—he'll come in and just he'll say one word; he'll say, "Derek, be free." And then he'll tape it. David Mamet will say, "Find freedom in my words." (Smiles.) You know, so it's a total difference.
G: Thank you.
DK: Thank you.