Nate Parker: Spike Lee’s ‘Red Hook Summer’ Was a Milestone

Nate Parker'The Birth of a Nation'
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10 Actors to Watch 2012: Nate Parker

Nate Parker doesn’t believe in luck. But how else to describe the series of breaks that led the self-made man to a career in acting?

“I come from a very tough place. It was row housing with steel perforated stairs and cement floors,” says Parker, describing the Tidewater Park projects where he grew up in Norfolk, Va.

After high school, he made his mother proud by earning a wrestling scholarship to the U. of Oklahoma, where he majored in management information systems. But writing code in a basement cubicle for the rest of his life didn’t appeal.

Then, by chance, a female friend asked Parker to drive her to an audition in Dallas. While he was waiting around in the hall, a manager handed Parker a monologue and encouraged him to try out. Though he had never acted before, Parker says, “There’s something about growing up in poverty that teaches you when an opportunity comes to just hit it with absolute reckless abandon.”

Sure enough, he made the callback list and within four days he had moved to Los Angeles, where he landed an agent. Parker began booking work soon after, including “Pride” (about an all-black swim team) and Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters.” Parker’s college training taught him patience and allowed him to be choosy about the parts he accepted, since he could always go back to computer programming — not that he’ll need it.

This past January, Parker had a leading role in George Lucas-produced WWII adventure “Red Tails” and two films premiering in Sundance, “Arbitrage” and Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer.” Creating his own luck, the actor had written Lee an e-mail voicing his belief that no film had properly captured the American slave experience on film.

Intrigued, Lee cast Parker as an inner-city drug dealer, knowing the thesp would play him as someone who had been abandoned rather than a stereotypical black gangster.

“I remember being young and the lack of support,” Parker says. “When I got into film, I saw it as a great opportunity to inspire people. My whole approach started with activism rather than acting.”

Lucky break: “The moment I met Denzel Washington,” says Parker, who had read about the intense prep the director expected of his actors in a magazine interview. “So I wrote a 100-page backstory of the character by hand. I gave my audition, but before I left, I reached under my chair and gave him my backstory.”

Favorite film: ” ‘Malcolm X’ really deals with the rites of passage of a young black man that you never see. That was the first film I’d seen that dealt with the street version of Malcolm, the transition into something greater, all that negative energy turned into something positive.”

Career to emulate: “I want to love like my mother, I want a faith like my grandmother and I want the work ethic of my African ancestors.”

 

 

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