“Catch a Fire” lead Derek Luke knew from his turn as “Antwone Fisher” in 2002 that meeting the real-life person you’re portraying can throw off an actor.
Often that person has matured and changed from the stage in his or her life captured in the film. Still, encouraged by director Phillip Noyce, Luke met Patrick Chamusso, the South African apartheid freedom fighter at the heart of “Catch.”
It turned out to be a critical meeting for Luke because it reaffirmed that underlying the emotionally overwhelming story about the horrors of apartheid are real people who overcame brutal conditions to triumph.
“What I liked most about ‘Catch a Fire’ and Patrick’s story is that it was because of his spirit that he overcame that situation,” says Luke. “He took away the power of the oppressors by forgiving (them). It’s a story about empowerment and change, which is what I liked most about it.”
The film concludes with a sense of joy, depicted by Luke’s first, pre-shoot meeting with Chamusso.
That meeting didn’t exactly get off to a good start. Chamusso was suspicious of Luke and, for that matter, all Americans, who he felt were more interested in what they read about Africa as a continent — like the AIDS epidemic — than in its individuals. But the two men eventually grew to develop a friendship, a turn of events spurred on by Chamusso’s fascination with Hollywood.
“The first question he asked was if I knew Beyonce,” says Luke. “After that the walls fell down. He thought Denzel Washington should play him, and he thought he looked like Cuba Gooding Jr. So he was giving me a real tough time. What you see at the end of the film is when we warmed up and began to really like each other.”
After that meeting, the filming of “Catch” proved to be challenging for Luke and everyone involved. The pic spares nothing in depicting the horrific conditions black South Africans endured for so many years at the hands of white authorities who were often brutal in holding onto power.
For Luke, the movie was physically and emotionally draining. But he says there was some levity during production, typically after wrapping each day. On one occasion, it was co-star Tim Robbins who lightened the mood.
“One time, because we were the only Americans, Tim took me to a hip-hop reggae club,” says Luke. “I’m sitting down and I’m looking at Tim, this huge 6-foot-5 white guy just dancing and having fun with South Africans. I’m so glad that Tim, another American, was in the film.”
Favorite film of the past five years: “Kung Fu Hustle.” “(Stephen Chow) broke all the rules. It was one of the most ingenious, thought-up projects I’d ever seen. I just love it. I took a lot of my friends to see it, and everybody who saw it loved it. I keep telling my agents I want to work with him.”
Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: “One person is definitely Denzel Washington and the fact that he (emphasizes) messages and puts heart into all his parts.”
Next project: “It’s a romantic comedy and I’m one player of an ensemble cast. I play a guy who is enthusiastic about politics and has a desire to be president one day.”