By Sophia Scorziello | Variety
Derek Luke always knew he wanted to be a hero — or rather, play one. But when the opportunity for him to join the Marvel universe arose in 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” he wasn’t so sure — even after his agent, the late Ed Limato, insisted.
“If he sent me something, he would say, ‘Do you like it? Alright we’ll get him next time, kiddo, no pressure,’” Luke says. “This was the only script that he said, ‘You need to do this. And I’m like, ‘No. Absolutely not. First of all, Marvel, like, what is that?’”
Limato was firm, so Luke took a meeting with Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige. Upon entering his office, Luke’s eyes were drawn to a section of the wall full of Black characters, ones he didn’t even know existed. Luke leaned in and took the role.
“I think that’s what drew me to the business — that I wanted to be a hero, especially to my community,” Luke says. “Whether that was with superpowers or just fulfilling my dreams, I always desire to play a hero.”
One of Limato’s other clients was Denzel Washington, who launched Luke’s career when he cast the young actor in the titular role of the 2002 biographical drama “Antwone Fisher,” Washington’s feature directorial debut. From there, Luke has played a series of grounded, human-scaled roles, from Katie Holmes’ boyfriend in 2003’s “Pieces of April” to the guidance counselor Mr. Porter on the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” This month, Luke is appearing in two projects that have allowed him to further explore what it means to be a leader: Rejoining Holmes for a supporting role as an antiques dealer in her film “Rare Objects,” premiering today, and starring in the Disney+ series “The Crossover,” which debuted April 5.
On “The Crossover,” which is based on Kwame Alexander’s graphic novel of the same name, Luke stars as Chuck Bell, a father who does his best to be a good basketball coach and an even better dad to his two teenage sons, all while fighting for his health.
To prepare Luke to play the role of Chuck, he was paired up with basketball coach Chris Johnson of SpringHill, who offered real-life tips on how to lead a team and ensured Luke’s form was accurate.
Growing up, Luke didn’t really play sports, so he took all the help he could get. When he was a kid, his older brother broke both of his hips playing football, which left his single mother to deal with his injuries for close to a year. From then on, she wasn’t very keen on either of her boys participating in sports.
“She may deny that today, but that’s my take,” he says with a laugh. “And I’m sticking to it.”
In “The Crossover,” Luke plays a dad who is involved in nearly every aspect of his sons’ lives. Luke grew up searching for a mentor figure just like this, constantly trying to find someone to close that gap. Both on and off the set, Luke couldn’t help but channel this kind of fatherly role with his on-screen sons Josh (Jalyn Hall) and Jordan (Amir O’Neil).
“A lot of times when I interact with people who have seen my work, whether it’s a parent or a mom or boys, they’re always asking for some type of wisdom,” Luke says. “It made me think that we need more representation in film, where you see a father, you see a man of color, being a soul, being present. I wanted a representation where two boys didn’t have to look far to find their father.”
Playing Chuck gave Luke the chance to portray a role he longed for when he was a kid, and it also gave the 48-year-old the opportunity to practice for when his own sons — who are currently 7 and 18 months — become teenagers.
“I realized at the age of a teen, that they already cement and solidify,” he says. “And so whatever truths that they are beholden to is either what you did or did not teach them.”
With “Rare Objects,” Luke enjoyed a different kind of glance into the future: watching Holmes, who also directed Luke in her 2022 film “Alone Together,” take on the many roles that come with being a writer-director.
Luke recounts a moment when, after wrapping a long meeting about the script for “Rare Objects” — which Holmes adapted with Phaedon Papadopoulos from Kathleen Tessaro’s novel — Holmes turned to Luke and said, “You have wardrobe next, right?”
“And she points to go upstairs. I’m like, ‘Man, she’s so nice, she’s following me,’” Luke recalls. “And then I realized, ‘Oh, wait, she’s doing wardrobe.’”
Luke’s affinity for actor-directors started, of course, with Washington and “Antwone Fisher.” In both Washington and Holmes, Luke sees filmmakers who can harness an actor’s creativity while also leaving room for freedom.
After shooting one particularly tiring scene in “Antwone Fisher,” Luke remembers Washington asking him how he felt about his performance.
“He was like, ‘Are you happy? You want to try something different?’” Luke says. “You don’t usually hear that.”
That kind of care never left Luke and it has helped him gauge what he wanted his career to look like going forward.
“‘Antwone’ was a standard for me and it’s a marker that I wanted to surpass,” he says. “So that when I’m directing another actor, he relates to me the way I related to Mr. Washington.”
Luke’s directing endeavors are already in motion with his new production company, Heartist, a project he has been working on with his wife, Sophia. They plan to create content that pays homage to their passions: music, dance and education. One of their projects, “Cram,” tells the story of an inner-city teacher who uses hip-hop to help teach students.
Until recently, Luke hadn’t really considered stepping back into the world of superheroes. Becoming a father, however, introduced a new, very important addition to Luke’s audience, who look to the screen and see not just a character, but their dad — often pretty close to being a real-life hero.
That’s led Luke’s 7-year-old son to ask him if he’ll ever do a Marvel movie again.
“I never had to consider that before,” Luke says “I call it my assignment. I would love to fulfill that for him.”