Born in New Jersey in 1974, actor Derek Luke got his big break when cast by Denzel Washington to play the title role in the 2002 film Antwone Fisher. Luke went on to a successful movie career, including roles in Friday Night Lights (2004) and Notorious (2009).
Actor Derek Luke was born on April 24, 1974, in Jersey City, New Jersey. His father, Maurice Luke, is a native of Guyana who had previously worked as an actor in London, and his mother, Marjorie Dixon, is a pianist. Luke's parents divorced when he was in the third grade, and he and his two brothers were raised primarily by their mother. However, Dixon struggled to make ends meet on her musician's salary, and the family moved frequently as she tried to make a living for the family.
Growing up in a largely hardscrabble environment, Luke was forced to learn to fight and act tough at a very young age. "I grew up and went to school with metal detectors," he explains. Still, he had strong role models in his mother and uncles, who inspired him to transcend his environment. "I think what influenced my life was the power of words," he says. "My mother [and] my uncles always spoke powerful words. I think, even though I grew up in the hood, I always tell people I really grew up in a rich home, because I had good words."
Luke attended six different schools before finally settling at Henry Snyder High School, a performing arts school in Jersey City. He graduated from Snyder in 1992 and enrolled at Jersey State College to study acting. Eager to launch a professional career in show business, he packed his bags and moved to Los Angeles in 1995 with hopes of making it big in Hollywood.
Early Acting Career
Like many actors, Luke initially struggled to break into the acting world, resorting to a variety of odd jobs such as selling cologne, ushering and working in a Sony Pictures gift shop to pay the rent. Determined to make his own luck, Luke took acting classes at night and stuck to a relentless auditioning schedule during the day.
Luke had only two acting credits to his name — bit parts in The King of Queens and Moesha — when he managed to land the title role in the acclaimed 2002 film Antwone Fisher, an autobiographical film written by the real-life Antwone Fisher and directed by Denzel Washington. After four separate auditions, Washington personally informed Luke that he had landed the role. When Washington showed up at the gift shop where Luke worked to tell him he won the part, the real Antwone Fisher happened to be at the store buying a t-shirt from Luke.
Washington recalls, "I walked past the real Antwone and I said to Derek, 'Hey, Antwone. How's it going?' He said, 'That's right, I am Antwone. I'm working on it. I'm Antwone.' And I said, 'No, you ARE Antwone. You got the part.' First he was stunned, then he practically broke down in tears, then joy, then he started to pray. . .it was really exciting." Luke received rave reviews for his big-screen debut and won an Independent Spirit Award for his performance.
Since his breakthrough role, Luke has shown his a versatility as an actor. He played a high school football star in the 2004 film Friday Night Lights; in 2006, he played basketball player Bobby Joe Hill in Glory Road and the South African anti-apartheid activist Patrick Chamusso in Catch a Fire, co-starring Tim Robbins. After appearing in the 2008 romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe, Luke played music mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs in Notorious (2009), a film about the late rapper Biggie Smalls.
"My getting the role was based on [Combs'] recommendation after his seeing me in Friday Night Lights," Luke explains. "He thought that the character was kinda similar to who he was and shared a lot of his aspirations. . .he told me, 'If anybody ever played me, I would want you.' From there, we developed a bond, and today we're friends."
Luke appeared in the comedy Madea Goes to Jail in 2009. He also played paramedic Cameron Boone in the NBC drama series Trauma (2009-2010) and Gabe Jones in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Additional television appearances include playing Miles Bourdet in TNT’s Hawthorne (2011), Gregory Thomas in The Americans (2013) on FX, Malcolm Deveaux in the FOX series Empire (2015), Marlon Dinard in DirecTV's Rogue (2015-16) and Silla Ba Dibba in History's remake of the miniseries Roots (2016).
In 1998, Luke married actress and singer Sophia Adella Hernandez.
Luke attributes much of his success in Hollywood to his fearlessness. He has made a career of portraying real people while they are still alive — roles that come with added pressure and scrutiny and from which many actors steer clear. "No matter what project," he says, "I've always had to bind up and wrestle fear, because acting is really about faith. And faith and fear can't really stay in the same room. So, in order for you to be more than a conqueror, you're going to have to defeat fear with faith."
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