(The Root) — Ever since he burst onto the scene opposite Denzel Washington in the 2007 film The Great Debaters, Nate Parker has become one of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood. His performances have been memorable and diverse — from an even-tempered Tuskegee Airman in George Lucas' Red Tails to a drug-dealing gang leader in Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer.
He has demonstrated incredible range in such a short time for such a young actor, who got into the acting business unexpectedly while accompanying a friend to a modeling event in Texas in 2003. Parker's most recent supporting role, opposite Richard Gere in the recently released financial crime thriller Arbitrage, has critics impressed again with his performance. In the film he plays Jimmy Grant, a young kid from Harlem who gets pulled into a deceitful conspiracy by Robert Miller (Gere), a billionaire hedge fund magnate who's in the midst of selling his firm to escape a federal fraud scandal that could land him in prison for 20 years.
Recently Parker talked to The Root about working with Hollywood vets, an upcoming Spike Lee joint and his community work.
The Root: Throughout your career, a lot of your roles have been in historically based films like The Great Debaters, Red Tails and even Pride, which you did with Terrence Howard; and you played Ben Chavis in Blood Done Sign My Name, too. Was it difficult to play a more contemporary character this time that didn't have factual history you could look back on to prepare?
Nate Parker: Well, I've always tried to play roles that have integrity and roles that reaffirm black men and who we are as a people. Even in Red Hook Summer, I played a conflicted character who was cast out by his community and who ran to the only place that would receive him, which were the gangs. But he still represented a lot of black men in America today.
In the case of Arbitrage, Jimmy was the most moral character in the film. Here he was, a good kid, whose dad died, and he had a business plan, a girlfriend he was moving away with, but then he's made complicit in a crime by someone who is supposed to be the patriarch and protector. So I found his character to be dynamic and very human. I understood what he had to lose.
As an African American, our goals are different than other people. Our goal can be to stay out of jail, which I could personally relate to in my own life and experiences in the past and with my family. And those are the roles that I want to play: dynamic personalities with substance, more than characters of specific timelines.
TR: You've had the opportunity to work with Hollywood heavyweights — Denzel Washington and now Richard Gere and Tim Roth. How did you approach working with such veteran actors?
NP: Well, first of all, we're all men, so there is never any reason to be intimidated. The only person I look up to is the Lord. So for me, knowing that I walked into a project having done the work to prepare for it, I felt ready.
When Tim wants to improv and just says something that's not in the script, I was ready. If Richard Gere wants to rehearse for 10 hours and go over beats, then I'm ready for that, too. So I felt prepared. It was such a collaborative set, where everyone's opinions mattered.
TR: What's next for you?
NP: I'll be working with Spike Lee again in six weeks for a remake of the cult classic Oldboy, where I play a doctor that helps the two main characters in the film. Again, contemporary, but he's a doctor. And I'm happy about that because Spike called me and asked me to be in it, which is rare, because so many people in Hollywood don't really pass on opportunities like that.
And then after that, I am passionate about making a Nat Turner biopic, which is all I really care about right now in my career … getting it off the ground, because it's an extremely important story for our community, and it's in many ways colorless, too, because it's about love, faith, redemption and triumph. Like Schindler's List or our Braveheart.
TR: Outside of acting, since Great Debaters, you've done a lot of work in black communities around the country. Can you expound on that?
NP: I still work with Brian Favors on my Leadership and Literacy Through Debate campaign in New York, so I go to Brooklyn every year to speak to the kids. And I'm setting up the Nate Parker Foundation, which will help create a platform that provides a rite of passage for young black males. The ultimate goal, if you ask me, is to eventually build institutions that provide culturally and historically relevant education to our young men and women.
Jean McGianni Celestin is a New York-based writer who writes on a number of topics including race, sports and politics. Follow him on Twitter.