28-year-old Virginia native Nate Parker (right) landed the kind of role young actors dream about when he was tapped to star in Denzel Washington’s inspirational period drama The Great Debaters, which tells the true story of the first African-American debate team to win a national debate award.
Parker plays Henry Lowe, the team’s resident bad boy, whose temper often threatens to get in the way of his brilliance. The actor scored a number of strong reviews for his performance (many of which pegged him as “the next Denzel”), which no doubt helped land him roles in a number of upcoming projects, including The Secret Life of Bees and Tunnel Rats. Parker took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about Debaters (which just arrived on DVD this week), the importance of education and his own fledgling career as a director.
Giant: Your character Henry Lowe is loosely based on a real person—what sort of research were you able to do prior to production?
Nate Parker: Yeah, he’s based on a character named Henry Heights and it seems as though I’m learning more and more about him since we finished filming. I gave the commencement speech at Wiley College recently and I met one of the men he mentored, who is now in his 60s or 70s. To prepare, I really did my research about the state of black men during that time and how this young man, who was brilliant, had to downplay that brilliance to fit into the box that Jim Crow put him in. So I used that and contrasted it against the whole idea that education was the way out of the darkness. The only way these oppressed people could attain progress was through embracing education as a form of enlightenment. What I really wanted to do was capture his inner struggle—the thoughts of a person that had to compromise himself everyday.
Giant: The film definitely emphasizes the importance of education. Do you feel that’s something we’ve lost as a society?
Parker: Absolutely and I think that’s partly our fault. That’s one of the things I talked about in the commencement speech. Back then there was a great sense of pride in being a black man latching onto education. But a lot of that was misconstrued during the time of integration. It seems that people were more pressured to emulate than to embrace who they were, so this attitude of “the great escape” kind of developed. People wanted to spend as much money as they could to get out of bad communities. Those things have to be attacked at the root and that has to happen with exposing our young people to role models who aren’t just celebrities. One of my mentees and I are developing a program for at-risk kids in L.A. where we’re bringing in different professionals of color to show kids that they have careers to aspire to that aren’t just athletes or actors.
Giant: Despite the presence of Denzel Washington as director and star and Oprah as the film’s producer, The Great Debaters had trouble finding an audience during its theatrical release. Do you think it’ll have more support on DVD?
Parker: Let me explain something—the support you speak about, there wasn’t a lack of support from the audience. We had very limited theaters, a third less theaters than I Am Legend and some of the other bigger films that came out. So the studio didn’t take the risk on if we’d have support. What we’re learning right now from Tyler Perry and his work is that if you take that risk and the product is exceptional, the audience will turn out. I think that’s something as an industry we have to really develop and research and understand that people want to see these films that uplift people and inspire social change.
Giant: What’s your best memory of making the movie?
Parker: What I like the most about filming would have been sitting behind Denzel’s chair on my days off and watching the way he led. I also liked the relationship I had with the other actors. We really grew together and the things that happened really affected us. We felt every moment of the film that we were winning and making a difference.
Giant: How did Washingtion handle the transition from actor to director?
Parker: He did this thing called “40 Breaths,” where he’d stop and close his eyes and take 40 breaths and open his eyes and be whoever he needed to be. It was amazing to watch and enlightening as well, because it’s something I’m able to use. I just directed my second short film and I’m taking a lot of direction from him and applied it to my own work ethic.
Giant: What kind of films are you interested in making?
Parker: I’m interested in directing just about any film if its positive and has something good to say. The first one I did was an artistic story about a man trying to cope with life without his wife who left him for reasons we don’t know. My second film, which I just completed, is about a kid who is a dork by day and a superhero by night. The good thing about being a director is you can express a point of view you may not want to express as an actor. I’m not so much interested in comedy as an actor. My focus is on drama and action possibly, so a lot of my directing is going to be focused around comedy. I just finished writing a romantic comedy, for example. It’s a good way to balance myself.
Giant: You’ve got a few movies coming down the pike—The Secret Life of Bees, Tunnel Rats and Felon. Which of those are you most excited about?
Parker: I’m very proud of The Secret Life of Bees. I really loved the book and I think the director did a fantastic job transforming a book that’s amazing into a movie everyone’s going to love. That’s the one I’m most looking forward to the most.