Nate Parker talks about the film and working alongside Denzel and Forest.
Nate Parker is an up and coming young actor, and when you're and up and coming young actor, it certainly doesn't hurt your status when you're acting alongside Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. Parker did just that alongside those industry heavyweights in the film The Great Debaters, which comes to DVD on May 13. I had the chance to speak with Parker over the phone about his role in this powerful film, and here's what he had to say.
How did you first become involved in this project and what attracted you to your character, Henry Lowe?
Nate Parker: I got the script sent to me by my management about two years before, as far as auditioning. One of my managers handed me the script and said it was a really good script. I read it and I fell in love with it and began to prepare for it. I read about it and I felt that Henry Lowe was exactly what I was looking for. It was the project that I've been praying for, the project that I believed would make the most impact as an actor, whether it be 1935 or 2008. I really responded to it and began to prepare, as far as reading all the authors mentioned, like James Joyce. By the time those two years came around, I knew every line of the script and I was ready.
Did you do any research on the actual team? Did you meet anyone from the school or the team?
Nate Parker: Actually, we did. Once we met Denzel and were informed we got the job, we went to Houston and we met with Melvin Tolson Jr., Melvin Tolson's son. We met a couple of other people who were involved. My character, the last anyone had heard from him, he had written a letter to Melvin Tolson, in the 40s. I got a lot about who my character was, who Henry Lowe was from Mr. Tolson.
Did you do a lot of research on the actual process of debating as well?
Nate Parker: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, Denzel sent us to Texas Southern University, which is one of the top debating schools in the country and we were able to experience the tutelege of Dr. Freeman, who's been there for 50 years. We really learned debate. We learned the structure of debate, debate posture, parliamentery, really all forms. This was before we even stepped on set. I have to really credit that to Denzel because he was very happy about us really understanding debate, understanding that it was really about the argument.
It really has to be quite an experience stepping on a set with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. What was that whole experience like and what did you learn from those guys on the set?
Nate Parker: You know, the number one thing I learned from Denzel and Forest was humility. I learned that you really can walk softly and carry a big stick. Both of them stepped on set and just commanded so much respect without having to do anything disrespectful. They're both directors, and they're both massive heavyweights in this game and they were able to really complement each other. There were times when they would talk about certain scenes together, whehter it be regarding character or story and Denzel just made himself available to us 24 hours a day. He really really exemplifies a true leader. Everyone was excited about coming to set every single day and everyone believes and trusted in him. I made a decision about my character, he trusted my instinct. He made a decision about the film, I trusted his instinct. It was a great trust that allowed us all to shine.
What would you compare his directing style to? Is it comparable to anyone else you've worked with in the past?
Nate Parker: Not so much. I really feel like, because he's an actor and because he's been an actor for so long, that he has the inside track. He has a way of bringing out his notes, without telling you what his notes are. With that said, he brings out the instinctual moments of the character, rather than the director telling you how to act, if that makes sense. So, it felt like when he wanted to give me a note, he would just remind me of where I came from or ask me how I felt about a scene or a certain situation or encourage me to look at a journey of the character. Then it would remind me or enlighten me as to what he was looking for in that scene.
That makes sense, yeah. So what was it like filming at the college and at Harvard too. I saw that this was the first movie to actually be filmed on the Harvard campus since 1979.
Nate Parker: It was really powerful. You think, 'Wow, this is history that's happening that's so powerful.' For me, I don't know if it was more of a feeling achieved from my character or from studying it so much, what I felt more of was the history of our country in terms of discrimination. The racial barriers that it took for, not only these debaters in 1935, but for me, Nate Parker, to portray this character during the Jim Crow era, in Harvard, when I knew that 30 or 40 years ago, it was absurd for me to be there. It really touched be on an emotional level because I felt that this was something that my ancestors never really had the opportunity to do. It was a very emotional, touching experience.
I thought it was interesting that the young actor Denzel Whitaker was working alongside Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. That must have been a trip for him.
Nate Parker: Yeah, it was funny because nobody called him by his name, everybody called him by his character name.
OK, yeah. I was wondering if there'd be any confusion with that.
Nate Parker: The first four days, someone would say 'Denzel' and, of course, the whole room would turn around. It was really funny.
You have Tunnel Rats coming out, with Uwe Boll. He's been a controversial figure in recent times. How was he like to work with on that movie?
Nate Parker: Well, it was great. One thing about that film that people don't know about it, was it was improved for the whole movie. We worked off like a two-page synopsis. It was like a reality-style, impromptu film. A lot of what you're going to see is really organic work, things that we developed, things that we talked about as we developed the story. Yeah, I'm interested to see how it turned out. We had the opportunity to film it in South Africa and, as an African-American actor, I think that's important to travel, especially to South Africa, home to all the ancestors. There's so many reason that I'm glad God blessed me with that project.
Are you doing Blood Done Sign My Name right now? Is that where you're at?
Nate Parker: Yes, that's where I'm at right now, doing Blood Done Sign My Name. I just arrived this morning and I'm on my way to my fitting and it's busy-busy but, you know, it's funny because one thing I'm learning is to be careful what you pray for, because God's always listening. I prayed to be busy, I prayed to be blessed in this business and I'm definitely blessed and busier than I can ever imagine. I have very very very few moments alone, but this is what I want, especially to get to do what they love. Not too many people can say that they do what they love, every day.
Blood Done Sign My Name sounds like a very powerful story. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
Nate Parker: It definitely has the parallels, as did The Great Debaters, of 2008. A lot can be learned from this film. I would assume that just as The Great Debaters could be made into a cirriculum, Blood Done Sign My Name will also make it into a cirriculum because there is a lot to learn about the history of our country that is not necessarily taught in the history books. It's a great thing to have the platform of film to serve as the history lessons for our kids and adults.
Finally, The Great Debaters is such a historical tale. Why do you think this is so relevant to today's audiences?
Nate Parker: There are a lot of things. For America as a whole, it has to say, there is power, healing and growth in recognizing the dark areas of our country. For the black community, we need role models, people who are willing to put themselves on the line, to intervene at critical points in our young people's lives and getting them invovled in something greater, they can change the world. These four kids, they changed the world. They really did, and they did it one debate at a time, and they could never know the impact that those debates had on now, the fact that they're changing people's minds about things. Wiley College is starting its debate program again and giving back to intellectuals. Intellectuallism is a great thing. We put so much emphasis on sports and entertainment but we don't really put as much on the importance on educating, not just for civil rights, but for everything. There are a lot of levels and a lot of messages that can be learned and that's why I'm really excited about this DVD coming out. There are going to be a lot of people that learn and gain progress from watching the film.
Excellent. That's about all I have for you, Nate. Thank you so much for your time.
Nate Parker: Thanks, man. Have a good day.
The Great Debaters debuts on DVD on May 13.