Actor and humanitarian Nate Parker first received critical attention for his starring role in The Great Debaters opposite Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. Denzel handpicked him to play the troubled yet brilliant Henry Lowe who overcomes his selfish ways to become the team’s leader. Nate received an honorary Doctorate from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, the school on which The Great Debaters was based.
More recently, he appeared in the action thriller Non-Stop, opposite Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore. Last year, he starred in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, opposite Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, and Ben Foster. In 2012, he was the toast of the Sundance Film Festival when he appeared in Arbitrage opposite Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth. That year, he also starred as the lead in Red Tails, supported by Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr. It told the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps and were some of the finest pilots in World War II. George Lucas funded, produced and co-directed this feature.
Earlier in his career, Nate starred opposite Alicia Keys in The Secret Life of Bees, which featured an all-star cast of Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Dakota Fanning and Paul Bettany. Additionally, he’s been seen in Pride alongside Terrence Howard, in Dirty opposite Cuba Gooding Jr., in Felon with Stephen Dorff and Sam Shepard, and in Tunnel Rats with Michael Pare. And onstage, Nate appeared opposite Dustin Hoffman, Annette Bening, Rosario Dawson and James Cromwell in American Voices at the Broad Street Theater. A Norfolk, VA native, Nate studied computer programming and trained his way to become an All-American wrestler at the University of Oklahoma. He mentors twenty-four children from schools in central Los Angeles and spearheads projects and events with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. He sponsors a Peace for Kids scholarship fund and works in their afterschool program.
Here, Nate talks about his new movie, Beyond the Lights, while waxing romantic about his career and his life philosophy.
Nate Parker: My pleasure, brother.
KW: I really enjoyed Beyond the Lights. What interested you in the project?
NP: Before anything else, it was Gina. I think she’s one of the best directors on planet Earth. And her vision, and her work ethic, and attention to details are so inspiring that when a project comes up that she’s a part of, you want to be a part of it.
KW: She certainly devoted herself to developing and fleshing out her characters in this picture.
NP: Well, she had the time. You know what they say: – Cheap, fast and good. You can only have two. This is a woman who takes her time. Four years for this project, four years for the last one. She’s been in the driver’s seat for so long, and been so passionate about it, and she’s never taken no for an answer. And it shows in the work. Not only did she write the perfect script, but she was so intentional about her vision coming across, that it made it easy for me to do my job.
KW: But you bring a lot to the table, too. I’ve seen you do reliably great work in picture after picture.
NP: Thanks, Kam. You and I will probably be on the phone a lot in the coming years, and you’ll always hear me say the same thing: I attribute everything that I’ve attained to my leadership. I am nothing without my director. I really believe that. I can prepare a character, and put myself in a position to deliver truthful nuance and put on the skin, but it’s the director’s job to usher me into a place that achieves the vision in way that’s understated and believable.
KW: What message do you think people will take away from the film?
NP: I think the first is that the language of love transcends all obstacles. I think the second is that in order to love someone else you first have to know yourself, and be comfortable in your own skin.
KW: The Melissa Harris-Perry question: How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
NP: Oh my goodness! That’s a good question. My first great heartbreak was losing my father. I was 11, when I lost my dad. It changed me, because I had to be the father for my family. My outlook on life changed immediately, and it became all about service. And that’s how I approach my craft, as if I’m a servant of the film. Losing my father was the biggest transition that affected so much of my life.
KW: The Harriet Pakula-Teweles question: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to star in?
NP: Funny you should ask. Yes, A Place in the Sun. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and we’re developing a picture that’s very similar to it, thematically.
KW: The Viola Davis question: What’s the biggest difference between who you are at home as opposed to the person we see on the red carpet?
NP: I do my very best to be the same person. I always say I’m an ctor-vist. All I do, I do for my people. I make no apologies for that, and I try to live my life as an example for young black men navigating the life space. I want to leave a legacy behind that, when you reflect about me, you’ll think,Okay, there was a sacrifice made on behalf of people who looked like him.
KW: What do you think about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri?
NP: I went to Ferguson. I think the problem is deeper than police brutality. I believe there’s an overall dehumanization and hyper-criminalization of black youth that affects everyone. It wasn’t a cop who killed Treyvon Martin. So, Ferguson was not an isolated incident, but emblematic of an epidemic that’s been around for over 400 years. The injuries and conditioning caused by slavery continue to live within us today. We’re constantly told that the value of a black life is less. There’s a certain level of white supremacy and black inferiority that’s entrenched in our society. Once you become desensitized to that truth, you fall right into the trap. And until we have an honest confrontation of those evils, we cannot heal as a country, and a Ferguson is going to continue to happen every other week. That’s why it’s so important that you, as a journalist, and that I, as an artist, pursue justice, and make it a strong thread of who we are as individuals.
KW: That makes me think of that famous saying by Faulkner, The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past, and how Sugar Ray Leonard told me the toughest fight he ever had wasn’t Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran on Wilfred Benitez, but his fight against a lesser opponent in Boston because of all the racism he encountered from the moment he stepped of the plane right through the fight. He said the relentless, palpable hatred sapped his spirit. I was stunned by that totally unexpected answer.
NP: That’s interesting. I can’t help but mention the irony of listening to you relate that story as I sit here looking out a window watching a huge American flag waving in the breeze. We are a great country, but we are sick, and we need to be made well. And America has a long way to go.
KW: When you mention the American flag and irony, that reminds me of what happened to a good friend of mine, Ted Landsmark, a fellow lawyer, when we were both in Boston back in the Seventies. He had his nose broken by an American flag when a bunch of racists attacked him right in front of City Hall. The photographer who happened to capture it won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph.
NP: Oh my goodness! I never heard about this incident. I’m googling it right now I’m looking at it right now. How ironic! That’s incredible! This has been the plight of the black man in the U.S. Crushed by the very instrument that’s supposed to symbolize freedom.
KW: Are you thinking about entering politics in real-life someday, like your character, Kaz?
NP: No, not at all. Anything that’s been done for our people in the past, was done outside the realm of politics. Our greatest inroads were achieved with the help of leaders who were among the people. That’s not an indictment of politicians, it’s just that things don’t change quickly when you work within the political structure.
True revolution transpires on a grassroots level where change can occur very quickly.
KW: Let’s say you’re throwing your dream dinner party – “who’s invited and what would you serve?”
NP: I would invite Paul Robeson, and I would serve a vegetarian meal, something that’s healthy for us both.
KW: Have you ever had a near-death experience?
NP: No one’s ever asked me that before. Yes, in summer camp when I was in the 7th grade and had asthma desperately bad. I was kayaking for the first time when it rolled over and I didn’t know how to roll the boat back upright. I was zipped in and couldn’t get out. Fortunately, a friend, Isaac Paddock, swam over and saved me. I literally had an asthma attack while I was drowning. I don’t know how I survived it, except with Isaac’s help and the grace of God. If Isaac hadn’t pulled me out, I wouldn’t be here right now.
KW: Have you ever accidentally uncovered a deep secret?
NP: Sure, every family has its dysfunction, but I wouldn’t want to talk about it.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
NP: On Film-making, by Alexander Mackendrick, because I’m about to direct a film in December called The Birth of a Nation. It’s a biopic about Nat Turner. Revolution is in the air.
KW: Where did you interest in Nat Turner come from?
NP: It’s pretty much all I care about nowadays. I grew up in Norfolk and Chesapeake, Virginia. Nat grew up about 40 miles away, in Southampton County. And of course, he led the most successful slave revolt in American history. I’m very much interested in aggressively pursuing justice for all people, especially during times of moral crisis. I’m less worried about my brand than about alleviating the plight of oppressed people. So, I speak my mind, particularly about injustices in my community, even though that can sometimes get you in trouble.
KW: Keep up the good work, Nate, and best of luck with Beyond the Lights.
NP: Thank you, Kam.
Watch the Beyond the Lights trailer: