In "The Great Debaters," actor Nate Parker plays Henry Lowe, the debate team's most troubled but brilliant competitor. The film takes a fictional look at the real-life achievements of the Wiley College debate team during 1935. Wiley College is in Marshall, Texas. Below is a transcript of my interview with him.
PHOTO (left to right): Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker and Nate Parker on the set of "The Great Debaters." (Weinstein Co.)
ALEXANDYR KENT: It's your second time in Louisiana in a couple years. (Parker also had a supporting role in 'Pride.') How are we treating you?
NATE PARKER: You're treating me amazing. Louisiana is such a beautiful place. The landscaping, the architecture. I'm from Virginia, so it's the same kind of colonial feel. It's treating me really well.
AK: You must be really excited, too, because obviously you get a release on Christmas day. There's a lot of things that go behind a Christmas day release. And obviously the caliber of the project is just amazing.
NP: And that's exactly what's important. It's one of those things that, yes, I'm happy that I'm doing a film that's coming out on Christmas. But such a special and important film? It gives it special meaning. It gives it a whole new meaning, you know?
AK: What do you admire most about your character, 'Henry Lowe with an e?'
NP: The thing I admire most is his passion. I think that he's in a very tough time. He's so conflicted. Here you have a young man who has so much power, so much opportunity. If Henry is born in 2007, his life is going to be completely different than if he's born in 1920. I definitely, definitely admire his passion. His ability to say, 'OK, I'm in this environment where saying the wrong word can mean my life. But I'm going to absorb everything I can and use this education as a tool to get me ahead in life.'
AK: You're also playing a character who, you touched on it hear … he's going to a historically black college which is full of hope in that era, but he's also surrounded by the Jim Crow South, which is probably not the most hopeful place. The film does an absolutely wonderful job of conjuring up both of those elements of kind of this optimism of the college itself and, if you step off campus, it's a different world.
NP: It just reminds you, and it's something that happens even now. Education, in itself, is probably the most positive way to escape your environment. You talk to an inner-city kid, and he'll say, 'I live in this hard neighborhood, and there's drugs, there's alcohol, we don't have our fathers around, there are no role models.' What this film reminds them is that you can defy the elements of your environment if you are willing to take on the burden of education, if you're willing to say, 'If nothing else, get my grades. If nothing else, get to college somehow.' Because opportunities now are insanely higher than they were then.
AK: You have a character who is written (by Bob Eisele) and portrayed by you very honestly. He may have a lot of pressure on him, but he's also a bit of a rebel. He's also a bit of an infidel. He's a bit of a drinker.
NP: He is.
AK: Strangely, well, not strangely, he's still a hero. You take those qualities, and you look at this film, how do you make something like that redeeming?
NP: I think at the root of it all, he's a good kid. He uses those things to almost drown his demons, and to quiet that turmoil that is going on inside of him. It's the same as today. He takes his drinks, because he's like, 'How am I going to cope with my environment?' He has one foot in the street and one foot in school. As intelligent as he is, he's just as equal a rebel in the street. In developing this character, I studied and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I really wrote so this character could speak to me. What does he want? What is he trying to say? You know, at the very root, what does he want? He wants acceptance, and he wants to be loved, just like any other 20-year-old kid. But he has to compromise himself day in and day out in this Jim Crow South. He has to. It's like this scene when I walk into the police precinct. I ask them, 'How are you guys? Are you OK? Did they do anything?' On the surface, I want to take care of them. But on the inside, it's, 'Even if they did, what could I do?' You know, it's such a helpless feeling of those times. So, I think he's very redeeming because at the end of it all, at the root of it all, he's a guy that is caught in a very bad situation. He doesn't have the parents. He doesn't have the support that James Farmer Jr. has. He doesn't have the support. In a way, he envies him because he doesn't have the support. He envies that in him, but he sees an innocence in James Jr. that makes him say, 'You know what, with this opportunity you could do greater things than me. Because me? It's for selfish reasons. I just want to get back at this system that's oppressed me for all of this time. And I want to do it with my intellect.'
AK: Your task in this actor is to come on screen and basically daily challenge a two-time Academy Award winner and daily put your persona up against his persona, probably one of the strongest personas in screen history.
NP: Absolutely, and you know, Mr. Washington is so selfless. He's been acting for 35 years. At any moment he could have stepped in and made the scene his. At any moment. I don't think that I every went against Denzel, ever. I never stood against him. But what we did is we walked into the room together, we understood what needed to be done in the scene, and we delivered. I delivered because of him. He's a great teacher. It was more of an apprentice and a teacher relationship every time we were on screen. Character-wise, I did rebel against him. But it was the story of my life. I rebelled against any authority, because authority represented who? Jim Crow. Even if it came from someone that loved me, it was only a matter of time before they compromised themselves for the Jim Crow South. So I trusted no one. If you never want to get let down, you never trust anyone. Because human beings … that defiance came as a shell. And it was his job as a teacher, just as teachers today, to break that shell and to penetrate that shell and get to me and make me understand why I need to let my guard down, and why I need to have passion, and why I need to channel all of this anger into something that is positive.
AK: Do you have any experience in debate?
NP: I have four younger sisters. (Laughter.) I mean in that respect, yes. But I never took a debate in school. But we did go to debate camp. He was very adamant about us learning that actual skill set. We went to Texas Southern University. We learned parliamentary debate and impromptu debate on the first day. On the second day, we actually debated against their freshman-sophomore team. And we won. Me and Jermaine were on a team, and Jurnee and Little Denzel were on a team, and we ended up going to the finals but it was good enough that we debated each other there. But they didn't take it easy on us. I think that somewhere inside they wanted to prove to us that they were debaters. But as Denzel says, 'We're actors. Our job is to persuade.' I think that by craft, this was a good opportunity for me and this is what I do.
AK: Vocally, this must have been a challenge, because you don't see many roles out there, besides on the Broadway stage where you're singing, where you have to use your voice as an oracle. You have to become this symbol of power.
NP: Well, check this out. Denzel, what he did for us in rehearsal, he said, 'OK, we're going to rehearse.' We didn't know what to expect.' All we knew we were excited, we were going to rehearsal. So he took us into this huge warehouse room that was maybe 200 feet deep with really high ceilings. He stands at one side, and we're at the other side, and he tells us to give our debate. In that moment, we realized just how much voice we didn't have. We had to project all the way down this hall. And it's a lot more difficult than you think. So we learned to project our voice. We learned to speak from our diaphragm. We learned to stand up straight with posture, and how important posture was to your speech. The difficult thing was in filming, you may do a scene 30 times. I remember one speech in particular. In was the Paul Quinn (College) debate. I probably did that speech 35 times straight. And it was taxing because you have to do it over and over and you have to be just as powerful in the first take as you are in the last take. Not because he's told you to, but because that's our job.
AK: Tell me a little bit about the camaraderie that you had with Little D (Denzel Whitaker) and Jurnee Smollett. You had some genuine chemistry going there.
NP: Absolutely. We're joined at the hip. We're all great friends. We talk just about every day. We go on the press tour together. We eat every meal together. It was funny because Little Denzel is like my little brother. Off set, he'd ask me questions just about life and what I thought about this and what I thought about that. And it's funny because, I look at Denzel as my model of integrity. When I'm conflicted, and when I have a question about something, when something is on my mind that I don't really understand, I'll go to him whether it is life or whether it is character. And I respect his answers. And the same thing goes with Little Denzel. He looked up to me for advice. We grew closer throughout the film because of it. And me and Jurnee? Of course, she's beautiful and she's intelligent. She's going to make some guy really happy someday. And it was that kind of relationship with her. I'm so glad it was her.
AK: Now you're also a wrestling coach, is that right?
NP: I coach little kids and I wrestled at college. I wrestled at Penn State University, then I wrestled at the University of Oklahoma, and I was an All-American at the University of Oklahoma. My passion is working with kids. I work with a charity called Peace for Kids, and it's like an afterschool program for kids in like Compton basically where after school they come and we put them in fun activities, and we helped them learn how to manage their money. I'm actually starting another branch of that charity where we are actually starting a college fund so we can send kids to school, who have the ability, who have the grade, but just don't have the support financially, because the tuitions are steadily increasing. I love kids. In wrestling, I do have a 10-, 11-, 12-year-old team that I coach and help out at Rosemead High School. I help out at Rio Hondo College.
AK: This might be a leap, but in being in a film about a coach, does this change the way that you coach now?
NP: It does, because I probably wouldn't be able to pick it out about myself. But it's something that my students could talk about. It's something that Denzel could talk about. He's been working 35 years and he's worked with a lot of directors. You don't know just how to implement those teachings. It's the same thing for me. I think going to talk to my little wrestlers, there's something different there. Not that it's bad. It's something, a level of understanding, that I can maybe articulate my voice or my advice to them in any given situation.
AK: From the experience of shooting in northwest Louisiana, and DeSoto Parish, and Keatchie, and Mansfield, and all that stuff, is there anything that kind of sticks with you from kind of being there for three, four months?
NP: The beauty of the South. It has always been beautiful. We got to shoot in the Caddo Lake with the cypress sides.
AK: Which side were you on? Were you on Texas or Louisiana?
NP: I think we were in Louisiana. We took a little bridge over. We were in Louisiana, and it was beautiful. I remember being on the boat and driving and it was past breathtaking. It was one of those feelings where you felt for a moment timeless. It's like it wasn't 1935. It wasn't 2007. The date didn't matter. God had done something very beautiful in this place. The people were so nice. I remember going to Wal-Mart every day. We didn't have much where we stayed so I would go to Wal-Mart every day. I would go there to buy a DVD. I would go there to buy ChapStick. I would find a reason to get out of the house and I would go to Wal-Mart.
AK: Were you in Shreveport?
NP: We were in Shreveport. The people were very nice, and the environment was just spectacular to look at. Very hot. It was fuuny too. When we shot at Caddo Lake we had to have like knee-high boots because we would sink into the mud up to our knees. So we would have to trudge to the boat, and it was like so mud everywhere. The clothing, wardrobe people were freaking out because a drip of mud and we'd have to change our shirt. We had to have rubber over everything to cover us up, and the mosquitoes and the bugs, ugh. But at the end of the day, when you would look around and see how beautiful it actually was, you'd be like, 'Cross all that other stuff out.'
AK: I'll ask you one last question. I'm wondering if intellectually or emotionally when you walk onto a set, and it seems like day to day so effectively does conjure up kind of the mood of that era, and the mood of that time period, how does that affect you emotionally? Do you have to detach yourself from it when you step out of character or does it feel like you're there?
NP: With a film like this, you have to embrace. You have to embrace everything that is coming toward you. With that comes knowledge and learning. With this film, I've gained so much intellect. With this film I did some much reading. I read James Joyce. I read D.H. Lawrence. I read W.B. Yeats. Before this movie, I've never picked up on of those books. I love to read, but I just may not have ever got into it. The second you step on set, I believe you open yourself up to a certain level of vulnerability. You say, 'I'm going to let this affect me so when I am on screen, it will come off honest.'
AK: Thank you, Mr. Parker.
NP: Thank you.