High stakes money dealing and child molestation weigh heavily by any measure; eliciting headlines though, by comparison, sit at opposite ends of angst and disdain. But the impressive dexterity of actor Nate Parker demonstrates his ability to balance the scales of emotion, making him one of today’s finest on screen talents.
Parker costars in ARBITRAGE the Richard Gere dramatic thriller centered on financial improprieties, from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.
Parker also costars in RED HOOK SUMMER, the Spike Lee intense drama that posits religion and fractured family dynamics amid sexual innocence, now playing in theaters.
ARBITRAGE, from writer Nicholas Jarecki, is described as a taut and alluring suspense thriller about love, loyalty, and high finance. New York hedge-fund magnate Robert Miller (Gere), on the eve of his 60th birthday, appears the very portrait of success in American business and family life. Behind the gilded walls of his mansion, Miller is in over his head, desperately trying to complete the sale of his trading empire to a major bank before the depths of his fraud are revealed.
Miller struggles to conceal his duplicity from his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), heir-apparent, all the while balancing an extramarital affair. Just as he’s about to unload his troubled empire, a bloody accident forces him to juggle family, business, and crime with the aid of Jimmy Grant (Parker), a face from Miller’s past.
The 32-year-old Parker’s expanding movie career includes over a dozen feature films. He first received critical attention for his starring role in The Great Debaters opposite Denzel Washington. He followed this with a role starring alongside Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Red Tails. He is currently in production on David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints opposite Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster. Other credits include: Pride, Felon, Tunnel Rats with Michael Pare and The Secret Life Of Bees, which featured an all-star cast of Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Dakota Fanning and Paul Bettany. On stage, Parker appeared in American Voices opposite Dustin Hoffman, Annette Bening, Rosario Dawson and James Cromwell.
According to the filmmakers, Jarecki always had a very specific idea in mind for Jimmy Grant, something in his head he couldn’t get past, to the point that the producers wondered if this person really existed. They looked at every young African American actor they could find, viewing around 60 tapes. In the end they met with ten people. “I kept thinking, its 3am in the morning, who can you call who you can trust?” says the director. “It’s a very complex part. They know each other and have shared a past experience that has deep resonance and now they are very much in each other’s lives again in a pressure cooker situation where Jimmy goes on the line for Robert. What kind of guy would do that in this terrible circumstance?”
Gere’s agent introduced Jarecki to Nate Parker whose work he was already a fan of from The Secret Life Of Bees and The Great Debaters. “Andrew rang me and said ‘Nate’s doing this.’ I told him ‘I love Nate, but I have so many ideas in my head right now.’ But Andrew kept calling, each time in a low but forceful tone, simply repeating, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know you have your process, but Nate’s doing this’ insisting he was the only man for the part. As soon as I actually met Nate, I realized that somehow without knowing it, I had written the script for him all along. You really believe in Jimmy and hope for him when you watch this character because you have faith in him and that’s what Nate brings to the role. As Brit Marling once said to me, ‘Nate radiates integrity.’”
What excited Parker about the project were the screenplay and the way his character was written. “I read a lot of scripts with parts for African American men and only two out of 40 are actually representing us in a way that’s positive.” Parker also felt very connected to Jimmy. “I grew up in the projects with cement floors and perforated steel stairs so I know that environment. I know the difficulties you face everyday just getting out of bed.”
Parker spent time with a youth program he works with in Brooklyn for underserved communities to prepare for his role in ARBITRAGE.
Gere was impressed with Parker’s performance. “One of my earlier films was with Denzel Washington and I remember coming home one night and saying to my agent — hey, I just worked with this terrific actor — Denzel, who of course became one of our great leading men and I think Nate has that in him. He’s his own person obviously but he’s got that potential inside him. He’s wonderful.”
Recently, I spoke to Parker, a Norfolk, VA native who holds an honorary Doctorate from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. Commenting on the fine performance he gave in ARBITRAGE and other roles, he replied, “…that means a lot and that is the point. Hopefully I can continue to make projects that inspire and encourage.”
Parker is known to be fastidious in preparing for each character portrayal.
It is said his audition reel for ARBITRAGE helped seal the deal. About his due diligence he shared, “I put about three scenes together to help me approach the character from a place of truth. I do this not necessarily for the film, but for that kid that’s watching it, standing in the shoes of that man, maybe going through whatever circumstance that character is feeling. I try to hold myself accountable to create something that will give the filmmakers some kind of momentum to choose the right thing, to move in the right direction. That’s how I approach all of my roles.”
He continued, “The first role I ever had was on television; it was on Cold Case. If I remember, it was a young man who had been molested by a swim coach. A number of years later, they looked into the murder of the swim coach and my character’s name came up. I can remember looking at the material trying to figure out how I would create this world and how I would be true to this character. Being someone who has never been molested, I just reminded myself that somewhere in the world a young kid –who is a victim– is going to be watching this and he will be sitting next to the person that is victimizing him. How would I be able to speak on behalf of that kid and will I do a good job? Will that kid say, ‘he’s so honest?’ That is the kind of approach I take in terms of what I chose to do and the type of messages I want to draw, based on my character analysis.”
His process is enduring.
“I come from an athletic background; I was a wrestler and in wrestling the stakes are high. If you don’t prepare, it can mean your health. You can break something or hurt yourself. Wrestling is a one-on-one sport and many times people think it’s you against the other person but most often it’s you against yourself. I take that training with me: the discipline and the work ethic. So far it’s paid off.”
Malfeasance and corporate esurience loom large in the minds of many during recent years. Avarice, bravado and poor judgment are all present in ARBITRAGE, Jarecki’s debut feature.
Parker, though, chooses to describe ARBITRAGE thusly, “I would say responsibility, I’d say accountability, I’d say loyalty. For me, I’d say loyalty and betrayal were the two words that really stuck out for me in this film. Every character is conflicted but everyone has that question of loyalty and betrayal. My character, Jimmy, has to remain loyal to the Richard Gere character because he has helped my family. He’s someone who has helped me through a very tough time following my father’s death from cancer. Miller was the one who paid the bill to help get him into the ground. That means something to me, to Jimmy, coming from a community where there’s very little room for nepotism because the African American community doesn’t have much from the past to pass on in terms of material things. Family and loyalty and love for those who love you become the highest priorities. When trouble comes about for Miller, Jimmy has to ask himself, ‘How far will I go to protect the man who helped my family?’ Yet in many ways I feel Miller betrayed his promise to Jimmy’s father to take care of him. Yes, all the words you used can be applied. For me, I really had to ask myself what the word ‘loyalty’ meant to our relationship especially facing jail time to protect Miller.”
There are nuances in ARBITRAGE, also costarring Tim Roth, that hearken of days gone by yet there are shades steeped in present day, particularly the sanguine protagonist who doubles as the villain in question. Parker places well in period dramas. Namely, in THE GREAT DEBATERS, the tender love scene with Journee Smollett — both sitting quietly in a boat in the bayou– rates among my favorite on screen romantic events, their innocence is affecting.
Parker seems at ease in any era. “I think that’s probably one of the greatest compliments I have received in my career and perhaps speaks to the reality that –in many ways– we’ve lost the power of the young black man.
“It’s been replaced in the media by the angry black man, or the violent black man, the despondent black man, or the weak black man or the emasculated black man. I put ‘black man’ on it because I’m specifically speaking to our community. People ask me why I play so many period roles and my answer is simple. I tell them [that] when I see more material reflecting black men in a positive way– that will be progress for the community instead of a detriment– then people will see more contemporary roles [from me].”
Our conversation moves to his role in Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER.
Parker, as “Box”, is a jaded street thug, once a “church boy” gone by the wayside. The RED TAILS star opined, “I think it’s important that we recognize those men we see on the street corners with their pants down and their hats backwards; with the ‘blood’ colors and the pistol in their waist, that they are the residue of having been discarded. It first comes with the leadership, you go to any school, and the success of any of those young people is a result of the leadership that has come before them. The people that have guided them so I think with this young man, Box, while it’s easy to play what a gang member is, it’s harder to really speak to his truth. His back story– you know that he’s trying; he was in the church and his mother passed away. No one filled in the gap. That’s what’s happening in our community: we’re losing our kids at ages, 12, 13, 14… the girls get pregnant at 11, 12, 13… the boys are becoming gangsters at 11, 12, 13, and it’s not because they are criminal minded. It’s not because they want to die. Largely, it’s because of that impermanence where they feel like tomorrow is not guaranteed. It’s that abandonment where they feel like they don’t have the support of people around them. That can make them feel like tomorrow is not guaranteed so they are raised most often by people that will take advantage, sometimes its gangs.”
Reaching further into his perspective, “Sometimes a gang will provide that security, that safety net, that social experience: all the things that you would hope one can gain in a positive, healthy environment. I think there’s a lot of judgment that goes on in our generation, among young people, and much of that judgment happens in church. In my own church, our pastor is younger than me now. I told him I was excited because when I used to go into church all I would see were older people just waiting to die. They’d lived their lives and now it’s time for them to keel over, so they want to make sure that they are ‘right with God.’ Today, if you look at the energy of young people and what we’re doing with Twitter, Facebook and all these social media outlets, there is such an opportunity for the church to gain a new energy. When this script (RED HOOK SUMMER) was brought it to me I saw so much in it. The church has a responsibility. It’s my prayer that they step up to the plate and reach out to these young people.”
A consistent thread is apparent in Parker –and in his career portfolio– who seeks to avoid categorization. “To be completely honest, I try my very best…I do so much research.” An avid learner who sees each role as a teaching experience, he is reflective about his personal growth. “I’ve learned that there’s no more noble or greater responsibility than to lead your people. So many people are in our path and I’m just blessed that my path or my platform for that leadership is something that I love. It didn’t have to be the case. God has blessed me with this opportunity to be an actor and He blessed me with a double portion to be able to encourage and inspire young people all across the world.”
Sounding resolute, the Los Angeles resident cites a piece of advice from role model Denzel Washington. Parker disclosed, “He told me to never forget, ‘…man gives the award and God gives the reward’.” Unpacking the essence of Washington’s words, Parker expounded, “Man needs you to fight for their awards, the fleeting trophy, the fleeting recognition, the fleeting pat on the back– sometimes we get lost in that. You mentioned the word ego during this conversation, sometimes it becomes about us [actors] if we’re not careful. I’ve learned that it’s going to be important to and for me to continue to seek God’s reward and to surround myself with people that will keep my feet planted firmly on the ground.”