Nate Parker is having a moment.
Not only did the 32-year-old actor deliver a galvanizing supporting performance as a feisty gang member in Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” last month, but he’s set to do it again, this time in “Arbitrage,” a slick Wall Street thriller starring Richard Gere. Parker’s role in “Arbitrage” may not be a headliner, but it’s pivotal, with Parker going toe-to-toe with Gere and, as often as not, coming out of those scenes having held his own and even dominated. (Parker was seen earlier this year in a starring role in “Red Tails,” about the Tuskegee Airmen.)
All this from a guy who didn’t even intend to be an actor. “In another life, I would be in Silicon Valley,” Parker said the other day when he called from Los Angeles.
Nine years ago, Parker had just graduated with honors from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in management science and information systems (“basically business and computer programming”) when he agreed to drive his girlfriend, an aspiring model, to a gig in Texas. While he waited for her, “a guy came up and asked me if I was part of the program.” Parker replied that he was just there with a friend, and the man, who turned out to be a manager named Jon Simmons, asked him to read a monologue from “Fast and Furious.” Parker did, and Simmons told him, “You have to move to Los Angeles immediately.”
Parker did as he was told. “I didn’t even have time to have a yard sale,” he recalls. “All I had was my computer and my clothes. I got on the 40, hit the pin and was on my way to L.A.”
Even though Parker paid his dues, sleeping on Simmons’s couch and designing Web sites and business cards as he auditioned, he landed a job within a few months: a Tide commercial in which he delivered the deathless soliloquy, “Mom, what smells so good?” From there, it was on to spots on TV shows such as “Cold Case” and his first feature film, “Cruel World.”
In 2007, Parker was cast in Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters,” a movie that not only catapulted the young actor onto critics’ and audiences’ radars, but found Parker working with the man he had studied assiduously when he was starting out.
“I had prepared for years to meet Denzel Washington,” Parker says now. “I knew it would come. You know, in sports they say, ‘He who is most prepared will win.’ ”
Parker knew that when Washington directed “Antwone Fisher,” he asked his cast members to prepare elaborate back stories for all their characters. Parker obtained the “Great Debaters” script several months in advance of his audition, knew the story “inside out” and by the time he met Washington had already written his character’s biography. After Parker read for the role, he handed Washington the bio, then left. “Within days, I was working on the project,” he says.
It was just that intensity that drew writer-director Nicholas Jarecki to cast Parker in “Arbitrage.” Parker plays Jimmy, a young man who is called upon by the protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), at a pivotal, morally ambiguous moment in Miller’s life and career. Jarecki cast Parker in the role after the musician Drake dropped out; he and Parker already had a friendship over e-mail, after Jarecki recommended that Parker read “Pictures at a Revolution,” and the actor responded with “a four-page note about the book and the filmmaking industry and how it had changed.”
Noting that Parker “physically has all the right ingredients — he’s handsome, he moves with confidence,” Jarecki says that more important, “Nate Parker radiates integrity. And I knew that I needed that in this role. . . . He was a godsend for the picture.”
It’s difficult to argue with Jarecki’s assessment: Parker, who’s married and has three daughters, coaches local kids in wrestling when he’s not shooting (he was an all-American wrestler in college). “It’s important to know that I’m an activist before anything else,” he says.
Parker credits his mother, who brought him up in a housing project in Norfolk, with his sense of direction. “My sophomore year [in high school], my mother set me down and said she couldn’t send me to college,” Parker recalls. “I thought, ‘If this is what it’s going to take to show my mom she did a good job . . .’ So I started doing well in school, I got a scholarship, and I went to the University of Oklahoma.”
Today, Parker is preparing for another Spike Lee joint — this time, an adaptation of the Korean cult film “Oldboy.” One day, he’d like to write and star in a biopic of the 19th-century slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner. For now, he says, he and his family “live well within our means to provide that space and leeway to say yes or no.”
“One of the things I learned early on that’s really helped me is to draw your line in the sand and adhere to it,” he continues. “When I get an opportunity, I just try to be as responsible as I can be as an actor and an artist, whether it’s the material or dollars and cents.”