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Derek Luke – Finds That Working on Television Doesn’t Have to Be Traumatic

Updated: May 2, 2023

TRAUMA — Pictured: Derek Luke as Cameron Boone — NBC Photo: Michael Muller

Derek Luke

Finds That Working on Television Doesn’t Have to Be Traumatic

by Jay S. Jacobs  

In recent years, more and more actors are making the leap from feature films to television. What once had been a bit of a taboo has exploded, with many name movie actors finding stimulating work on series television – such as Glenn Close, Gary Sinise, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, Alec Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jason Schwartzman and many more.

Derek Luke has had a very busy theatrical career since he was chosen by Denzel Washington to play the title character in the film Antwone Fisher. Since then, Luke has played a fascinating scope of film roles. He was the hometown star Boobie Miles in the film Friday Night Lights, Hip-hop exec Puff Daddy in Notorious, the battalion commander in Spike Lee’s Miracle of St. Anna and South African freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso in Catch a Fire. Other varied roles include a young agent in David Mamet’s spy drama Spartan, a campaign worker in the romantic comedy Definitely Maybe and gigs in Glory Road and Madea Goes to Jail.

With all that work in a film career that has only been going for seven years, it’s sort of surprising that he would slow down to commit all the time needed for series work. However, when he was approached by producer/director Peter Berg – who had worked with Luke previously on Friday Night Lights – to lead the ensemble drama Trauma about San Francisco rescue workers, Luke signed on the dotted line.

Luke plays Cameron Boone, an emergency medical tech and ambulance driver who is having trouble juggling his harrowing career with his family life. Luke co-stars with Anastasia Griffith, Cliff Curtis, Aimee Garcia, Kevin Rankin and Jamie Sheridan as a group of emergency aid workers who are completely proficient in their dangerous careers but are complete wrecks in their personal lives.

A couple of weeks into the run of Trauma, Luke was nice enough to sit down with us and a few other selected websites to talk about his first TV series experience.

TRAUMA — Pictured: (l-r) background; Anastasia Griffith as Nancy Carnahan, foreground; Derek Luke as Cameron Boone — NBC Photo: Michael Muller

What do you find the most challenging about your role?

What do I find most challenging about playing Cameron Boone? I believe it is juggling the family and the medicine at the same time.

His family or your family?

His family. As an EMT paramedic, he doesn’t have a place to filter any information but at the same time at work what’s been a challenge on set has been… most of it has been learning the medicine. It’s been fun but it’s been challenging, and I love challenges.

Hi there. Living in San Francisco one of my favorite parts of the show is in seeing you guys and all the different neighborhoods around the city. Just curious what your favorite parts have been about filming on location?

Wow that’s actually hard because San Francisco has become one of my favorite cities I have in the US. So filming is – it’s been on the Embarcadero because you get the mix between the water, the (TAR), the people that are – the tourists and you get to see the culture. I also enjoy filming the Noe Valley. You’re asking me like to pick my favorite color, you know. But what I’m trying to say is that we’ve been so enjoying shooting in San Fran and I didn’t understand how beautiful it was until we did shoot. So, Embarcadero is one to name the many – the multi.

Hey Derek, it’s nice talking to you again. We spoke at the Waldorf in New York when you were promoting Catch a Fire.

Wow. Okay.

You’ve previously done mostly film work. When did you decide you were ready to give series TV a try? And how is different working on a series than doing a film?

You know, one of the key things for me as an actor has been choices and it’s been hard. I love film but when I first arrived to LA and once I got settled got an agent I had always been inspired by TV. From watching all the shows, The Cosby Show to all those; I always had a longing for TV. Nonetheless what brought me to TV was the quality of the material. And working again with a director I worked with in the past as a producer, Peter Berg, because I felt like he understood film. When I read the project, it felt like it was going to be a movie on television, so I wasn’t making a huge switch. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s been one of the most adventurous projects I have been on to date.

TRAUMA — Pictured: (l-r) Kevin Rankin as Tyler, Derek Luke as Boone — NBC Photo: Mitchell Haaseth

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about if you found what makes the character of Cameron tick yet or what is his soul? How do you go into playing this guy?

Every character that I have approached just in the past… I always call it there’s a suit or there’s an anatomy that goes to every character. I think Cameron wants so much to be right. He so much wants to be protocol and be excellent at what he does. He doesn’t want to fail. At the same time, you have a backdrop of what’s challenging in his life is not so much work but his family. So, he’s trying to put both of them together but they both require two different protocols and attention. I think what makes Cameron tick is: one, the job, the adrenaline, the rush. At the same time, he feels a sense of vulnerability because his family is suffering.

How does it feel putting on the uniform?

Putting on the uniform for me is actually pretty cool because we’re shooting on location. Sometimes, you’re walking across the street and, you know, there are cars passing you. Sometimes, you remember you have a uniform on. There was a particular time where a guy was talking on his cell phone with an ear piece and he saw me. He didn’t know whether I was a police officer or not. His whole demeanor – he just went totally – his face went pale. Inside I just smirked at the power of the uniform. It’s very authoritative. It’s like a super suit. I love it. And it’s amazing just to get a POV of how people react.

You’ve mainly had film experience like they said before, what’s it like going on the set of an ensemble television show versus like a film where your scene might have very little to do with the other people going on?

I would say it’s like broken pieces of a mirror. You see parts of your face. Another analogy is I feel like it’s a movie on Red Bull. It moves so much faster. That was the question I posed to Pete Berg before I did this project. I asked him, well how do I act on TV? He says, “you don’t have to act moment to moment but imagine yourself in the future.”

The cast has such a great chemistry with one another; was it instant or did it take a bit of time for you guys to develop that?

That is one of the most enjoyable parts of being on Trauma. I would say it’s the cast, it’s the city and then it’s the quality of the show. Instantly there was an instant bond and a kinship. It’s almost liked a brother and sisterhood among the cast. It’s like we’re so different but we can relate to each other. I call it the show of brotherhood of diversity, you know. We have so much that we want to share and so much that we want to give and please through our characters. It just made us all in harmony. It’s been beautiful. It’s, to date, one of the best ensembles I have worked with.

TRAUMA — Pictured: (l-r) Taylor Kinney as Glenn Morrison, Derek Luke as Cameron Boone, Anastasia Griffith as Nancy Carnahan, Cliff Curtis as Reuben Palchuck, Kevin Rankin as Tyler Briggs, Aimee Garcia as Marisa Benez — NBC Photo: Michael Muller

I’ve only seen the first two episodes so far but so much of the story line is about how the simplest most innocuous actions can have really devastating results. Now that you’ve been working at this and seeing all these accidents on the show, do you find yourself being more careful about what you do in real life?

Oh boy, this show totally makes you examine the slate of your life. Even though we’re working on a script it becomes, you know, social water cooler talk. The sets are so live and vivacious that you do examine yourself and, you know, you check yourself. It’s totally different when I’m driving in a car. It totally makes me examine texting – text driving – because that’s been one of the most interesting stories within the plot that we play. It’s simple but it has catastrophic effects. So yes, it is causing us to… not to be fearful, but it is totally causing us to be conscious and aware. At least for me.

I watched the first couple of episodes, and they are among the most intense episodes of television I’ve ever watched. All of the characters on the show have some sort of emotional baggage; Rabbit, for example has survivor guilt, he’s the sole survivor of a big crash. Marissa was in the military and now she’s finding herself having to prove herself all over again. And Nancy lost her boyfriend in the crash and so on. Which of the characters do you like to play against and for what reasons?

I love playing against Cliff Curtis [who plays chopper pilot Reuven “Rabbit” Palchuck]. There’s nothing like having a boxing match when someone totally understands your language. What I love about Cliff – besides being a cool guy and a friend – is that there’s a sincerity and an honesty that comes when playing opposite side of him. There’s an understanding of coming from film. So, he’s one of the people that I love. Then too I love playing opposite Kevin Rankin [who plays Luke’s partner Tyler Briggs] because most of our scenes are written so beautifully by writers but many times what makes a scene is the ability to be organic. Kevin is such an available soul; I love playing with him and against him because we always come up with something new in every take.

How much of a part did Peter Berg have in casting this? I think the first thing I noticed when I saw the show is you and Kevin together and the Friday Night Lights connection that you have to the movie and the TV series.

Well, you know, from that point of view me and Kevin didn’t know each other until the actual series. I never intentionally tuned into Friday Night Lights because I felt like I would be kind of disturbing the matrix, you know. I would be out, and it would be cool to hear moms or sons or daughters to say that’s Boobie Miles from the movie; we also watch the series. Pete Berg was very instrumental in casting at least for me. I can’t speak for Kevin Rankin. He just coated the approach with peace. He told me that he was in support. He also explained how it was for him to be on TV versus him working on films. [Berg was a series regular as an actor on Chicago Hope before switching to film and television directing]. Once we had that conversation, I was cast, and I was in. It was totally a brotherhood and a past working relationship that helped provoke me to go that way.

TRAUMA — “Pilot” Episode 101 — Pictured:(l-r) Derek Luke as Cameron Boone, Kevin Rankin as Tyler Briggs — NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater

Which side of Boone’s character is harder for you to play, the paramedic side or his personal life?

I would say what has been interesting to play for me has been the paramedicine. It’s to find out who are these guys behind the medicine. I found out any person that practices anything… it could be 1,000 doctors, it could be 1,000 lawyers but what makes them different are their personality and their instincts. It was about developing a mentality of a paramedicine and developing what makes you get up in the morning and constantly see the pulse of the world in their most vulnerable state. That’s been a challenge for me because Derek the person does not like blood, and he do not like needles. I’m constantly asking myself who is this guy? These guys are so heroic and [I’m] gaining much more information about him as we play our scenes from week to week. That’s what’s been interesting for me.

Did you do any background research about being a paramedic? Did you speak to any paramedics or maybe do some ride-alongs or anything like that when you got the role?

Yes, ride-alongs were part of our research along with classroom time. Classroom time was basically going to a paramedic school and learning the basics. You know, basically the difference between an EMT versus the EMT paramedic that I play is the medicine. I had to focus on the medicine whereas my partner focused more on the BLS meaning basic life support. Me as a character I was ALS, advanced life support. Again, what separates that was the medicine. We also went on ride-alongs, spent about fourteen or twenty hours on ride-alongs. They’re still continual because every job and every EMT team works totally different. It’s taking a part of what stands out and applying it to your life situation.

We’ve already talked a lot about various struggles for your characters. I think watching the first couple episodes it kind of plays out that maybe there are various ways this might move along. I wondered if there was anything that you could tell us about what might be coming up in the next few episodes – what parts of the struggle come forward?

Well I would like to say that presently as playing my character, Cameron Boone, and in reality of an EMT paramedic is that some of your closest… whoever you work with on the field becomes sort of like your best friend. Whether you talk or you don’t talk, you guys get each other. It’s almost like playing a game. I know the ball is going to be there when the quarterback throws the ball. But I think, so far, we’re able to see, Boone [is] having challenges at home. Many times, for men, as I was doing research, they say men are the first ones to leave the house. But in the future, there are some rivaling conflicts with his partners. It makes a place where it was totally safe now totally unsafe and vulnerable. Those are some of the conflicts that are arising.

TRAUMA — Pilot — Pictured: Derek Luke as Cameron Boone — NBC Photo: Chris Haston

With this role you must be pretty technical. I know you said you’ve had the training and the ride-arounds but is it the dialogue any harder to memorize? I mean, you’ve got complicated medical things going on. How does that work out for you?

What’s challenging about the dialogue is that the show is dramatic, but the medicine is action. Every action needs an emotion but it also every action is a procedure. So, you pretty much have to know your stuff and the medicine to do the scene because. We may get a certain amount of words but it’s almost like putting it in a puzzle that one word goes with an epi and one word goes with this medicine and one word goes with how you examine the person. So, unlike what I’ve done in the past where I’m just having dialogue this one requires a totally keen sense of focus. I’m enjoying it. I’m having so much fun with it because it doesn’t feel like it is TV. I feel like I’m working on a movie.

Your character obviously loves his family and yet apparently, he has a bit of a wandering eye. I believe it was in the pilot that he said it was because he couldn’t bring all the death and pain that he sees daily back home to his family. As a family man yourself, do you think that there is a point to that explanation, or do you just think that’s just a rationalization on his part?

I’m glad you asked that. It’s a very interesting answer because as I was coming to this role part of my research was seeing how the family structure has changed and been redefined over the last 20-25 years. Whether your mom or my grandma – the structure of the family is totally different. As a matter of fact, part of my research I found out that it was much more catastrophic or harder on a child to lose a parent through divorce than a fatality. Today if you look at my character – the divorce rate in the US and around the world is so high so again that affects not just Cameron but it affects his family, or it affects young people growing up. It’s in fact the family structure had been the most revered structure over the last 50, 60 years. It has changed so much. So has our economy and so have our children. Nine times out of ten what I wanted to make Cameron Boone was a universal character; it didn’t matter whether you were of what culture of what color. Most everyone had a working father or not. For him not to come home is very complicated. For him to share work is very hard. I know that when I come home, the first thing I do not talk about is work. I want to move as far from work as possible. But what it takes to make a relationship is communication. I think he doesn’t see that all the time. He thinks he is protecting but he’s imploding opposed to exploding.

Copyright ©2009  All rights reserved. Posted: October 18, 2009.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2009 Michael Mueller. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.#2 © 2009 Michael Mueller. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.#3 © 2009 Mitchell Haaseth. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.#4 © 2009 Michael Mueller. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.#5 © 2009 Paul Drinkwater. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.#6 © 2009 Chris Haston. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.

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