Let’s get the sound bite of Derek Luke’s discovery out of the way: After Derek auditioned for a part in Antwone Fisher, first-time director and icon Denzel Washington walks into the Sony Studios gift shop where Derek works and offers him the lead. Fast forward four years, seven films and one happy marriage later, this 31-year-old New Jersey native has zero chance of falling off Hollywood’s radar anytime soon.

On January 13, Luke hits the courts in Glory Road, the true story of the first all-Black collegiate basketball team to beat an all-White team in the 1965 NCAA finals. Essence caught up with the modest actor on the Johannesburg, South Africa, set of his next movie, Hotstuff, to talk about the moment he fell in love with his Jersey childhood—and every man’s easy pass to L.A. parties (not what you think):

Essence: Tell us why you’re suiting up again as an athlete in Glory Road.

Derek Luke: I admire a couple of things about this film. These players got recruited because they were misfits—one guy’s arm was too short and another had a heart problem—but they became a part of history. Then there’s Coach Haskins, who told his racist opposing coach, “Listen, you got all these reasons why you played your ballplayers, but mine is simple: I play the best.” And that just shuts him down.

Essence: What did you take away from Friday Night Lights?

Luke: I didn’t get the whole thing about being proud of where you’re from until I did that film. I want to put Jersey on the map. I don’t care anymore that I went to school in the ’hood, and it wasn’t until my senior year that we had a basketball championship and pep rally. I thought those things only happened in the suburbs or 90210.

Essence: Speaking of Beverly Hills, have you gotten caught up in the life of the rich and famous and become a label whore since living in Los Angeles?

Luke: Back East I was one. But there’s a way to look good without trying too hard. The L.A. uniform for men is the black T-shirt. It’s the license to get into any party. As long as you have a black shirt, you’re good to go. –mitzi mill