Every aspiring actor dreams of finding that one role that can catapult her or him to stardom. But few make their mark in the highly selective world of Hollywood. Fortunately Derek Luke and Joy Bryant were at the right place at the right time. Academy award-winning actor Denzel Washington chose these two unknowns for his directorial debut film Antwone Fisher. Luke and Bryant star in the true story of sailor Antwone Fisher whose violent temper lands him in therapy and on the verge of being kicked out of the Navy. Washington plays the doctor who helps Fisher overcome his rage. The critically acclaimed film takes audiences on an emotional journey, while touching on social issues such as family abandonment, abuse and foster care.

Luke and Bryant have definitely made their mark and this film almost certainly ensures their place in the movie business. In fact, both have lined up new films. Luke will star in Biker Boyz and Pieces of April; Bryant will appear in Honey. “We started out here and the bar has been raised,” Bryant says. “So the only difficult thing is not being too picky or selective. This experience was so magical and wonderful in so many ways. I mean, to work with Denzel, [especially] in his directorial debut. It’s like what am I gonna do next.”

ESSENCE.com caught up with rising stars Luke and Bryant. We found out what it was like filming a movie with such emotional impact, how they prepared for their roles, and what they learned from Denzel.

How did you prepare for your respective roles?

Joy: Aside from learning the Navy stuff, I just [had to] find my rhythm and who I wanted Cheryl to be. She’s not exactly me. When I come into a room, I am like ‘aggh,’ but she’s more quiet. Denzel stressed that we should do our own biographies. That we should know our character thoroughly and do our homework. By the time we started rolling, I felt like I knew what I wanted to do. And Derek was so supportive. He helped me out so much; he helped me define my rhythm.

Derek: I saw Antwone as a quiet and humble dude. I saw that whoever read this script could pick Antwone out of a crowd. I started looking around [my hometown] Jersey City and exploring. I started seeing that any kid could be Antwone. I started looking at him from the outside to the inside. I got help from my friends from school who are locked up and I drew from them. The hurt and pain and false images they [experienced]; I took from them. I found out they had backgrounds similar to Antwone’s.

What was it like to star in your first film?

Joy: It was wonderful. And to do something like this with Derek and Denzel and the story being what it is. It was just a magical experience from beginning to end. It was a tearjerker just reading it. I was determined to get the part. So the fact that I got it, I’m still pinching myself.

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Derek: I was scared because of D-man (Denzel). It wasn’t his presence; it was more [about] letting him down. It was the risk he was taking. The fear of not doing well is always present. People made it harder by saying, ‘You know, this is his first film; you know what this means.’ If it weren’t for Denzel silencing those remarks, I probably would have had a harder time filming this.

Joy, what about this movie spoke to you? Why did you feel you had to be a part of it?

Well, Antwone’s story. I related more to his story than I did to Cheryl’s and that made me want to be Cheryl even more. Knowing people who have gone through the foster care system and have experienced abuse on many levels. And just from my own life growing up in the Bronx, I related to that. It left a huge impact on me, and I really wanted to be Cheryl for him. The story of Antwone is the story of survival and not letting your spirit be broken. As it relates to me, I could have easily gone the other way. Lucky for me, the one constant thing I had in my life was my grandmother. To me, as long as you have that one constant in your life, you can come out OK.

Derek, how did you feel when you got the part?

I was working at the gift shop and Denzel came in. You can spot Denzel’s walk anywhere [laughs]. I was folding clothes that day. I had my Power Bar hiding like I usually do and Denzel called me Antwone. I tried to play it off, but I just burst out crying. I think that Denzel worked that vulnerability for the rest of the film [laughs]. I was this Jersey boy with a dream that was finally coming true. So anyone like me or who looks like me can do it, too. I dropped to my knees, hugging Denzel and expressing all types of joy. I wanted to run and Denzel told me 20 minutes later, that the same thing happened to him, and he ran. And I was like, wow. I felt so encouraged because it was as if he and I had some of the same instincts. That was a secret I carried on the set.

What is the one thing that you learned from Denzel?

Joy: Don’t act, just be real.

Derek: Freedom. Denzel said no play-acting, no acting [at all]. I understand that now because Antwone was a heart role. It called for straight 100 percent vulnerability. It changed my life.