Tony Luke Jr. knows Philadelphia. He knows the lifestyle led by its citizens, the unsympathetic nature of its toughest streets and perhaps most importantly he knows the bond that people who experience the city share with each other. He also makes the meanest cheesesteak in town.
Along with food, Luke Jr. grew up with a passion for performance, graduating from the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. In addition to being a tested boxer and martial artist, he worked with his father and his brother in a lunch truck, selling their first cheesesteak in 1992. Now, 17 years later, the family is known throughout Philadelphia for their famous cheesesteak, and now has them readily available on QVC and in over 2000 stores nationwide.
But it takes more than knowing the pertinent details of a community to tell its story in a way that speaks to people of all backgrounds. Motivation and an unyielding commitment to the truth, mixed with an ingrained instinct for moviemaking are needed to complete the puzzle. Luke Jr. has it all, and as a result we have The Nail, Luke’s first effort as a screenwriter and his finest performance in a leading role—as a grizzled former heavyweight boxer living in South Philadelphia.
Now airing on Showtime and The Movie Channel, The Nail has received considerable recognition, taking home the Audience Award for Best Film in Philadelphia’s own Cinefest 2009. Luke Jr. took the time to tell MM about The Nail—how it came to be and what his plans are for the rest of his career in film.
Michael Walsh (MM): Working in the food industry and working in film are two of the most time-consuming career paths a person can take. You took on both of them. How have you been able to have such success in both fields?
Tony Luke Jr. (TLJ): The trick is, it would be near impossible for me to fully engulf myself into both fields without any help. I get to devote a lot of my time to my film career because I get a lot of help in the food industry, between my father, brother and three sons. When I stretch myself a little too thin, they’re always there to pick up the slack for me.
MM: Philadelphia is known for its hard-nose, often times brutal working class lifestyle. Did you hope to portray this or show a softer side to Philadelphia with The Nail?
TLJ: I think that the character that I play, Joey, shows a softer side, but still has a tough and determined personality. The movie doesn’t hold anything back. It shows how rough South Philly can be—the streets and the people in it. However, it also shows how kind, warm and caring the people can be. I thought it was important that the city be shown for all of its qualities.
MM: Has anyone drawn the comparison to the Rocky series, considering The Nail is also about a boxer in poverty-stricken South Philadelphia?
TLJ: Not really. The only comparison to Rocky that this film tends to receive is that it has that “raw feel” to it. In both instances the audience feels strongly toward rooting for the main characters and wanting them to succeed.
MM: Few people would be more suited to make this film than you, considering your background in Philadelphia and knowledge of the people and feel of the city. Having said that, what sort of additional research did you do for the film?
TLJ: I didn’t have to do too much research because most of this story is pretty close to home for me. The character Jesus is loosely based on stories that I was told by my father, about growing up with his father. His father was from the “old school” and they tended to be more physical. I would always hear about the beatings my father, and his mother, would take. The other characters are loosely based on people I knew growing up, and Joey is a lot like me.
MM: In addition to writing and starring in The Nail, you also wrote the soundtrack. Was this something you planned on doing from the beginning?
TLJ: I didn’t write the soundtrack, but I am singing the title track “And We Call Them Coach,” which was written by one of my dear friends Skip Dennenberg. Music is another one of my loves; I did a lot of writing and producing in the ’80s for various bands. I’m also currently working on an album and I’m about to release a novelty song that will be available on iTunes shortly. It’s called “The Cheesesteak Anthem,” which I co-wrote with Skip Dennenberg, and I’m also singing the track.
MM: You’re set to appear in the upcoming films The Mighty Macs and Mafioso II. Do you have any plans to write another feature film?
TLJ: Yes, in fact I just got done writing a script entitled Ride Into Terror. I wrote this script with my son Michael and Jason Noto, who also wrote The Nail with me. We’re working on getting financing now and are looking to start production in the summer of 2010.
MM: I don’t expect an answer here, but I have to try: What’s the secret to your cheesesteaks?
TLJ: It’s no secret. We bake our bread fresh every hour, we use only the finest cut of rib-eye steaks for our stores and black Angus sirloin for our frozen food line. And of course, the most important step: We make it with a lot of love, because if you don’t love what you do, then why do it?