Charm City Charmer

Maryland teen Nathan Corbett sparkles in HBO's 'The Wire' and in the independent film 'Half Nelson'

September 10, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,[sun reporter ]

WATCHING HIS MOTION- picture debut reminds 14-year-old Nathan Corbett of how much he's changed since the film was shot a year ago. His facial features are more pronounced. His shiny, braided mane is thicker. His voice is heavier.

But his smile -- a personal calling card that wins you over before he even utters a line -- hasn't changed.

Coupled with a charismatic camera presence, that impish charm may explain why the Rosedale teen seems to stand out, whether he's playing a class comedian in Half Nelson, a critically acclaimed independent film opening locally Friday, or an effervescent, car-stealing youth in HBO's The Wire, which begins its fourth season tonight.

"I can put the charm on; I smile and it's like, 'Awwww,'" says Corbett, who snaps his fingers, then flashes a wide grin.

He provides the lion's share of comic relief in Half Nelson, a drama about an inner-city junior high school teacher (played by Ryan Gosling) who forms a friendship with one of his students (played by Shareeka Epps) after she discovers his drug habit.

Corbett plays Terrence, a witty boy whose clowning ekes grins out of his grim-faced classmates.

Though it's his first motion picture role, the part hints at his growing success in the entertainment business. Since launching his professional career in January 2002, he has played roles ranging from a concertgoer in a Hilary Duff Barbie commercial and a police informant in the CBS drama Cold Case to this season's recurring role on The Wire as the cheeky character Donut.

If nothing else, with parts in a movie and a TV show premiering this week, the sophomore at Patapsco Center for the Arts High School in Dundalk may soon be one of the area's more visible homegrown talents.

"He is definitely a kid who will go a long way in whatever he chooses to pursue," said Jamie Patricof, one of the producers of Half Nelson. "The arm-wrestling scene in the movie, some of it is improvised, and he had to hold his own with [lead actor] Ryan Gosling, arguably one the best actors of this generation."

As Corbett sits in his posh home in a Rosedale subdivision, watching an advance copy of Half Nelson, he at times appears amused by his on-screen image, laughing along with the characters in the film. But he's taken aback by his most significant scene in which he arm-wrestles Gosling's character, who was demonstrating to the class how opposing forces have characterized much of history.

"We filmed that 10 times," said Corbett, "so we could catch every angle."

Role similarities

In both his current roles, Corbett plays an adolescent whose style and physical charm potentially could lead his character to success -- or trouble. And both the film and the HBO drama explore the failures of the public school system and the temptations faced by inner-city youth.

In each of its previous seasons, The Wire -- a 2004 Peabody Award-winner set in Baltimore that was created by former Sun police reporter David Simon -- has illuminated a facet of city life, from the drug trade to city hall politics. This year, the show tackles the education system, focusing primarily on the often-turbulent lives of four schoolboys.

Corbett's character, Donut, is a member of the primary characters' group of childhood friends. He's a wily, mirthful kid with a passion for luxury cars and a knack for stealing them.

In one episode, Donut pulls up to his buddies in a stolen navy blue Escalade, leans back and greets his friends with a smirk: "Gentlemen." Moments later, police converge on the group, which scatters in every direction.

Later one of the officers confronts the boys and threatens to give them a whipping if any steals another car. As he leaves, an unfazed Donut eyes the officer's car and mutters, "Nice ride."

Corbett, a budding musician, is also exploring that arena: He is currently negotiating a record deal and hopes to have a hip-hop release out by late September.

Already, he has established himself as someone who can light up a casting session.

Series' creator and writer Simon initially had intended Donut to be a "laid back, thumb-sucking kid," says Wire producer Ed Burns. But when Corbett auditioned, Simon was so struck by his energy and screen presence that he eventually rewrote the character to suit Corbett's personality.

During the audition, in fact, Simon began thinking aloud, describing how he might re-draw the character. "And Nathan said, 'I like the way you think,'" says Burns. "It was a great comeback, and with that, he had the job. He has intangible gifts that should really take him far in this profession."

The acting bug

Not bad for a youngster who began modeling at age 3 for Nordstrom fashion shows, but became bored with posing for the cameras by age 5. "They would have laid out how many outfits he had to change into," says his mother, Esther Corbett, "and he would stop and almost have a temper tantrum. He'd say: 'Mommy, I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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