CHARM CITY CHARMER

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.'"

Corbett caught the acting bug as a pre-teen after watching Kenan Thompson, Kel Mitchell and Amanda Bynes in the Nickelodeon comedy-variety show, All That. He told his mother -- who also has tried her hand at acting, including some commercial voice-overs -- that he could outdo the child actors he saw on TV.

Esther, who also runs a day-care center, gave up her dream of acting to focus on her son's career, hiring an agent and publicist, shuttling him around the city to auditions. Corbett got parts at the Baltimore Children's Theatre, the Carver Center for the Arts and landed a spot in a video for hip-hop artist Lil' Mo.

Neil Berkman, Corbett's math and science teacher at St. Anthony of Padua School, remembers Corbett being enthusiastic about pursuing an acting career, but not "100 percent sure about the path to get there."

"He was in the eighth grade and he was trying to decide whether to go to an arts school to pursue acting 100 percent or a public school where he'd get some of everything," says Berkman. "But he was very humble about it. He's a very nice kid."

Corbett's first big break came when he landed a role on Cold Case.

The bubbly youth suffered a bad case of stage fright before landing the part. His role called for a street-tough kid who could do tricks on a bicycle. The problem was, he hated riding bikes and hadn't ridden one in years.

"The night before the audition, he went over his cousin's house at 9:30 that night, borrowed his bike and practiced popping wheelies for two hours," says Esther.

After he read for the part, Cold Case directors took Corbett to a nearby parking lot and asked him to do bike stunts for the role. Corbett confessed that he had just learned the stunts, but pulled them off anyway. The next day, he got the call informing him he had landed the role.

Charm and diplomacy

Corbett credits his outgoing personality to his mother and his charm to his father Milton Corbett, who is the commanding officer of the Baltimore Police Department's Special Events Unit, which provides security for major events such as Ravens and Orioles games and local concerts.

The youth often accompanied his father to the Baltimore Arena, watching him use diplomacy to soothe whatever tensions arose in the audience or backstage.

His parents are determined to make sure that whatever his professional success, Nathan grows up well grounded. He may play a character who wears sagging jeans and is disrespectful, Esther says, but her son knows "it's not happening" offstage.

A sign on his bedroom door lists his chores. He must keep his room (which resembles a poster-filled shrine to the NBA) and bathroom tidy. He must also vacuum the carpet on the stairs.

"He's a boy, and boys try to get away with taking their pants off and leaving them on the floor," said Milton. "He knows that that's not acceptable."

Ditto for dissing one's elders. Corbett refers to Simon and Burns as, "Mr. David" and "Mr. Ed."

"Mr. David, he was real cool, calm and collected, but it was Mr. Ed that scared me," says Corbett. "During my auditions, he's in the back with a pen to his bottom lip just staring at me hard, didn't crack a smile or anything,' He was like a critic almost, just staring blank-faced.

"He just said, 'hi,' and 'bye,' and I said to myself, 'Oh, man, I don't think this man likes me.' And then when I got to know Mr. Ed more, I found that that was his job."

And in two short years, he has learned that he must constantly hone his craft.

"When I went to the movies before I got into the business, I was looking for what I came there for; if I went to a comedy, I wanted to see if it was funny or not," said Corbett. "When I go now, I go to see the actor."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Corbett will appear at 9:45 a.m. today at a Cinema Sundays screening of "Half Nelson" at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St. 410-727-3456 or thecharles.com.

Nathan Corbett

Age:

14

School:

Patapsco Center for the Arts High School

First major acting break:

Cold Case, played a street-tough kid in an episode that originally aired Oct. 3, 2003

Biggest television role:

The Wire, plays character Donut

Biggest movie role:

Half Nelson, plays character Terrence

Hobbies:

Basketball, hip-hop rapping and playing piano

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