Bronx-born Sean Nelson turned 13 shortly before beginning principal photography on his debut film, writer-director Boaz Yakin's "Fresh" (1994). Prior to that, he had made his TV debut in a 1992 episode of the NBC series "Here and Now" and appeared off-Broadway in a production of "Hey Little Walter" at Playwrights Horizons, but neither of these efforts presaged the impressive performance to come in "Fresh". Though he had little dialogue as the savvy Brooklyn street kid who works after school as a drug runner, Nelson appeared in practically every scene, garnering rave notices for his harrowing portrait of an incredibly resourceful, tragically deprived child who applies the rules of chess to real life. A blank slate most of the time, Fresh finally cracks after enacting retribution against the system destroying the lives of those he loves. This haunting last image of lost innocence, shattered by the carnage he has precipitated, is what stayed with audiences, serving notice that this was an actor to watch.
Unfortunately, there are few roles with the depth of a Fresh, and Nelson found himself making the rounds of the cop shows, playing the bad kid who gets arrested or killed. Remembering an awards show at which someone told him he looked good as a villain provoked concerns about typecasting, but he finally landed the plum role of Donny in Michael Corrente's film adaptation of David Mamet's "American Buffalo" (1996), holding his own against screen heavyweights Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz. He also played a minister's son in the 1950s period piece "Stranger in the Kingdom" (1998), but it was "The Wood" (1999) that finally showcased the kind of talent he had revealed in "Fresh". In an ensemble cast that included the likes of Omar Epps and Richard T. Jones, it was Nelson that gave this coming-of-age saga its heart, playing Epps' character as an adolescent, recently transplanted to Inglewood, California from North Carolina. These flashback sequences make the story truly comes alive, with Nelson and Malinda Williams (as his love interest) giving the film's standout performances.