Us

 

Winston Duke Shares Little But Leaves Big Impression

Us star is ready for the movie's World Premiere at SXSW 2019.

By Jacqueline Coley

03/7/2019

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There are “big years” for actors, and then there was Winston Duke’s 2018. In February, the actor made his big-screen debut as M’Baku, T’Challa’s fierce rival in Black Panther, the Oscar-winning, highest-grossing film of the year; two months later he reprised the role in a small film called Avengers: Infinity War. As that film was still tearing up the box office, Duke was cast in Jordan Peele’s Get Out follow-up, Us, which will — after one of the most chillingly effective marketing campaigns ever — open the SXSW Film Festival.

None of it, though, is getting to his head. “Coming off Black Panther, I also felt the pressure to prove myself, but I didn’t go into Us manifesting that,” says Duke. “I just went into it saying, ‘I’m trusting Jordan. I’m trusting this piece because it’s original and bold and thoughtful and provocative.’”

“That was refreshing,” he continues. “Every day we would come back to work feeling recharged. If you had a tough day of running for your life, or putting in emotional extremes, the next day you’re like that! [makes sweeping hand motion] And I’m back, baby.”

His second-ever trip to Austin to promote Us is quite an upgrade from his first trip — a couples weekend vacation while still a struggling actor. “I remember great food, we saw a ton of live music, and I thought [Austin] is one of the only places in the States that calls out to me — like I could live here,” says Duke. “It’s just a welcoming city.” The city is set to be even more welcoming this time around, as the proud Tobagonian is likely to be greeted by adoring fans wherever he goes. And yes, some will likely holler his Black Panther character’s war cry at him.

Winston Duke. Photo by Marcus Smith

Winston Duke. Photo by Marcus Smith

 

Duke’s M’baku made an indelible impression on audiences: he was hulking in stature, sultry of voice, and a vegetarian to boot. Last February, the M’Baku challenge — for which fans recreated his iconic “challenge day” speech from the film — went viral. In other corners of the internet “mmmbaku thirst tweets” began to appear; Buzzfeed produced a video in which the actor responded to the NSFW flirtations. Though appreciative of the admiration, he didn’t lean into it as is the temptation for actors in the age of Instagram: “When people consume you in a monolithic way, it ignores the complexity of who you are. When we lionize or demonize people, that [robs] them of their humanity.”

“It was important for me to change the direction of that conversation,” says Duke. “I’m [happy with] the impact, the result. But that wasn’t my intention. I intended to create a dynamic character that people enjoyed.”

When Us hits theaters later this month, it will re-introduce Duke to audiences with a very different character, and possibly reveal a bit more about the man himself. As the patriarch of the Wilson family — an upper-middle-class black family that is besieged by a group of terrifying doppelgängers while on a seaside vacation — Duke is a typical American dad (albeit one who’s six-foot-four and looks like that).

“Jordan [Peele] seems interested in having a big conversation about masculinity [with] laser-targeted articulation.”

Us Director, Jordan Peele

Us Director, Jordan Peele

 

“He’s insecure. He’s funny. He’s a sexual being. He’s petty and vindictive,” Duke says. “Jordan [Peele] seems interested in having a big conversation about masculinity [with] laser-targeted articulation.” Lupita Nyong’o, his Yale MFA classmate, plays Duke’s wife.

Everyone involved with Us is predictably tight-lipped about the project, but the film’s methodical marketing campaign, complete with ’90s throwback hits, has whipped genre fans into a frenzy. Who thought “I Got 5 On It” could be the stuff of nightmares?

When trying to pull some clues about plot out of Duke, he cheekily replied, “I can’t say much, but Jordan is a very deliberate director, particularly with details … so yeah, even the Luniz track may have more meaning.”

Duke says that as the son of immigrants from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, he wasn’t always encouraged to pursue a career in the arts. Though his parents were supportive, they remained concerned about job prospects right up until Black Panther hit screens.

“My senior year, my family tried to get to me again,” says Duke, recalling his parents trying to convince him to head to law school. “Are you going to pretend to be other people all your life?” Duke jokes, imitating his father’s Tobagonian accent. “But I bought a house. They’re not worried now.”

After the Us premiere, Duke will have little time to catch his breath and enjoy the moment; he’ll be diving headfirst into the worldwide promotional tour for Avengers: Endgame. He’s even tighter-lipped about that project. When asked what’s in store for fans with the conclusion of the epic two-parter, he offers just one hint: “It’s bigger!”

Jacqueline Coley is currently an editor at Rotten Tomatoes.

Us will World Premiere as the Opening Night Film of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival on Friday, March 8.

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