There’s a story that’s Winston Duke has told a lot recently because it’s, well, kind of perfect.
The then-aspiring actor had just arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, freshly graduated from the University of Buffalo and newly accepted into the prestigious Yale School of Drama graduate program. An incredibly kind student a few years ahead in the program had been assigned to show him around campus, and the two became instant friends. Her name was Lupita Nyong’o.
The 32-year-old now bona fide movie star still shakes his head in disbelief when you ask him about it. “It’s such serendipity, man,” he says, sprawled on a couch at New York’s Whitby Hotel. “We never could have imagined this.”
“This” is the fact that Nyong’o, a few short years later, would win an Oscar for her performance in 12 Years a Slave. That the two of them would see The Avengers together and wonder if they, two black actors, would ever be in a movie like that, and then get cast alongside each other in Black Panther. Or that they would both have their first leading roles in a movie starring opposite each other again, and that movie, Jordan Peele’s horror thriller Us, would break box-office records, just as Black Panther had done before.
Us, in which Duke and Nyong’o play parents in a family that is terrorized by bloodlusting doppelgangers while on vacation, set the record for the highest opening ever for an original horror film this past weekend, raking in $70 million—nearly doubling industry estimates.
The film is Peele’s follow-up to 2017 Oscar-winning social thriller Get Out. Duke got cast after introducing himself to the writer and director at the Oscars last year when the Black Panther cast, fresh off the just-released film’s blockbuster success, was invited to attend the ceremony. Like Get Out, the film is as exhilarating to dissect with friends after a screening as it is to watch and get freaked out by, tackling themes of privilege, race, and even philanthropy in between scares.
It’s makes for a breakout film career that’s rare, to the point that Duke may be the first example: an actor whose first two movie roles were in projects that audiences were salivating to see, but that also have cultural value, that are milestones. That make people think.
“Those movies aren’t didactic,” Duke says. “They don’t tell you ‘this is how it is,’ to sit down and eat your vegetables. It’s ‘let’s have a chat.’ ‘Let’s have a chat about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.’”
Duke moved to Brooklyn with his mother and older sister from Trinidad and Tobago when he was 9 years old. He was reclusive, having a hard time adjusting to a new city and American culture. His refuge became TV, movies, and comic books. “Story,” as he tells it—which is to say that he understands the importance of film and the conversations it drives.
“We curate a lot of conversation in Hollywood, in media, in journalism, that is exported and affects other people’s lives,” he says. “It affects how they see us. It affects how they value themselves. So this movie and process begged me to consider my position in all of that.”
Over an hour-long conversation the morning Us hit theaters, Duke does just that.
Following the rafter-shaking first screening of Us at the SXSW Film Festival, Jordan Peele took the stage alongside Duke, Nyong’o, and the rest of the film’s cast, looked out at the audience, and laughed. “I’m looking out at a sea of people being like, hmm... the fuck?”
That is to say that there is a lot to unpack in the film’s messaging and subtext.
The film begins as a home invasion thriller. Duke and Nyong’o’s Gabe and Adelaide Wilson bring their two children to a beach house for what’s supposed to be a vacation. When a family of doppelgangers arrive at their driveway one night—each looking exactly like a member of the family save for the red jumpsuits they’re wearing—all hell breaks loose.
The doppelgangers, called “The Tethered,” begin separating the family members from each other, stalking and attacking them as part of what soon reveals itself to be a demented sort-of zombie apocalypse. People in red jumpsuits are emerging everywhere from tunnels, searching for and murdering their surface-dwelling lookalikes.
Already there are think pieces and essays flooding the internet analyzing the deeper meaning of these shadow people, what they represent, and what they’re seeking out. Deep-dives into the film’s conclusion wonder “how the Us ending is supposed to make audiences feel.”
Duke hired a dramaturg to help him decipher everything from the meaning of the color of the jumpsuits—“red is the color of revolution”—to the etymology of the word “doppelganger,” to the history of Hands Across America, the Reagan-era charity initiative that Peele overtly references in the film.
The intellectual stimulation, however, shouldn’t overpower the fact that the film and Duke’s performance, especially, is a hoot. Duke’s Gabe is gregarious and goofy, responsible for the movie’s best one-liners. He’s cruising somewhere on the bridge between cool dad and nerdy dad, an Everyman action hero in the great cinematic tradition of them. He’s funny, sexy, and kickass when it comes to motorboat killings.
“He felt familiar,” Duke says. “He felt like somebody I’ve seen in the mirror and somebody I’ve interacted with outside my own body. I know this guy. I’m friends with that guy. I would hang out with that guy.”
After playing M’Baku, the towering warrior who challenges T’Challa for the Wakandan throne in Black Panther, it was important to Duke that his next role be someone more recognizable, who is self-effacing like Gabe in Us.
Following Black Panther, he was offered a slew of roles crafted from the same imposing, menacing cloth as M’Baku. But after growing up as the only male in his household, playing a character that showed dimensions beyond that was more than just a desire. It was a mission.
“Masculinity is a word I had to define for myself,” he says. “It took some time to get to a place where I felt I could have a firm grasp of it in a way that helped me and also didn’t have a negative impact with the world around me. It’s good to be able to define a masculinity that didn’t feel toxic and wasn’t imposing any sort of inferiority on anybody else.”
“Gabe was not a warrior,” he continues. “He doesn’t need to be. He just needs to be a father, and he is.”
When you read about Winston Duke, something that is mentioned early on, if not immediately, is his size.
He is 6’5” and decisively over the 200-pound threshold. He has movie star broad shoulders and an athletic build. This is to say that he takes up space. Profiles of him use words like “hulking” and “towering.”
Duke knows this. “But they’re also projecting on me what they believe those things mean,” he says. “For me in my whole life, I’d have to take control of those words and define them for myself, because not everyone’s definitions of those words have always aligned with something that is healthy for me.”
He trained hard for Black Panther, as in Marvel training, the kind of workouts designed to sculpt superheroes out of mere mortals and bring a person’s body to its peak physicality.
Appearing on screen sporting little more than a loin cloth and chest armor that could barely contain his bulging muscles, Duke looked, let’s say... hot. Audiences took notice. “M’Baku thirst tweets” became a meme. Duke even did dramatic readings of some of the best for BuzzFeed: ”M’Baku could blow my M’Back out if he wanted to.” Or, “I’d eat Winston Duke’s ass like an almond joy. I want to cook him breakfast and I hate cooking.
He laughs about all of that now. Working out for Black Panther made him feel good. It also had dramatic function, much in the same way that Gabe in Us with his slight dad paunch does not share M’Baku’s chiseled frame.
“He worked out for battle,” he says. “He didn’t need to be ripped for aesthetics. He needed to be as a guy who has to carry a heavy weapon every day.”
Playing M’Baku forced him to think in different ways about how the world perceives him in terms of size, masculinity, race, and strength. “Those are words that define me everyday, but they’re other people’s words usually.”
Self-definition and redefinition are important concepts to Duke.
His family lived in Crown Heights when they moved from Trinidad and Tobago to Brooklyn. He describes his upbringing as “extremely” working class. “Manhattan and New York was just a city of walls to me and my family. You knew there was a lot of money and excess and things here, but you could never see it because it was behind all these walls. It’s interesting that now because I do this work I get to see what’s behind those walls.”
He currently lives in Los Angeles, and his mother splits time between there and Las Vegas, where his sister lives and works as an endocrinologist. Duke likes to take his mother with him when he travels for work, especially if there’s going to be a posh event. It’s fun for them to see what life was like inside of those walls he’d see growing up, but it also makes them realize how little they were truly missing.
“[My mother] gets to see all this and say, ‘You know what? I also was wealthy. I was wealthy with love. I was wealthy with tradition. I was wealthy with passion and focus and drive and hope,’” he says. “She gets to redefine so many words for herself because of these experiences she can have now.”
Duke considers his own personal wealth, the kind he had before he hit it big. (That took more than 400 auditions and roles on TV shows like Person of Interest and The Messengers before getting cast in Black Panther.) He mentions his drive, finding his own path, his questioning mind, and his resilience.
He brings up his favorite piece of advice he’s received. It was from the actor James Cromwell during a guest talk he gave when Duke was at Yale: “You need a lifetime full of big breaks to make it.” It’s something Duke says he remembers every time he considers a new role now.
Cromwell, who is 6’6”, also gave him tips on how to navigate the business and, more specifically, the camera as a tall actor.
“His advice was that truth has no size,” Duke says. “Your truth at any given moment can be as big as you want to be. So don’t limit yourself in how you express it.”
He beams and shifts his position, looking as relaxed in his skin and in his body as any actor, from 4’11” to 6’6”, I have ever interviewed.
“So cheers to sharing your toys,” he says. “As a kid I always shared my toys. Now as an adult my toys are my thoughts and intentions. It’s my work.”