There is a scene in the movie Black Panther where, in his role as M’Baku, Tobagonian actor Winston Duke jumps off a rock and declares, “Witness the might of the Jabari tribe first-hand!” To viewers, it was just another reason to love the movie’s antagonist a little more; to Duke, filming the scene took him right back to his boyhood days at Carapuse Bay, when he did similar action scenes with friends.
“On the day of taping, I had to do that scene of jumping off the rock, grabbing the guy and saving the day,” Duke says. “On the tenth take, when as I was about to leap off that rock again, it hit me: I’ve been doing this since I was a boy: jumping off stuff and pretending to be other people, making a lot of noise and having fun doing it. Knowing that I can make a living doing this was astounding. In that moment, I tapped into that childlike whimsy, that imaginative space.” In the month following the movie’s release, Duke’s status changed from familiar-face actor to breakout star. “It’s just crazy right now,” he says about his freshly minted fame. “It’s exciting, it’s daunting, it’s exhausting…but it feels right.”
Duke has worked steadily over the years to get here. Growing up in a single-parent household with his sister Cindy and mother Cora, he saw first-hand the benefits of hard work. His mother owned and operated a restaurant. When the young Duke wasn’t helping out there, he could be found tuning into life around him, his eyes the camera, his ears, the recorder that documented the “star-boys” and “star-girls” within his reach—the storytellers of his community. From the coconut vendor to the taxi driver, each told stories in their own way, punctuated by gestures and facial expressions that made each story special.
Duke was also consumed with stories he heard about folklore characters. “Those stories developed my love for storytelling and led me to where I am today. Everything is coming full circle.” When his sister graduated from Bishop’s High School in Tobago and expressed her desire to become a doctor, mother Cora knew it was time for change. She sold everything and moved the family to the US to give them a better shot at their dreams. Duke was Like typical Caribbean immigrants, it took the family months of sleeping on the living room floor of a family friend’s house before they found an apartment of their own. Life as an immigrant was not the easiest thing. While his mother worked two jobs and his sister— a full-time student—worked part time to help out, Duke had to find ways to occupy himself.
Without proper supervision, he could have easily got lost to the streets, but chose to spend his time at the library. “Yes, I was tempted by friends to be out there, but never got involved in gangs because I knew my family came on a mission; I couldn’t let them down.” Back then, Duke’s career choices changed like the weather— lawyer, astronaut, fashion designer, pilot—but acting was something he just couldn’t tear himself away from. He got serious about it at 15 or 16, but didn’t perfect it until he enrolled at the University of Buffalo, where he earned his undergraduate degree in theatre, and later at the prestigious Yale School of Drama for his Master’s in Fine Arts.
It was at Yale that Duke met his Black Panther co-star Lupita Nyong’o. She showed him around the university on his first day there, and they instantly bonded because of their shared immigrant experience. Ngong’o was born in Mexico City to Kenyan parents. Duke’s first television role was that of footballer Cedric Jones in Law and Order SVU. He also had the recurring role of gangster Dominic Besson (Mini) in Person of Interest, and several guest roles.
The Black Panther movie marked his film debut. It was a role that he worked hard for but didn’t think he would get, after being asked to audition four times. He is amazed by the new fans he has gained, but has yet to come to terms with the labels like “bae”, “snack” and “thick zaddy”—today’s version of heartthrob— that the media and his female fans have foisted upon him. These fans are hardly shy and let the actor know just how they feel on his Twitter page. “Winston Duke is a whole meal, plus snack and dessert,” one fan tweeted, and that was among the PG ones!
“Oh God! I didn’t expect that,” Duke says, laughing out loud. “My sister and my mother are having a ball teasing me. To be honest, I had to pull back and not let it go to my head, and understand what it is speaking to. My (female) fans are really attracted to my character, M’Baku.He is the kind of character America does not get to see often: the very confident African male.” The celebrity life has afforded Duke the opportunity to rub shoulders with Hollywood A-Listers, like actor Denzel Washington and record mogul Jay Z, but he continues to be inspired by the simple men and women who work hard to support families—much like his mother, who gave up everything to help him and his sister pursue theirs.
“Definitely my mother, but she is part of the wider picture. The underrepresented, the underpaid workforce, the immigrants who look after people’s children and sometimes neglect their own to do so. People like my Spanish teacher, Miss Spier, who inspired me to become an actor. Single mothers are my heroes. I celebrate single mothers because some of my audience come from single mother homes. They support me.”
Duke has also been received a lot of support and love from Trinbagonians since his film debut. He talks about this country like a lover who wants the best for his woman, and is pleased that he is now in talks with the Tobago House of Assembly to become that island’s ambassador. “This means a lot to me. There are a lot of things I will be advocating for.”
The youth are also near and dear to Duke’s heart. To those aspiring to follow in his footsteps, he offered this: “Figure out what you want to be, find your own voice and narrative, so no one decides it for you.” When you are doing what you love, Duke says, you feel fulfilled.“The feeling I have now can be compared to being in love and in a good relationship. I feel like I am walking in my purpose now, walking in my path, and I am happy.”
Winston Duke also appeared in Avengers: Infinity War. Check out the trailer below!