Getting Ready
winston duke

How This Actor Went from Yale Grad Student to Black Panther Villain

Catching up with Winston Duke.

By: Leah Faye Cooper
Photography: Alec Kugler

Gather round, kids—it’s story time!

In late 2012, I was out at legendary NYC bar and late-night dance haunt Von, when a guy named Winston introduced himself to me. At the time, I was a flat-broke freelance writer trying to carve out a career in fashion editorial (and had taken several shots at home so I didn’t have to pay for drinks at the bar). Winston told me that he was studying acting at Yale and would be graduating in a few months. We clicked over our shared young, black, creative, and hungry identities, and became Facebook friends on the dance floor (so Millennial of us, I know). A few months later, in May 2013, he wrote me a message saying that he’d be back in the city soon and we should hang out. I replied agreeing. That meet-up never happened, though...until earlier this week.

After weeks of seeing Winston’s face on Black Panther posters and red carpets—but not knowing why he looked so familiar—it clicked: Winston Duke—that’s the guy I met at Von forever ago. I scrolled through my Facebook messages, saw our last correspondence—dated June 22, 2013—and sent him a message: “It’s been ages...congrats!...I’ve landed at Coveteur...we’d love to do something with you.” He responded: “It has been ages...congrats on Coveteur!...I’d love to.” A few emails to and from his publicist later, and our photographer and I were in Duke’s midtown Manhattan hotel room, catching up and taking photos before the NYC Black Panther premiere.

“I was auditioning like crazy and hadn’t even booked my first television appearance,” Duke says of what he was up to when we first met. “Getting back into the real world [after school] you’re like, ‘Who do I meet? Who do I talk to? Who are the people whose energies feel like kindred spirits because they’re also out here hustling and creating opportunities for themselves?’ And I think that’s what I saw in you.” (Indeed, I was hustling; I still am.)

Duke, who was born in Tobago and moved to Brooklyn when he was 10 with his mother and older sister, went on to land roles in Person of Interest and Modern Family, among other TV shows. He left the east coast in 2016 for L.A., and that same year, after months of auditions and call-backs, was cast as supervillain M’Baku in Black Panther—arguably the most highly anticipated film of the year.

Throughout the evening we talked fashion and pre-party rituals—as we always do when we hang out with someone before a big, fancy event—but we also talked a lot about Duke’s life, how meaningful this role is to him, and how serendipitous it is that our paths crossed again—at a time in our lives when all that hustling is beginning to pay off.

“This experience has just been...everything,” he says of appearing in and promoting Black Panther. I’d describe my opportunity to write for a living, sharing his story and others’, the exact same way.

More on my conversation with Duke—plus the the details of his Black Panther premiere look, with styling by Jenny Ricker and grooming by Danielle Crawford—ahead.

“[Growing up in Tobago] I remember a lot of play, a lot of community, a lot of family, and a lot of storytelling as well. There was a gentleman who lived up the street who always came and hung out at the restaurant [my mom owned]. His name was Linton, and he had all of these stories. Folklore and superstition ruled everything...fairies...mermaids...talking fish. That storytelling and mode of passing on culture and narratives was huge, and that’s still with me. I didn’t know it was preparing me for what I’m doing today.”

“We moved [to the States] as a family—my mother and sister and I—because my sister wanted to be a doctor and my mother wanted to help her realize that dream. So [my mom] sold everything that we had, including her restaurant, and we moved to Brooklyn. We got a studio apartment, and my sister got into City College and worked her way up. Now she is an OBGYN with a sub-specialty in fertility medicine.”

“I come from a stock of really strong people who are dreamers and who come here and work their way to their definition of success. And I’ve been taught how to be a strong man by the examples of remarkable, strong women, in defining their own narratives and strengths outside of the lens of a male, because [I didn’t have] a father present. By defining their own narratives, they taught me how to define and distill my own vision and path.”

“In tenth grade a teacher saw me do a school project and said, ‘That’s the first time I saw your personality, and funny enough, it was when you were forced to be in front of people. I think you should do the school plays.’ And she went and signed me up for the school plays. And that was it—I’ve been acting ever since. Her name was Mrs. Spier, at Brighton High School in Rochester.”

“Yale was incredibly hard. It was really gratifying, but it was a tough space. Yale really teaches you grassroots acting—sticking to your script, paying attention to your partner.”

“I want all of my work to have some sort of social justice footprint. Even if it’s really commercial, it should still be...doing some good. I want to tell stories about people whose stories aren’t always seen and heard.”

“I went into that [Black Panther] audition, and there was nothing but celebrities, so for a long time I thought I wasn’t going to get the job, because I was like, ‘Who am I?’ It’s not that I didn’t have any confidence in myself, I just felt like, ‘It’s a business, they’re going to go with people who have a bigger name.’”

“After I got hired, the full team started being assembled. I started hearing, ‘Angela Bassett is attached...Forest Whitaker is attached...Martin Freeman is attached...Andy Serkis is attached.’ I was like, ‘Is Jesus attached? [laughs].’”

“What this film and those of us who are involved in it are demonstrating isn’t something that we’re the first to ever demonstrate. There’s a long tradition of people asking to be seen and validated, and to have their narratives viewed as important, and potentially profitable, and worthy of dissemination and celebration. So that’s not new, but it’s continuing a conversation, and that’s really great.”

“I’m heading out right now to a screening of this film in Manhattan, in New York—a space that doesn’t always feel supportive when it comes to equity for people of color, especially in terms of housing and opportunity and education. It’s especially meaningful when you consider it around those circumstances.”

“My sense of style includes a lot of loud, bright colors. I have dark skin, so it supports bright colors well. I love greens, I love blues, I love yellows.”

“This is a Theory suit with a Dolce & Gabbana shirt.”

Shoes, Allen Edmonds

“I grew up on ’90s sitcoms, so I get starstruck when I see [those actors] on the red carpet. Like Eddie Winslow! When I saw [Darius McCrary] I was really excited. I was like, ‘Eddie Winslow! This is crazy!’”

“I pray before everything...just that my tongue is steady, my mind is sharp, and that I can be in the moment and say and do things that reflect me in the right way.”

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