Winston Duke exploded into pop culture back in February 2018 when his Black Panther character, the strong, stubborn and deadly funny M'Baku, stole every single scene he was in. It was a major accomplishment, considering the caliber of his co-stars.
So it makes a lot of sense that Duke would find himself in bigger roles and even more sense that a filmmaker like Jordan Peele would be drawn to him. Peele's Get Out was also a massive culture bomb that was able to wrap strong racial themes up into one of the most audience-pleasing genre films in recent memory, thanks in large part to Peele's talent at writing believable, likable and, yes, funny characters.
It's as if fate was bringing these two together, like the Movie Gods wanted Winston Duke to star in Us, Jordan Peele's sophomore effort, a creepy tale of a nice, content family besieged by doppelgangers. Duke brings all his comic timing, big heart, and fierce intelligence to the part of Gabe Wilson and he also gets to play with his darker side when he portrays Gabe's doppelganger, known as Abraham.
SYFY WIRE got the chance to sit down with Duke the day after Us premiered to thunderous applause at the SXSW Film Festival to talk about building these two characters and the deeper conversation that lurks beneath the surface of the film. Even while avoiding spoilers, Duke was able to talk at length about some choice themes at play in the film, how he came to the project and has some great thoughts on the state of representation in cinema and his place in all of that.
I wanted to start by floating a theory I have about your character. I might be crazy...
I think that's the beauty of a film like this. Your thinking cap is on. I don't think anything's crazy!
Well, you haven't heard my theory yet! My theory is that I think there's a lot of Jordan Peele in Gabe. Was that something you saw at all?
Yeah, I noticed that myself. I don't know if it was fully intentional, but it might have been something that happened as he was writing it. When creating anything you put your own experiences and things you've learned from your experiences in everything. There's a lot of Jordan in this film, but this film is an incredible Jordan Peele product, his universe. But I think he sees a lot of himself in that character, so I think you're onto something there.
Jordan also seems to share a lot of the same traits as Gabe. He's likable and funny and lets a lot of stuff roll off his back. I could also see him relishing in the agony of those choice dad jokes.
Yeah. It was also really important to play that character in a way that makes it so much more apparent what is happening juxtaposed to him. I think he becomes a statement when played fully in one direction to show the power of the other direction, which is his wife. It makes a really brilliant statement of who his children are and that they also reflect the parents, you know what I mean?
I feel like Zora in a lot of ways is her father's daughter and the son is his mother's son. They share a similar sense of privilege and comfort. With Gabe it's so much so that it cripples him, both figuratively and literally because he refused to take what was going on seriously and those were the consequences.
You said something really interesting at the premiere about your approach to playing the doppelganger. The movie doesn't just go for an “Evil Uses” thing with the doppelgangers. They have their own internal logic, their own reasons for doing what they're doing.
And specific points of view.
Exactly. And that approach makes it a much richer experience and heightens the horror side of it even more. You understand where they're coming from.
For my doppelganger, it was important to establish a specific point of view for the world for him. He doesn't get to articulate some of the things even Red gets to say, but he feels it. They all have a shared experience and leaning into that shared experience was really important for me. It's hard not to get into the spoiler aspect of it, but really the idea of a person who wants their time, who wants to come out of a space of oppression and wants to live a life of self-governance was really important to me.
I got the opportunity to act in two movies. I got to act as Gabe, and that was one movie, and I got to act as Abraham in what I can only describe as a revolutionary moment for him. They would do anything to achieve their goals because it's that meaningful to them.
So, it was really interesting to have a clear point of view of how I see Gabe and the life he leads. By living so freely and unabashedly in one direction you could see the impact of the polar opposite. They're not good or bad versions of either. They're just individuals that are shaped by a specific landscape and stimuli.
It's tough to really go into because this is a lot of third act stuff, but that's one of the things I liked the most about the movie. These are multidimensional characters, even the bad guys with scissors.
What we can say without giving a spoiler is what is beautiful and refreshing about this film is how much attention is given to something we don't see too often in our media, which is attention to black psychology. We get put out there as monoliths. We're either really good and holy or you're bad... you're robbers, you're thieves, you're killers, because that's just who you are. But there are societal factors that make you who you are. There are societal factors that come from laws created, policies passed, geopolitical movements that are happening and they create who you are, have an effect on your psychological state. This movie begs us to consider each other more from a space of complexity instead one of simplicity.
I think that's a really cool way to talk about it without ruining anything.
And I love that genre can do that without making it sound like a sermon. The history of horror films going back to the '40s with the Universal Monsters has always supported strong, progressive themes wrapped up in entertainment.
Right. Yes! Completely! They have us reconsider how and why we create monsters and what we create monsters of. It's really beautiful to be a part of such a great discussion, which is one of the reasons I jumped on to this project. Once Jordan called and I read that script I said “Oh hell yeah, I'm doing this! I would love to do this!” Because I wanted to be a part of an incredible, current and what is sure to be a universal discussion.
That's one thing I imagine we had in common with people 2,000 years ago: that we're in discussion. We're sitting around. People were sitting around in Africa. In Greece people were sitting around. Rome. They were sitting around in discussion. “What do you think of that?” Talking and really understanding the world, really understanding the democracy, really understanding the nature of humanity. True discourse.
And now's the time for it. It's a really exciting time for representation in cinema and you're kind of at ground zero of all that. It wasn't just black audiences or only superhero fans that responded to Black Panther. That film was a cultural phenomenon. How long have we been told the studios would love to cast more people of color as leads in films, but gosh darn it, the box office just doesn't support it. That's not true anymore, if it ever was. What does this moment look like from your perspective?
From my perspective, it just feels incredibly rewarding that I get to pick up the ball and move it another yard. For a long time, the conversation was just getting in the door, of being present. And then it was about how representation functions. Now that there's representation the next yard is complexity and nuance.
I don't like saying it's a renaissance or a revolution. It's always been there. The movement has been there and we're the generation that gets it to the next ceiling. We bust through this one and now we have to take it to the next one. It feels good that I get to be part of the complexity and I get to have discourses about the nuances of black psychology and create a world where the actors who come after me aren't limited by the same things that I am just as I'm not limited by the same things that Sidney Poitier was. We get to show a different form and a different part of America as a result of the work that they did.
So it feels really good. It feels really good to be a part of a cohort of artists that are making things like Moonlight and Sorry to Bother You and Get Out and Blindspotting and Us. Whether we articulate it or not it does feel like we're participating in a very a specific conversation and we're helping to curate that conversation and change society.
Jordan Peele’s Us hits theaters March 22nd.