“At that time I had no idea what he wanted, but I do know as an actor I’m pretty flexible. If you want something, I’m pretty sure I can deliver.” – Winston Duke
One of the many actors who made a significant impression in audiences in the Oscar-nominated film, Black Panther, is Winston Duke. Duke portrayed M’Baku, Black Panther’s adversary-turned-ally. In an interview with GQ about his now-exploding career and his experience auditioning for the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster.
Though Duke is viewed as a breakout success because of his role in Black Panther, he points out that he has faced the same ups and downs as every actor does in his career. He says, “At that point, since graduate school [in Yale’s drama program]…probably over 300 auditions under my belt, 400 auditions. Sometimes they only last two minutes. You just go through the scene one time, and they say, ‘Thank you, that was really great.’ ‘Uh…do you have any notes?’ ‘No, no, no, I think that was fantastic. I wouldn’t change a thing.’ And then you don’t hear back.”
Not surprisingly, Duke’s audition for Black Panther went a little differently. He recalls, “I was told by my agent and representative that I was going in for an ‘untitled Marvel project.’ I had no idea what I was auditioning for. I didn’t know what I was auditioning for until…maybe the third round of auditions. It was a director’s session, with [writer-director] Ryan Coogler and [executive producer] Nate Moore in the room. That’s when I realized it was Black Panther.”
Of course, the realization that he was auditioning for a potential blockbuster was exciting — but also nerve-wracking. Duke remembers, “I was just shocked. At that point, this would be my biggest audition. And that’s when the nerves kicked in. I also had in my head at that time that if it’s a Marvel project, they most likely know who they want. It’s gonna go to someone bigger. Someone established. Someone with a big name. Someone with a lot more cachet than me—at that point—a TV actor with some theater under his belt.”
One of the challenges that Duke faced in that audition was that he was asked to interpret his scenes in different ways. He explains, “[Ryan Coogler] kept having me go through the scenes over and over. ‘Could you do it this way?’ ‘Could you do it that way?’ ‘Could you make it a little bit more personal here?’ ‘Could you make it more aggressive here? I’d like to see it with a little humor here.’ At that time I had no idea what he wanted, but I do know as an actor I’m pretty flexible. If you want something, I’m pretty sure I can deliver. He put about 40 minutes into [the audition]—40 minutes of his time—helping to shape me as an artist. I said, ‘At the end of the day, I just got to work with Ryan Coogler. It’s already a big win.’”
Though Duke didn’t know whether or not he got the part, even the experience of auditioning was such a high for him. He reveals, “I went home, and all the adrenaline came down, and I was like, ‘What just happened? What just happened? I don’t know what just happened. But it was great.’ I took a shower, and I had this really wonderful sense of calm that washed over me. It was almost as if I heard the words: ‘Everything’s gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay in this path that you’ve chosen. If you got the job, great. If you didn’t, it just wasn’t for you. There’s nothing else that you could have done. You worry a lot, and it’s not easy, but you’re gonna be fine.’ I’d never felt that before in my life. And I walked out of the shower at peace. And 48 hours later, we got the call.”