Winston Duke went from relative obscurity to being a household name with his first film and he wasn’t even the lead or second or third performer listed for that matter. That the first film in question was “Black Panther” didn’t hurt, but that Duke still managed to stand out as rival Wakandan leader M’Baku amid such star power and spectacle is all the more impressive.
But how do you follow that kind of breakout? For Duke, it meant looking for something completely different. The Tobago-born, U.S.-raised Yale master of fine arts grad had been toiling in television for years to get this sort of chance, and he was not going to allow anyone to pigeonhole him.
“It was absolutely nothing but potential at that point,” Duke, 32, said of his raised profile following “Black Panther.” ″I was really itching for another job. I wanted something that would test me but not be the same as how I was represented in ‘Black Panther.’ …I know the propensity for saying, ’Oh he’s this kind of action guy. He’s this one thing.”
That’s when he read the script for “Us,” Jordan Peele’s follow-up to “Get Out,” about a family who encounters murderous doppelgangers, and he knew it was the perfect fit.
“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is everything,’” Duke said.
It wasn’t just that he’d be getting to show a different side of himself as an actor. He’d actually be playing two roles, the all-American every-dad Gabe Wilson and his doppelganger Abraham. Plus, he’d be getting to work with Peele, who was hot off of “Get Out.”
“Winston was on this perfect level,” Peele said. “He was by no means an unknown actor, but the range that he has was untapped, at least in how we knew him. That presented this opportunity to continue to break his talent on the world in a perfect way.”
The challenge of playing two roles got Duke’s mind spinning about big themes of privilege, duality, the patriarchy, and America.
“Gabe is the perfect product of the American dream. He probably believes that if you work hard enough you can get anything. You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work hard. He’s that guy,” Duke said. “Abraham is the American nightmare.”
Duke is a formidable presence on screen and off, clocking in at around 6′5″. That physicality helped inform both the brute intimidation of playing someone like Abraham and the comedic side of Gabe, although Peele said sometimes that came unintentionally.
“There are some laughs where he’s being himself and I don’t think he realized how funny it was,” Peele said. “Best example is when he gets into this little bed in one scene and it lasts about 30 seconds of him just getting ready, he thinks he’s going to get some. And the first time he did it I was just cracking up. The bed was creaking and he’s way too big for it. I don’t think he was trying to be funny, but I’m like, ‘Dude, this is the best, do it even longer. Do it more.’”
Gabe Wilson has a certain “sitcom dad” energy to him that Duke said was inspired by characters like Carl Winslow of “Family Matters” and Homer Simpson. He also suspects Peele wrote a bit of himself into the character. But the director and his star have differing opinions on that.
“He claims that a lot was based on me,” Peele said. “But I can tell you a lot of it is based on him.”
The ride has been overwhelming for Duke at times. In April, he’ll reprise his “Black Panther” role in “Avengers: Endgame,” and he’s also wrapped the Peter Berg film “Wonderland” in which he stars opposite Mark Wahlberg.
“It’s been a lot, a lot of things changing. Almost every interaction is changing and it’s happening so fast,” Duke said. “I kind of just saw ‘Black Panther,’ in my opinion, for the first time three weeks ago as a fan. I watched it on a plane, on someone else’s screen in front of me on mute, and I, of course, knew all the lines. And watching it on mute, mouthing all the lines, I thought, ‘This is a really good movie.’ I finally got to watch it again the way I would as just any other non-participant and it was great. I don’t get to consume the movies I’m in the same way.
“It’s been really a joy,” he added. “It’s been taxing at times but it’s good to remain grounded and remember why you’re doing it.”