Two students from Yale School of Drama go to the movies. It’s May of 2012. That’s not so long ago, but a great deal has changed since then.
The movie was The Avengers, the first onscreen team-up of Marvel superheroes, and the students were Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong’o.
“We were both enamored with The Hulk. We were all like Arrrgh! Every time Hulk got on the screen,” Duke says. “And we had moments of, ‘Do you think we’ll ever be in something like this?’ That was before 12 Years a Slave. Before anything. We were both just students dreaming. What’s the future going to be like?”
The future involved a journey to Wakanda for both of them.
In Marvel’s new blockbuster Black Panther, Oscar-winner Nyong’o plays “war dog” undercover agent Nakia, and Duke steals scenes as the movie’s secret weapon — M’Baku, the boisterous leader of the separatist Jabari mountain tribe.
In Marvel Comics lore, M’Baku (originally known as Man-Ape, since his tribe honors the white gorilla as its spiritual symbol) was a straight-up villain, a mad cult leader who turned renegade against T’Challa and his family. In Ryan Coogler’s new film, Duke turns M’Baku into a triple threat: Dangerous, sure. But also charming and — surprisingly — noble.
“They did take a deep departure that allowed him to be more grounded, and have more integrity,” says Duke, 31, who until now was best known for the CBS drama Person of Interest. “He’s not just this kind of obscure leader of a religious cult. He’s the leader of one of the most powerful tribes within the entire nation. He has the welfare of an entire people on his shoulders. He’s faced with the same question T’Challa is: by staying isolated, what world are we gonna create outside of ourselves?”
M’Baku is also hilarious. “He’s funny because he knows how he is perceived,” says the 6-foot-5 actor, who plays that fearsomeness for laughs. “We got to explore this guy who everyone thought was going to be something else, and we turned it on its head.”
EW spoke with Duke about bringing M’Baku to life, transforming him from a villain to something more complicated, and how he feels about the potentially problematic “Man-Ape” moniker that the filmmakers chose to leave as a relic of the past.
The Q&A includes some of his personal photos from the making of the movie.
Fair warning, there are some spoilers ahead. Only proceed if you’ve already made your visit to Wakanda.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: M’Baku is one of the big surprises of the film. Sometimes he’s an antagonist, sometimes he’s a hero.
WINSTON DUKE: He’s quite beloved. He’s not a villain. He just has other views for how things can be one. His people are laughing and love him, and they have an understanding,
What does M’Baku really want, deep down?
Where’s Wakanda going? How are they going to do that? T’Chaka (John Kani) is dead. I didn’t like the direction he was taking the country and now his son is going to take the throne, all these people have been asleep letting these people take control of the country for all these years, and we’ve just been watching from the mountains being like, “This isn’t right. My people have to live, they got to survive.” Instead of him just being this ostentatious dude who’s running around in a gorilla fur costume, he’s this guy who has deep attachments and needs. You can understand, “If I was in that position, I think I would have to make a similar choice.”
He does this chant, a kind of grunt that silences people. He’s frightening, and then immediately funny. He knows how to weaponize his demeanor.
It’s super fun to play, and we created the entire culture. The Jabari, similar to the Dora Milaje, believe in the oneness. When he speaks, he speaks in a “we,” but he doesn’t talk as a royal “we.” When he says “we,” it’s really we, like me and my people. That means a lot to him. When he speaks of the Jabari, he speaks of them as one.
Does their deep, repeated battle cry translate to something?
Yes, we got a language and created a chant because Ryan wanted a call and response natural to them. When they enter into spaces, they announce themselves. They’ve very much like the gorilla. While the panthers, they’re very sneaky and sly, and they’ll move under the cover of night and darkness, the gorilla announces himself. He beats his chest and he comes in loud and in your face.
M’Baku is a showman.
He is. He’s proud and he’s big, and he is a showman. It’s the idea that if I’m going to challenge and take over this country, I’m going to do it with honor and I’m going to do it in front of everyone the right way. I’m not going to use some subversive tactic to take over the country the way other people could.
At the beginning of the film, he battles T’Challa in ritual combat for the throne. If he had won in that initial challenge, would M’Baku have been a good king? He seems like he’s not a tyrant.
Yeah, I wanted to play him in that this story could be about M’Baku. This story could be M’Baku’s story if he won that battle. If things change, this could be M’Baku’s Wakanda.
Do you think he has any major flaws? Something that might not make him a great leader.
I think like any great person he has a lot of flaws. I think he probably has a savior complex. Only he can be the only person to save the whole country. You’re all wrong. I think that idea also reflects the larger theme that no man is an island. We cannot be that.
That’s the bigger theme of the movie.
He lost in the first challenge. It wasn’t until he joins forces and all these things that they could all win.
It also helped that he was shown respect and shown trust. That makes a person willing to trust in return.
Exactly. Exactly. I think he also deeply respects T’Challa. From that first waterfall scene, he learns that T’Challa is competent and that he’s a great, bold warrior. I feel like it’s that old warrior’s understanding of, once we cross swords, once we cross weapons, I learn who my opponent is. Once we exchange blows, I know what kind of person you are. To some degree, the entirety of Wakanda is a warrior society. The women are warriors, the men are warriors. Everyone comes away able. You might look at Shuri and think she’s quite cerebral, but she’s a warrior. She’s a fighter.
It’s an interesting phenomenon you bring up. It’s sort of like being a kid and you get into a fight in the playground, and after you tussle you often end the day as friends.
Yeah, because you learn what kind of people they are during the battle. That’s exactly what he said, “I owed you a great debt.”
Would he have killed T’Challa if he had won that challenge?
[Shakes head.] I think it was more of a matter of toppling what everyone knew, but not wiping it from the Earth. I follow tradition. If tradition calls that [T’Challa] did something wrong and I have to kill him, yeah, I think M’Baku would kill T’Challa. I think as long as he won the battle, he would let him be okay.
He would have been merciful?
He would have been merciful. He was fighting in front of T’Challa’s family. I don’t think he’s the kind of guy that would have killed him at that moment there.
M’Baku has his shield up so high that the audience doesn’t know for sure. We don’t know where he’s coming from until further into the story.
It gives us a lot of opportunity to explore a person like that. Creating this human being who is so strong and moral, it gives us a lot of opportunity for the future.
When I visited the set, executive producer Nate Moore said they were not calling the character Man-Ape. He said “having a black character dress up as an ape … there’s a lot of racial implications that don’t sit well, if done wrong.” Did you have any concerns about that when you were first in talks for the role?
I needed to know who I was playing. I needed to know if I was just playing M’Baku or if I was playing Man-Ape. As an actor, it would dictate how I play that very differently. I wasn’t worried about playing a guy that was called Man-Ape, because I actually felt within this world or Wakanda, that’s never been conquered, that’s never had a lot of narratives and false narratives place upon it, a character who’s not been exposed to internalized inferiority about animals and being animalistic, he wouldn’t embody that. To him, that’s a source and place of pride.
Yeah, if he was Man-Ape, I felt that I could justify it. But I understood the larger context of the world we do live in, what that would mean and how that would come off, and I also respect it. For me as an actor, I could understand playing a character named Man-Ape and making him be proud to be that. I also understood that we are making a movie that is also of our time and the responsibility of that.
Is there a real-world correlation to M’Baku? Either a historic figure or present-day figure? Somebody who’s a leader but it a bit of a separatist, too? You know what I mean?
I wanted a guy with a lot of presence and charisma who wasn’t afraid to smile and let you know that he can turn on you and destroy you, wipe you from the Earth, but also smile and be comfortable and talk because he has the most status in the room. I actually watched a lot of videos of [former Ugandan president] Idi Amin, not because I wanted to make him representative of that person, but I wanted to take some features.
The fact that [Amin] was very calm and charismatic, smiled a lot, laughed a lot. Very performative in public and was liked by his people for a long time. But he would do unsavory things to accomplish his own goals. I wanted to capture a sense of deep weight because I wanted him to feel like a heavy man. I’m also too … I’m right now, 250, 6-foot-5. I wanted him to feel just energetically heavy. With a large kinosphere.
Just the way you’ve changed your body shows that. He fills every space he’s in.
Yeah. I wanted him to have a large spread and a large gait when he did everything, but still felt comfortable to laugh and do whatever he felt necessary in the moment.
This doesn’t exactly fit, but I thought a little bit of the Amish. The Jabari have a separate, traditional culture within a modern one. But then, the Jabari don’t lack technology.
Yeah, they’re not against technology. They’re against Vibranium. Their society is based around Jabari wood.
That’s what we see decorating M’Baku’s throne room.
Yeah, this is something we didn’t get to interrogate deeply in the film, but everything for them is based around this Jabari wood that comes from this sacred tree. Everything in Jabari land is made out of this sacred wood that can essentially go toe-to-toe with a Vibranium sword or a Vibranium weapon because it’s this tempered, strong, treated wood.
But it has its own mythology…
They believe it was given to them by Hanuman, the ape god. Meanwhile, the people of Wakanda will say, “No, it’s actually the Vibranium that’s seeped into the wood. That makes it stronger.” [Laughs] You have this whole divergence of ideas. They’re quite technologically sophisticated but it’s based around wood. Meanwhile, Wakanda proper is technologically advanced based around Vibranium. That’s kind of where they get separated, but it’s still the same house.
As people discover M’Baku, they’re also going to be discovering you. Tell me about you. Where did you grow up? What was your family like? What’s your whole life story?
[Laughs] My life story, man! I am from Trinidad and Tobago, so I actually grew up in Tobago on the beach, just running around, playing, watching really creative people, and being exposed to really deep, rich stories from a young age. I’m hearing beautiful folklore stories about a protector of the forest who makes sure that hunters don’t destroy the world. His name is Papa Bois. He protects the forest and protects all natural things from human encroachment.
So you were a story listener. Now a storyteller?
I was really into storytelling and loved when my sister and mother, and older people in the community, would tell me all these stories. We lived in this multi-cultural society where I think, 40 percent of our country is from India, East India. Bollywood films are a big staple of the culture. I grew up watching these big song-and-dance films, and action-packed movies. I’m doing these karate moves and diving over things, doing my own stunts as a 6-, 7-, 8-year-old kid.
Then your family moved from Tobago to the U.S.?
We moved to Brooklyn when I was about 9 or 10, and from Brooklyn we moved to Rochester in New York. I went to high school in Rochester in New York. My mother did a lot of odd jobs just to keep us afloat, and my sister … We came here because my sister wanted to be a doctor. My sister wanted to be a doctor and my mother said, “You can definitely do that. You’re brilliant, but we can’t do it on this island.”
That’s an impressive mother.
She sold everything she had. She sold her restaurant, and home, and everything she owned. My father was not in the picture. That’s about that. She was a single parent. She’s actually here today. I take her everywhere with me. She’s a very supportive parent. She loves being there and giving emotional support.
That’s like Angela Bassett’s character, Ramonda, the Queen Mother. Her superpower is nurturing and believing in people.
Believing in her child and knowing that he can be right and he can be just, and still trying to mold him and help shape the situation. She’s part of his council. I have my own Wakandan mother, you know what I mean? [Laughs] She’s just a fierce supporter and advocate for me.
When you said, “I want to act,” did she say, “Go for it?”
She wanted me to do something more stable. [Laughs] Once I got over the hump, I mean, I went to Yale School of Drama and she didn’t miss one play. Not one student production. She was at every single thing over three years. She came to everything, she’s always been my No. 1 fan.
You were at Yale with Lupita, right?
Lupita had one year ahead of me at Yale. We actually saw the first Avengers together. All of us would get together at this club that Angela Bassett set up when she was a student at Yale. We’re all friends from there and then here and there we go see movies together and things like that. I just reminded her, “Do you know you’re the first person that I met at Yale and you gave me my tour?” That’s how it all started.
Sounds like destiny.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a small world, you know what I mean? It’s a small world. Danai [Gurira, who plays Okoye in Black Panther] had just done Eclipsed at Yale Repertory Theater, like couple months before I came into school.
That’s almost eerie. All the different connections.
It’s a lot of connections. Pretty crazy. My favorite play that I did was at Yale. It’s called The Island. John Kani [who plays the late king T’Chaka] helped to write the play. Him and another guy named Winston Ntshona originated these roles, about two prisoners in Robben Island [where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.]
I tell you, it’s fate.
When I met John and I met his son [who plays the younger T’Chaka], I was like, “You don’t know how long you’ve been a part of my life.” Yeah, it’s all a very small world. I feel I’m following my path. I’m living my truth and my path is storytelling.
What’s next for you? What’s on the horizon?
Right now it’s just Avengers: Infinity War. We’re going to see what comes of it.