Up-and-Comers of the Month: “Black Panther” Stars Letitia Wright and Winston Duke on Joining the MCU and Working With Ryan Coogler

Black Panther QuadGetty Images/Marvel

If you’ve seen — and judging from this weekend’s marvelous box office receipts, you probably have — then you’re aware that the latest Marvel movie boasts an impressive ensemble cast, from Chadwick Boseman to Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan on down.

Two actors whom you may not be as familiar with are Letitia Wright and Winston Duke, who steal multiple scenes as T’Challa’s brainiac sister Shuri and his rival-turned-ally M’Baku, respectively. To stand out in a movie like Black Panther is no easy feat, but Wright and Duke both managed to make their mark as fan favorites, which is why I’m proud to announce that they’re our Up-and-Comers of the Month this February.

Fans of British television should be familiar with Wright, whose credits overseas include Banana, Cucumber and Top Boy, though she may be best known for her recent turn in the new Black Mirror episode “Black Museum.” She’ll next be seen in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, just in case her first quarter of 2018 needed another boost. Meanwhile, Duke also paid his dues in TV, with recurring roles on shows like Modern Family, Person of Interest and The Messengers.

Black Panther, however, is a whole ‘nother beast, and not only did both actors rise to the momentous occasion, but they’ll both return for Avengers: Infinity War, which comes out on May 4. For all we know, Black Panther will still be playing in theaters then as it continues to break boundaries and box office records alike. In just four days, the film has already outgrossed the entire theatrical run of Justice League, performing beyond even Disney’s wildest dreams.

The Tracking Board spoke to Wright and Duke prior to the release of Black Panther about the film’s audition process, the gravity of the moment and what’s next for them as they continue their journeys through Hollywood… with a return visit to Wakanda expected along the way. Enjoy!

What sparked your passion for acting and made you decide to get into this crazy business?

Winston Duke: I wanted to be everything, so I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted to be an accountant. Before I knew anything of business, in sixth grade, I said I wanted to be an executive. I wanted to be an astronaut. And I found a way to actually do everything that I wanted in storytelling. So I could play a lawyer. I could be a doctor. I could be all these things. And it was also a means for me to interrogate my own personality and learn about myself, so those are the things that really sparked my love for acting.

Letitia Wright: I wanted to do it because I really love movies, and growing up I would find myself watching them a lot and trying to act out all the scenes after I finished watching a film, so it just kind of came about naturally. Even during summer holidays, I would just stay indoors and watch a lot of movies and TV shows, and I found out I really, really liked [acting]. Like anybody, when you find something that you like and you realize that it makes you happy, you go forth and pursue that.

I was born in Guyana in South America, and I grew up in North London. I went to a lot of part-time classes — one in particular was at the Identity School of Acting. I went there all the time. Whenever I’d audition or finish a job, I’d go back and continue training, and we did a lot of stuff that you’d find in the big drama schools like RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). We did the same things as well, like a lot of scene-work, and movement and voice. We’d have different teachers throughout the week who allowed us to go off to auditions and come back to continue learning the craft. So that’s where I learned the majority of my technique, and received the majority of my teaching. And also from just watching a lot of movies and going to the theater, and picking up things from people in real life by watching how they behaved.

And Winston, you went to Yale, right?

Duke: I went to the Yale School of Drama and graduated in 2013. I worked with some smaller boutique agencies before that and had great coverage. But just like everything else, these relationships came organically out of good work. So I’d work with someone and they really liked my work, and when the time came where I felt like I had to make a transition, these people assisted in saying, ‘I really loved your work and I’d love to introduce you to my agent.’ It’s great when artists network across and help each other. You don’t always have to network up and try to get the next person who’s above you. You can always network across, and one person being empowered means that we’re all empowered. That’s the really great thing about agency and empowerment, is that it reflects on everyone around you. One person having everything means that everyone else has less.

So tell me about the audition process and how Ryan Coogler discovered you for these roles?

Wright: As with everything, I just auditioned. I had two screen tests, and then after that, I just became a part of it. It was a really good audition process. I got to meet Chad and Ryan, and really connect and bond with them. Immediately, I knew I wanted to work with them, and I knew it felt right to do. Fortunately, everything came together.

Duke: Ryan was truly collaborative. I knew I wanted to work with him. I knew I wanted my career to possess a sense of social justice and have a social justice footprint. And I knew I loved the work that Ryan Coogler created. So when I had my meetings and all these things where you express your goals for the future, I let my people know this, and I said, ‘I would love to be part of Black Panther and just work with him,’ so they got me in the room. I auditioned once, and then I got called back to do a director’s session with him. That lasted, like, 45 minutes, and he took me in 20 different directions with the character. ‘Can you make it more personal? Try this, try that. Go here, go there.’ And that gave me a sense of his directing style. He likes going in 20 different directions and capturing it all, and then choosing what he wants and how he wants to tell this story. So I feel like he trusted me, and when it came to creating the character, all that sense of trust bled into that process.

He would say, ‘I’m thinking of this. I want a call-and-response-type feature for these people. What do you think of that?’ And I would say, ‘that sounds like a really cool thing. How about I go off and I work on that?’ And then I go off and I think of things and research things and contact people and get things ready, so I came back to him with a whole vignette. And he goes, ‘I like that, I like that… not so much this. I like this. I don’t like that too much. I think we’re gonna use this. Yeah, yeah, that’s cool.’ So all of it gives you a sense of onus on your work, because it’s not just, ‘stand there and say the lines.’ It’s about, ‘what can you bring?’ And I knew he trusted me, because this film is a huge thing for all the people involved. It’s huge for Disney, it’s huge for Marvel. It’s a first for everyone, and for him to invite me to this party exemplified a lot of trust. Working with him was a lot of fun.

How did you each react and celebrate when you first heard you landed the role?

Duke: Oh, God, man! I was brought to tears, and then I laughed, I screamed, and I called my family. I said, ‘You know, I can’t tell you, but I got something big. We’re gonna be OK for a little while. I got something really big. It’s good, it’s good.’ So a lot of celebration, but then I’m just waiting and waiting. I couldn’t say anything because you can’t speak about these large projects, for the sake of the project. But I was celebrating with my family and the people who mean the most for me. It still felt like a public affair, because I have a big family. I’m from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and I didn’t tell that whole family because there’s like 200 people, and that’s a whole Hollywood in itself. So I didn’t tell my extended family, just my immediate family, which is my mother and sister. We kept celebrating and we started planning and talking things out. My character deals with a lot of family. Black Panther is a family story in the sense that Wakanda itself is a large extended family. What does that mean? How does a family take care of itself? How does a family move into the future? These are questions the film addresses.

Wright: My agents called me. I was on my way to a meeting and they called me to confirm everything about it. I was at the bus stop waiting for the bus in London, and I kind of just whooped in the air, and was praising God and screaming. I was just really, really happy. I think people thought I was crazy. And then I had to calm down and get on the bus and pretend that I didn’t just hear that I’d booked one of the biggest roles of my career in one of the biggest films that the world is anticipating. I had to act really cool on the tube, as if nothing happened. So that’s how I celebrated my moment. I thanked God and celebrated with my family.

Letitia, how did it make you feel to learn that Shuri is considered the smartest person in the entire MCU?

Wright: Really good! Really, really good, because she’s a young person and she could inspire a lot of young people. Tony and Banner are great, not only as actors, but in the films themselves. They’re amazing, iconic characters, so to be able to be on par with them… and that’s not even something I said! I didn’t say that, the head of Marvel said that, and it kind of created a chain reaction. And Nate Moore said those things, so talk to those guys! They felt really strongly that Shuri was the smartest person in the universe, and I’m not going to downplay that. Young people are the future, so it’s only right to allow that to be the thing that’s being said online. If you watch the film, yeah, Shuri is pretty smart, but she’s really relatable as well, so she’s not this super-intelligent person who nobody can really connect wth and everybody feels like, ‘aw, you’re too intelligent to be my friend.’ Shuri is super cool and ultra amazing, and her mind is her weapon. She uses that to create amazing technology, but then she’s able to turn around and tease her brother, so she’s still able to be a relatable, down-to-earth character who everybody can vibe with.

Winston and LetitiaGetty Images

What can we expect to see from your characters in Avengers: Infinity War? Will you be leaving Wakanda, or will the battle come to you?

Duke: I think there’s just a lot going on Infinity War. In the same way that Black Panther is revolutionary in its approach to Marvel Cinematic Universe storytelling, I believe that Avengers: Infinity War will shake the cornerstone that we’ve grown accustomed to. It will shake the images and ideas that we’ve grown accustomed to, and it’s going to be a lot for the fans.

Wright: Shuri will pop up and do what she needs to do. Avengers is going to be another world of amazingness. You guys are very, very blessed this year. Marvel is the gift that keeps on giving. You guys have got Black Panther, Avengers, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel. You guys are being spoiled. A lot. And then next year you have another Avengers? Very, very spoiled!

Are there any actors who you admire, or whose career you’d like to emulate?

Wright: I love a lot of people’s work. I love what Saoirse Ronan is doing — just the quality of work she’s been able to put out there pretty much for the whole of her career. She’s done really, really good projects, so I really like her work a lot.

Duke: I think I just want to have my own career. I look at Andy Serkis, who is a craftsman. I look at Forest Whitaker, who is a craftsman and a man with a similar stature. He’s over 6-feet — a big man, a man of color. I love both of their careers, but I’m eager to find out what a career for me in a different political landscape could look like. 30 years ago, if I’m 6’5, 250 pounds, I’d be relegated to certain roles that don’t have nuance, so I’m excited to take this journey and see where my career will go.

Do either of you have a dream role or a dream project in the back of your mind?

Wright: A dream role? Nothing in particular. I would love to just play any character that has something meaningful to fight for, or something meaningful to contribute to the world. I just want to be a part of stories that are good. I can’t really pinpoint a dream role, but I know that the dream is to just continue doing work that really speaks to people and has a good impact on the world. That would be what I would love to happen.

Duke: I’ll keep that one closer to the chest.

What has been the biggest pinch-me moment of your careers so far?

Duke: Last night [at the film’s L.A. premiere]. Watching the live feed of Chadwick Boseman getting out of the car with the Dora Milaje walking around him and the African drums beating, and him being treated like the king that he is. Just knowing the effect that’s going to have on people. Seeing imagery like that is going to change the world, and it’s going to change the world for children who are still developing, and developing their ideas of narratives of what they can be, and where they could go in life, and what they can imagine and bring to storytelling in the future. I was biting myself. Not even pinching myself, biting myself.

Wright: Well, first it was meeting Spielberg. I don’t have a big role in Ready Player One, but that was dope. And now it’s just being involved with this film. I have a lot of moments where it’s like, ‘oh wow, God, this is amazing! This is actually happening and I’m actually a part of something that will really inspire and entertain people, and make people really enjoy themselves.’ Hopefully Black Panther is going to have a positive effect on the world. That will be the real pinch-me moment.

What’s next for you two?

Wright: Back to the drawing board, man. Back to work and finding the right projects. I’m not in any rush. I’m not trying to rush into the next project. As far as what’s next, I’m asking myself, what’s the right thing to do? Where do I want to go next? What do I want to do? I’d love to do more arthouse projects. That’s definitely where my mind is focused right now. Character-driven roles in the vein of Black Mirror, but the film version of that. I don’t mind doing TV as long as the character is dope. Wherever I’m meant to be, whatever character I’m meant to play, I’ll play that. I’m excited as much as anybody else may be to see what’s next for me. I’m also in that crew, and I know whatever comes next will be the right thing.

Duke: I’m just being focused and being present and seeing what else comes my way. I want to produce and create some narratives of my own, so I can’t wait to see what the future brings.

Winston, do you think you’ll sign with a manager soon?

Duke: I’m taking interviews at the moment. Again, I’m just waiting to see where this takes me.

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Still quiet here.sas

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