The Two Sides of ‘Us’ Star Winston Duke

Some folks mention The Chant, that rising sound that builds as the large man in the tribal mask walks out into sunlight: Mayafa! Ya hoo hoo! Mayafa! Ya hoo hoo! Others talk about The Laugh, the one that follows a threat that he will feed the talkative man before him to his children … only to admit that they are vegetarians and punctuate the joke with the ultimate “I’m just fucking with you, man” guffaw. (The little snort he throws in there is a nice touch.)

But if you ask Winston Duke, he’ll tell you it’s probably The Bark that he hears the most. Ever since Black Panther turned the 32-year-old actor into an oh-my-god-who-was-that-guy? breakout star last year, he’s had folks come up to him and do it. In the film, Martin Freeman’s government agent is starting to say something about T’Challa, the newly crowned Wakandan king, when Duke’s character, M’Baku, interrupts him with a glare and a loud, deep “arrooff.” Soon, he’s joined by a whole chorus of similarly intimidating baying.

When he would go out in public right after Black Panther went from Marvel blockbuster to global pop-culture phenomenon, Duke would get the occasional salutary, crossed-arm mafaya and punchline recitation. The bark, though? For a while, “it happened a lot,” he says, sticking a spoon in a bowl of oatmeal and berries. Barking in the street. In restaurants. At the gym. He doesn’t mind. “These things take on a life of their own. They don’t have time to give you a trophy. So that’s their award to give out. They are telling me: You made an impact. That’s their celebration of you.”

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There’s a sound that Duke makes in Us, however, that will probably not inspire fans’ imitations. Jordan Peele’s new horror film revolves around a family that goes on vacation with some friends; the actor plays Gabe, a sort of bumbling, amiable patriarch. Then, late one night, they are set upon by a gang of house invaders that threaten their lives — each of these perpetrators being exact doubles of the family in peril. Duke plays the dad’s counterpart as well, a man named Abraham. This doppelganger can’t talk. So Peele asked the actor to come up with a noise for him. He went into the scene in question not knowing what exactly he would do; much like the conception of The Laugh and The Bark, he says, it happened in the moment. “Jordan told me, ‘I want something guttural. Something primeval,’” Duke recalls. “I just opened my mouth and … let something come out.”

If you were among the many, many, many moviegoers who saw Us last weekend and helped turn Peele’s follow-up to Get Out into a huge box-office hit right out of the gate, you know what it sounded like. If you haven’t seen the film yet, the noise is like a cross between an inchoate howl and a hellish moan. There’s something spooky yet unbearably, unfathomably sad about it. When we meet to talk, the movie won’t be opening for another few days. And as we’re sitting in a hotel restaurant, surrounded by people drinking tea and staring at their phones and politely discussing the weather, Duke starts doing the sound. To hear this in person is absolutely blood-curdling. It’s not nearly as loud as Abraham’s initial cry in the film, but it’s enough that folks stop their conversation mid-sentence. We get a few looks. One woman almost drops her scone.

“I didn’t know what it was until I did it,” he says, thumping his chest softly for emphasis. “But the intention was always clear. It was: I want your voice. I. Want. To. Speak!”

All Duke has wanted to do since becoming an actor is have a chance to speak — to engage, as he eloquently puts it, “in a conversation with the culture.” You could argue that this need started much earlier than that: before he got bit by the acting bug in high school; before he began studying theater at the University of Buffalo; before he got into Yale’s acting graduate program; before he started doing TV roles and wowed Ryan Coogler with his Black Panther audition and became famous enough to get barked at. Duke himself might say it began once he moved to Brooklyn and tried to figure out where a nine-year-old kid from Trinidad and Tobago fit in this new country he was living in. Television helped. So did the movies.

“I keep going back to those movies that I grew up with,” he says. “The ones I loved … I realized later on that they asked me a question and I answered. As a kid, I had no idea that’s that what I was doing. I was just attached to really interesting what ifs: What if a mermaid grew legs and met a really good guy? That’s Splash. What if a patient who had AIDS needed to be defended in court by a man who didn’t understand the disease and comes from a cultural background that stigmatizes it? You have Philadelphia.” A pause. “I realize I just gave you two Tom Hanks movies, didn’t I? He’s one of my heroes.”

So, there’s probably a little bit of the nice-guy movie star’s DNA in Gabe, the goofier paternal figure in Us‘s dual equation, right? He’s the first of Duke’s characters we meet in the movie — the kind of father who sings along to Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It” in the car, who practically pratfalls into his new boat, who tries to clumsily seduce his wife Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) by lying spread-eagle in his boxers on their bed. Was Splash-era Hanks his inspiration? “Homer Simpson,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t grow up with a father in the home, so what were the dads I knew as an immigrant boy from Trinidad? That was Uncle Phil in Fresh Prince. That was Carl Winslow [from Family Matters]. That was Homer Simpson — there’s a lot of Homer in Gabe! It was, let’s make him the dad from black-ish: really loving, really present, but a little aloof in other respects.”

Duke consciously wanted to make this Mr. All-American Dad U.S.A. a bit of a doofus, partially to contrast how Nyong’o’s suburban wife would slowly turn into a protector: “The thinking was: If I lean this far in one direction, you’ll see how far in the other direction Adelaide goes. It’s like, this is what the film’s action hero can look like. It’s what she should look like.” But he also wanted to underline the fact that this was a man who seemed to have everything … and that may be part of the problem. A big part of Us revolves around the notion that, even if we are not guilty of directly exploiting those on lower rungs of the economic ladder or who we might otherwise categorize as the “other,” we may still buy into a system that sometimes passively, often actively seeks to keep folks down. The movie is not called Them, he’s quick to point out. There may be blood on everyone’s hands, even those not holding sharp, oversized scissors.

“It comes from a space of being totally disconnected from an experience that’s different from your own,” Duke says. “And the sense of entitlement, that was something I wanted to emphasize. He’s not a ‘bad’ guy, but he’s not a good guy, either. There are no good guys here.

“You know, Gabe Wilson is attached to the American Dream,” he continues. “He wants the boat and the summer house. He and Adelaide are not the ones that committed a sin, but they are the ones paying for it. You’ve attached yourself to the materialistic things, the trophy wife. You’ve attached yourself to the American Dream — now are you ready for the sins that come with it to show up at your door, looking just like you?”

And that brings us to Abraham. “Yes, that brings us to Abraham,” Duke says, nodding. He eyes the recorder on the table in front of him. “This article is coming out after the film gets released, right? Good. Then let’s talk about Abraham.”

When Duke was auditioning to Yale’s theater program, he was assigned a sort of tour guide — a student who’d show him the school and help him get oriented as he navigated the interview process. So when he arrived from New York to the Ivy League university in New Haven, Connecticut, he was met by a well-traveled young woman who already had professional experience on film sets and a reputation as a fierce performer on stage. She’d be his handler, for lack of a better term, for the whole weekend. Her name was Lupita Nyong’o.

Lupita Nyong’o on the Mysteries of Jordan Peele’s Us

“The first thing you noticed about Winston was his size,” she says, via telephone. “He’s a big guy. And not just physically — he has a big personality, too. But you could tell he was a really pensive person as well, and the combination of those two sides of him was immediate from the moment you met him. He had not made the program yet, mind you; he was one of the shortlisted candidates and had got a callback audition when I was with him around the campus. But he was already clear about what he wanted to accomplish. You sensed he was an absorbant actor even then.”

Though Duke and Nyong’o didn’t act together while they both attended Yale, she says she kept a close eye on him in the two years together in the program; he still refers to her as “my upperclassman Lupita.” He watched as she went on to win an Oscar for her work in 12 Years a Slave. She watched as he nabbed a few recurring roles in shows like Modern Family and Persons of Interest. They both talked on Desus and Mero about seeing the first Avengers movie together, and she had already been cast in Black Panther when director Ryan Coogler called Duke in to read for M’Baku. Cue “we’re vegetarians,” numerous barking incidents and a leveling up in the industry-juice department for the actor.

And it was Nyong’o, Duke says, that invited him as her date to the Oscars, where he happened to see Jordan Peele lounging around during a commercial break. “I remember seeing Get Out and spending three hours discussing the movie with my friends afterwards,” he says. “Just talking about black bodies, gentrification … the gentrification of black bodies! There’s a lot of meat on the bones of that movie, and a lot of marrow to suck out once you break the bones open.” He introduced himself. They exchanged pleasantries. When they ran into each other later at an afterparty, they chatted some more. Then, three weeks later, Peele called him.

“He told me, ‘I have this project,’” Duke recalls. “‘I’m not gonna tell you anything about the script, let me know what you think. Let me know if you wanna be a part of it.’ And then I read it, and it’s just … I saw all these tentacles in there that reached out and touched so many topics. So many ‘isms’ — class, the patriarchy, everything. I said, ‘Jordan, I need to be part of the conversation here, and not as a passenger. I have to be in the driver’s seat with you on this one. Let’s get to work.’”

The first thing Duke had to do was bone up on his Horror Movies 101. “Not a big horror fan growing up,” he admits. “I had no real experience with it, because I never really saw people who looked like me have a chance in horror movies. It’s a cliche, but: We’re the first ones to go usually. We’re the sacrifice. Blackness — it’s the genre’s first martyr!”

The Wilson family doppelgängers (from left) Abraham (Winston Duke), Umbrae (Shahadi Wright Joseph), Pluto (Evan Alex) and Red (Lupita Nyong’o) in "Us," written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele.

So Peele gave him a list of films to check out. And it was the inaugural selection — Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining — that Duke says proved to be the key that unlocked the door. “It was something I could lean into because, for starters, I could see the similarities to the movie I was going into. You know, there’s a family at the center of it, both the house and the hall of mirrors sort of become characters, the boardwalk becomes a playing space similar to the maze in the hotel. But more importantly, it was: Oh wow, that’s a great way of making a monster out of something very familiar. A father figure who’s familiar yet foreign to the family. I wanted to play with that.” Enter Abraham.

When we first meet the Wilsons’ shadow twins, Adelaide’s counterpart, Red, is distinguished by a voice that sounds like the door of a crypt being forced open. (No one knew that this was the choice Nyong’o made for the character until they did the scene. “You don’t talk about the plumbing with the other actors,” she says, laughing. “You just compare notes on what the house you’re building should look like.”) The other members of this makeshift family, however, are more or less silent. In Duke’s mind, this patriarch would have been denied what he calls “a proximity to privilege,” so the first thing he’d lose would be his voice. He’s “less a husband than a partner in their purpose for being there,” Duke notes, in relation to why these doubles have shown up — a mutually beneficial “mission” that “makes him part of a team.” He’d be tough. And he’d be almost blind.

“Both Gabe and Abraham are products of their environment,” Duke says. “Abraham has been living … let’s say underground. So, for his introductory scene, when you see him enter the room, you’ll notice he’s touching everything. He’s unable to see, so I thought: Well, he’s very deliberate, and he hears perfectly. It makes him a lot more of aware. He knows where everyone is in the room at all times. Gabe sprays everywhere; Abraham takes in. Any oppressed person will tell you they become a lot more of aware of how powers structures work. And anything he gets a hold of — say, a baseball bat — he doesn’t let go. When he finally gets his hands on something, that’s a means to survival. That idea told me how strong he’d be. He’d never let go of anything.”

“The gory bits, they last six seconds. But stabbing something like our class system in the jugular? That stays. That’s the last shot of Us.”

Still, as they were blocking the sequence, something was not quite coming together. And then, in the middle of a take, it happened. Duke, in character as Abraham, reached out to the stand-in actor playing Gabe. He felt his face, then felt his glasses. And Abraham takes the glasses and puts them on. Suddenly, he can see everything — his family, the Wilsons, an entire other life that’s been denied him. That’s when the painful, guttural sound comes out. And that’s when Abraham becomes enraged.

“The glasses were completely improvised, yeah,” Duke says. “Completely in the moment. I think Jordan might have gasped behind the camera when it happened. When we filmed that, I remember turning around and actually seeing the ‘new’ family for the first time. This is what my kids look like, this is what my wife looks like. And it hit me: This is the moment when it all actually makes sense to him. When he sees the light, both figuratively and literally, for the first time, and thinks, ‘Oh, this is right!’ It’s the moment I really felt like I could relate to him. I have a lot of compassion for Abraham. I never thought of him as a villain, you know. Because he isn’t.” Duke stops talking for a second. Then his eyes began to get a little glassy. He’s on the verge of tearing up just thinking about the character. “He really isn’t.”

“And the other thing is,” he says, fanning his eyes and leaning in, “it’s the moment things stop making sense to Gabe. He thinks they’re here for his money. ‘Take the ATM card, take the boat, just don’t hurt my family.’ No, man. We’re here for your family. We’re here for your freedom. We’re here for your glasses.” Duke leans back. “This is the kind of thing that Jordan does. You know, the gory bits, they last six seconds. But stabbing something like our class system in the jugular? That stays. That’s the last shot of Us. That’s the conversation.”

And it’s taking part in those conversations, Duke says, finishing up his breakfast, that keeps him pushing forward. He’s already got more work ahead of him: Wonderland, a take on Robert B. Parker’s Spencer: For Hire novels costarring Mark Wahlberg; probably a Black Panther sequel; possibly a biopic of MMA fighter Kimbo Slice. But Us is the sort of stuff he wants to keep doing now that he’s starting to have the luxury of choosing projects, of having folks coming to him. Duke can put up with the barking. He just wants to make work that bites. “I used to be the one answering the ‘what ifs,’” he declares. “Now I get to be the one who asks them.”

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