He’s best known for playing the fan-favorite character M’Baku, leader of the Jabari Tribe and eventual valuable ally to King T’Challa in Black Panther. Now, Winston Duke stars in Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed thriller, Us.
“The film is about an American family trying to live the perfect American dream, and then realizing that the American dream is perilous, insecure and unsustainable,” says Duke, who plays Gabe Wilson. “I look at the American dream as another character in this film that succumbs to the dangers of the horror-thriller genre and becomes a hapless victim.”
Duke plays Gabe, husband to Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and patriarch of the family, but he’s also the “fun” parent. In a way, he’s Adelaide’s opposite. He’s not big on structure and rules, and he’s often the antidote to her fears and anxieties.
“Gabe is this fun, charismatic character,” director-writer Peele says. “He’s kind of a goofy dad, but he has an enthusiasm and spontaneity that makes him the spirit of the family. He often doesn’t think before he acts, though, and that has been a bit of a strain in his relationship with Adelaide.”
As the family arrives in Santa Cruz at the beginning of the film, Adelaide isn’t the only character feeling anxiety. Gabe doesn’t share her past, but he has real concerns of his own. “Gabe is the heart and soul of this family,” Duke says. “He’s playful and spontaneous. He keeps this family buoyant on their toes. We thought of him as a man who’s trying to be the father that he never had, so he is overly present; and this summer is a big deal.” As part of that effort, he buys a speedboat that has seen better days, hoping for some bonding family outings on the water.
All of that is thrown into high relief when Gabe and Adelaide are confronted by The Tethered. “Gabe’s need to live in a fantasy of what an American marriage, and an American family, is—that’s his driving force,” Duke says. “And then everything changes. My favorite line in the movie is, ‘The world’s not going to end. It’s just going to be different.’ It’s a metaphor for what their family structure is going to be, and what their family is going to look like, in the aftermath of what they’re going through.”
For Peele, Duke was the perfect choice to play Gabe. “Winston doesn’t know it, but he basically is Gabe,” Peele says. “Winston thinks Gabe is based on me, but when I met Winston it was like, ‘Ok, yes. Just do that.’ Winston is that dude. He’s a fun mash-up of how I originally saw the character and all the qualities that he brought to the role. You can’t separate the two.”
For Nyong’o, her long friendship with Duke became a critical part of their on-screen marriage. “Winston and I have known each other since we were in graduate school together,” Nyong’o says. “And, of course, we’d had this short stint together in this little movie called Black Panther. We’re extremely close. We bicker like siblings; we’re like an old couple. So there was the comfort of knowing that he’s someone that I trust personally, and also someone whose artistry I really admire and respect.”
“Winston is just such a rambunctious character,” she continues. “He’s so warm and so unafraid. He’s a courageous actor, and a generous one, so it was great to just trust our chemistry and to play off of it. Our on-screen marriage got deep really quickly.”