Winston Duke's Road To Hollywood Stardom

When Winston Duke was growing up, he had an interaction with a classmate that can now be used to illustrate his personality. "Back in 10th grade, I first realized that I wanted to be an actor and one of my friends was like 'no, you can't do that, you can't stop laughing,'" the star recalled to NiceGirlsTV. But the good-natured teen would prove his pal wrong. Duke put in the work to become capable of convincing viewers that he's the type of guy who doesn't laugh much — like when he played a gang leader in "Person of Interest."

While Duke has inhabited characters who can be intimidating and fierce, he's also known for his incredible charisma and sharp comedic timing. The first time many moviegoers were introduced to him was in the revolutionary superhero film, "Black Panther." He cut an imposing figure as M'Baku, the mountain tribe leader who challenges Prince T'Challa to a battle for the Wakandan throne. But later on, the powerful warrior provides a moment of levity by cracking himself up with a joke about vegetarianism. Duke showed even more of his range by playing dual roles in the horror movie, "Us" — the affable sitcom dad archetype and his disconcerting doppelganger.

"I'm always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I'm always thinking about how to get better," Duke told Vibe. This tenacity and introspectiveness have helped him grow from a child enamored with storytelling into a masterful storyteller.

His mother made huge sacrifices for their family

Winston Duke was around 9 years old when his mother, Cora Pantin, decided to leave their home in Tobago. She put their house and the restaurant she owned up for sale to fund a move to America because Winston's sister, Cindy Duke, had a dream: She wanted to work in the medical field. "My mother said, 'You can definitely do that. You're brilliant, but we can't do it on this island," the actor recalled to Entertainment Weekly.

The family settled in Brooklyn, and Winston's sister started attending classes at City College of New York, per Vanity Fair. "My mother did a lot of odd jobs just to keep us afloat," Winston told Entertainment Weekly. In an Instagram post, he shared another story that illustrated how his mom always wanted the best for her children. It included a photo taken at the Bronx Zoo (above), accompanied by the caption, "She saved up for weeks to buy me that sweat suit the day before and I lost the jacket at the zoo ... Haha! She just sighed and bought me ice cream ... that's love!" Duke told BlackFilm that his mother also paid his rent when he was struggling to find acting jobs so that he could keep pursuing his dream. "She really supports her children," he said.

Pantin's sacrifices paid off — not only did her son become a hugely successful actor, but her daughter also succeeded in becoming a doctor who founded her own fertility clinic.

He can look back and laugh about being robbed as a kid

Winston Duke's early experiences living in Brooklyn were not what he expected. During an appearance on "The Breakfast Club," he explained that his impressions of American life came from the sitcoms he grew up watching in Tobago, which included "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Family Matters." He told Vulture, "American culture, the American Dream, is this huge export."

But his family's new home was no cozy, brightly lit sitcom set. Duke told Mentality (via Facebook) that the three of them ended up sharing a studio apartment, which they furnished with a sofa and television that had been abandoned on the curb. To make matters worse, their apartment got burglarized. 

Duke also got robbed while he was in middle school. However, the natural storyteller spun the traumatizing memory into an entertaining tale on "The Breakfast Club," laughing as he recalled how he kept on walking down the street while a thief rummaged through the contents of his backpack and pockets. He had co-host, Charlamagne tha God, in hysterics as he acted out his youthful self looking around for help, recounting, "I was like, 'Is nobody seeing this?'" Two other muggers eventually popped out of nowhere and took the plunder that the first one found: some VHS tapes from the library. "Then I hear, ”Oh, this is 'U.S. Marshals?' I already seen this s***,'" Duke recalled. "And then they threw it at my head and hit me."

His large family made returning home awkward

Winston Duke's parents both came from big families. The actor told "What's in Your Glass?" host, Carmelo Anthony, that his mom had 11 siblings, which meant that he never lacked cousins to play with growing up. In an interview with Esquire, he reminisced about how he and a group of his relatives would often reenact their favorite Bollywood action sequences on the beach. Like his mother, some of his kin were business owners who were important to the local community — one of his cousins built the first grocery store in his neighborhood, per GMA News Online. Winston is even related to a Tobagonian politician, Progressive Democratic Patriots leader, Watson Duke, and some of his family members are folk heroes. "I was always told stories about cousins or neighbors, fantastical stories that included magic and folklore — those things shaped me," he told Esquire.

But when he returned to Tobago for a visit at age 16, Winston learned that there was a downside to having so many relatives. On "What's in your Glass?" he recalled his mother telling him, "You're not allowed to date anybody. Everybody's your cousin." But he ignored her warning and got a bit flirty with a local girl, whom he decided to introduce to a relative who recognized the girl and told Duke, "You know that's your cousin, right?" So moving to America possibly also improved his dating life.

He credits Frasier for sparking his interest in acting

While Tobago's rich culture of folklore introduced Winston Duke to the art of storytelling, it was an episode of the sitcom, "Frasier" that made him fall in love with acting at an early age. On "Live with Kelly and Ryan," he recalled watching seasoned British star Derek Jacobi play a Shakespearean actor whose performance of "Hamlet" is far from the tour de force that Frasier remembered it to be. Something about the star's intentionally bad acting resonated with young Duke, who spent weeks imitating it.

Still, the actor didn't try his hand at theater until he was in high school when a teacher noticed how expressive the usually reserved student became during a Spanish class presentation. She signed him up to participate in a 24-hour play, which allowed a group of students that amount of time to write and rehearse their own production. "It was the first time I had done anything like that, and afterward other things kept happening that pushed me in the direction of acting," he told 1883 Magazine. However, his family initially didn't support his new passion. "They were always trying to convince me to be a lawyer or doctor until I was just like, 'I'm not gonna do that.' It doesn't make me happy," Duke recalled to Vibe. Regardless, when he started attending college at the University at Buffalo in New York, Duke briefly majored in pre-law before switching to theater, per The Hollywood Reporter.

He befriended Lupita Nyong'o in college

Winston Duke graduated from University at Buffalo with a bachelor of arts in theater before pursuing his MFA from the esteemed Yale School of Drama. It was at the latter where he first met Lupita Nyong'o, his co-star in films like "Us," "Black Panther," and subsequent Marvel movies featuring their characters. The star was the seasoned student tasked with giving Duke his tour of the campus. Coincidentally, they were both members of a student group founded by another "Black Panther" star — Angela Bassett." "He was very focused," Nyong'o recalled to Vulture. "His gaze seemed to go way beyond the horizon."

In an interview with BlackFilm, Duke said that the two didn't get to perform together at school because he was a year behind her, but she took the younger student under her wing and they became close friends. "She went to all of my shows. I went to all of hers," he recalled. "Sometimes she'd be like, 'No, don't say it like this ... think about it in a different way.' You know, offer advice."

According to Entertainment Weekly, another serendipitous memory the pals share is watching "The Avengers" together long before they had any inkling about joining the MCU themselves. When director Jordan Peele cast them as a couple in "Us," he made an observation about Duke and Nyong'o's evident chemistry, telling Entertainment Weekly, "I could see signs of them flirting online — they're both flirts in general."

He had to take non-acting jobs after graduating from Yale

While studying theater at the University at Buffalo, Winston Duke took some time off to audition for roles, and he struggled to find work. It didn't help that he didn't have a reliable method of transportation. In an interview with BlackFilm, he described audition scenarios that sound like the beginning of a Jordan Peele horror film. "Sometimes I'd take a bus that would drop me off in the middle of rural Virginia. (You know how dangerous that is). And I'd have to walk down roads until I found the audition in a small building somewhere remote," he recollected.

After Duke graduated from Yale, he had a difficult time landing the roles that he wanted. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, he explained that he had to work as a waiter and gift wrapper in order to survive. Landing small parts in big shows like "Modern Family" and "Law & Order: SVU" and still struggling to pay the bills made him question his chosen career, and there were also missed opportunities. He told Rolling Stone that one of his first fruitless auditions was for the movie "Selma." Meanwhile, as he told GQ, an unsuccessful audition for what appeared to be a buddy cop comedy was later revealed to be for a "Star Wars" project — however, his audition script didn't reference the space opera at all. He would later use his Marvel notoriety to actively lobby to join the "Star Wars" universe.

His size has been a setback

In an interview with Black Girl Nerds, Winston Duke spoke about how being a Black man with a 6-foot-5 frame has a certain stigma attached to it, saying that some people make assumptions about him based on his appearance. "I was seen as aggressive without doing anything. I was seen as suspicious for just being present," he stated. His size also affected the roles he was offered early in his career. "They often want to make you either just a threat or a 'gentle giant,' and both of those things are so limiting,'" he told ES.

On "Bullseye with Jesse Thorn," Duke revealed that he used to slouch a bit to make himself appear smaller. When sharing his height in auditions, he would even shave an inch off in the hopes that it would increase his chances of landing a part. On "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," he stated that it actually helped. 

After he appeared in "Black Panther," Duke's size was celebrated and the thirst was real on social media. "It was fantastic because I was never in a position where this body was the biggest asset," he told Black Girl Nerds of his new female fanbase's feelings about his appearance. But even after Duke became a global superstar, director Jordan Peele was hesitant to cast him in "Us" because of his size. He told The Hollywood Reporter that he worried it would diminish the fear factor for Duke's character and his family.

Black Panther was his first movie role

Playing M'Baku in "Black Panther" was Winston Duke's first movie role, so it was definitely a learning experience — he wasn't even familiar with the casting process. "I went online and watched screen tests on YouTube so I knew what would be expected of me," he confessed to ES. At his first audition, Duke also had no clue that he was vying for a part in the "Black Panther" movie because Marvel works so hard to shroud its productions in secrecy. "I was told by my agent and representative that I was going in for an 'untitled Marvel project,'" he told GQ. But by this time, he was an audition veteran, estimating that he had tried out for somewhere between 300 to 400 parts before getting his big break.

Once Duke learned what he had auditioned for, the self-doubt and anxiety hit him in full force. He convinced himself that Marvel would want someone more established for such a big project, but after his final audition, something happened that calmed his nerves. On the "What's In Your Glass?" podcast, he recalled being in the shower and hearing a voice say, "You did your best, you're on the right path." His confidence increased exponentially once he got the part and filming began. "I felt like I deserved to be there. I knew I deserved to be there," he told GQ. "I've never doubted that I've deserved to be part of something so great."

He suffered a wardrobe malfunction with Chadwick Boseman

Winston Duke first met Chadwick Boseman during a "Black Panther" screen test, and they were asked to grapple — after all, their first big scene together in the movie is a brutal wrestling match. While reminiscing about the brawl on "The Tonight Show," Duke revealed that he had wrestled competitively in high school and college. While this might have given him an advantage over some actors, he pointed out that Boseman had martial arts training.

The fake fighting got so fierce that Duke's pants ripped, possibly giving his opponent the upper hand. He was wearing a beaded bracelet that broke as well, but he embraced the destruction, telling the Los Angeles Times, "To be honest, it just literally put me in the moment more." He also pointed out that the moment had to at least leave an impression on everyone in the room who witnessed it. He quipped to Jimmy Fallon, "'If I don't get this job,' and I said that to them right then and there, I was like, 'You guys are gonna have to buy me new pants.'"

Once he proved that he was the perfect fit for the role of the fearsome mountain chief M'Baku, being able to fight like a warrior wasn't enough — Duke had to look the part. This meant hitting the gym hard and consuming a whopping 4,000 calories each day, per ES.

His embarrassing Rihanna encounter

Winston Duke thought that he and Rihanna would hit it off when they met, imagining that they might converse about their shared Caribbean heritage and Carnival experiences. But on "The Tonight Show," he confessed to getting tongue-tied when a friend introduced him to the singer in 2019. Much to his surprise, RiRi said to him, "I'm aware of who you are," and this revelation caused the star-struck actor to completely lose his wits — you might say that his brain was sending out an "SOS." Duke admitted, "I folded like fresh laundry, my friend." He recalled that he only managed to blurt out the question, "Where'd you come from?" After RiRi informed him that she came from her house, Duke tried to save himself from further humiliation by bidding the singer farewell.

The actor got the chance at another shot to make small talk with RiRi when she cast him in her Savage X Fenty fashion show in 2022. While rocking the runway, he showed some leg in a pair of regal purple boxers and a matching robe — he seems to share RiRi's passion for fashion. "As a kid, I used to draw my own clothes and I had hopes of having my own fashion line one day," he told the Los Angeles Times. With Rihanna recording the song "Lift Me Up" for the "Wakanda Forever" soundtrack, Duke has another potential in with the singer. Hey, maybe she'll even be open to a clothing collab?

He bested Joe Rogan as Batman

Winston Duke has been a big comic book fan since childhood. As an immigrant, he could relate to characters whose story arcs usually begin with them feeling like they don't fit in. As he told OkayPlayer, comic books even helped him start to view his cultural differences from the Americans around him as a form of superpower. "I never thought that one day I could play these kind of characters," he stated. "I just thought that the stories felt like they were me." He told BlackFilm that he actually spent a lot of time at a comic book store coincidentally called Winston's — so playing a superhero seemed to be his destiny.

After appearing as M'Baku in "Black Panther," Duke landed a role playing one of the most iconic superheroes ever created, but he didn't get to don Batman's mask and cape. Instead, he lent his voice to the Dark Knight in the scripted podcast series, "Batman Unburied." It reimagines the character as a forensic pathologist studying the bodies of Gotham citizens murdered by a serial killer. As Duke pointed out to Yes! Weekly, the new Bruce Wayne was also black — an interpretation that he had fun exploring, sharing, "It's always been joked that his superpower is white privilege." His goal was to examine who the character could be without that. The podcast was so popular that it toppled "The Joe Rogan Experience," from the top spot on Spotify and was renewed for a second season.

The death of his mom made him reflect on grief

While promoting "Wakanda Forever," the cast was often asked about how the absence of the late "Black Panther" star, Chadwick Boseman, affected them during the filming of the sequel, "Wakanda Forever." But, it wasn't the only death Winston Duke spoke about. In an interview with ET, he revealed that he was also mourning his beloved mother, and he shared some moving words about how the fictional realm his character inhabits relates to real-life loss. "I realize how intimately tied the narrative of superheroes and grief is," he stated. "And that's what really makes them strong and relatable and powerful. Who is Spider-Man without Uncle Ben? Who is Batman without his parents? Who is Superman without all of Krypton? It's about loss and the triumph of coming through that."

On "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" in 2019, he revealed that his mother divided her time living in his home and that of his sister. She also often joined him on the sets of his movies. "We're almost like best friends," he said. Duke announced the death of his mother, Cora "Coco" Pantin, in October 2022. He shared an emotional Instagram post remembering how his own real-life superhero lifted her children's spirits by encouraging them to dance through the rough times. "She danced through life and now our girl is gone," he wrote in the caption. "I miss you so much and this is just the first day ... thank you for being my mom."

Why raising awareness of diabetes is important to him

As he told Ebony in 2019, Winston Duke has lost a number of family members to diabetes, including his grandmother, while his mother also lived with the disease. To better educate the public about the health condition, Duke teamed up with the American Diabetes Association for an awareness campaign. 

Duke told Future of Personal Health that he's even been prediabetic himself. In order to control the condition, he's had to make a number of lifestyle changes. "I eat practically once every three hours to control my insulin levels. I work out regularly, and eat complex carbohydrates and foods with a low glycemic index," he revealed. In 2016, Duke told Hits 97.3 that his dedication to taking care of his body paid off when he was actually able to reverse his prediabetes. He's since become an advocate for making healthy food and fitness centers more accessible to others like him who could improve their own outlooks by eating right and exercising, per Future of Personal Health.

Duke listed the American Diabetes Association's online risk assessment test as a helpful tool for those worried that they might be at risk of developing prediabetes or diabetes. "It's a silent killer; just the idea that diabetes killed more people in the United States, more people than HIV and breast cancer combined, is a scary thought," he told Ebony.

He spilled a Hollywood beauty secret about male actors

On "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," Duke shared how his mother hilariously kept him grounded after he appeared in "Black Panther." "Everyone changed except for her," he recalled. "She's always like, 'You got to take out that garbage. Who do you think you're talking to? You didn't get famous, your beard did.'" While talking about how he keeps his impeccably groomed beard looking so full, Duke spilled a secret about himself and other male Hollywood stars who rock facial hair for roles: They brush Rogaine in their beards to keep them from getting patchy. "That's one of the tricks they use on set if they want to grow your beard for pre-production," he told Vanity Fair.

Duke told GQ that he finds it odd that men don't share beauty tricks with other dudes. So, he imparted some helpful advice for facial hair care by sharing that he uses Scotch Porter beard serum and balm to keep his scruff feeling soft and looking luxurious. As for how he pampers his skin, he slathers on lots of Kiehl's Midnight Recovery Concentrate. Oral hygiene is also important to the actor — he told Vanity Fair that he brushes his teeth twice before giving his tongue a thorough cleaning. The process took priority over his skincare regime. "I don't spend too much time in the morning on the skin after my 12-minute mouth session," he said. "And no one better edit that to mean anything else."

He's a proud feminist

Winston Duke has teamed up with the United Nations to advocate for gender equality by participating in the organization's HeForShe campaign. He often promotes the movement on Instagram and made a powerful point about men's role in the fight for equal rights in one of his posts. "If power mainly resides with men, what does that imply for accountability? If the world is unfair, who is responsible for making it right?" he wrote.

In an interview with Ebony, Duke encouraged men to call out other dudes when they engage in behavior that's harmful to women, and he used former president Donald Trump's remarks about forcibly touching women as an example. Having described himself as a feminist on the "What's in Your Glass?" podcast, he went on to explain to ES how the women in his life have shaped his views on masculinity. "I didn't learn one way to be a man, and the thing that stayed constant was strong femininity. I could appreciate strength as its own thing, not attached to gender," he said.

Duke is passionate about social issues, and it's important to the activist actor that his views are reflected in his work. "Whether or not I am intentionally part of the conversation, I am. So I might as well be a part of it in an informed way," he told the New York Post. "I think that is part of my duty and responsibility as an artist."