Winston Duke talks Us: ‘It doesn’t let anyone off the hook’

The Black Panther star talks about the politics of Jordan Peele's high-concept horror – and what it was like to play double

So far, Winston Duke has three feature film credits on his CV: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and now Jordan Peele’s Get Out follow-up, Us. Not a bad start for an up-and-coming young actor. But while he’s currently best known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s M’Baku, his latest role shows off a very different side to the actor – one that is sure to make people take notice.

In Us, Duke plays Gabe – husband to Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide and dad to their two kids, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). While on a trip to their beach house, the family is confronted by a group of murderous, scissor-wielding doppelgängers – including the towering Abraham (also Duke).

Part terrifying home-invasion slasher, part high-concept, Twilight Zone-esque cautionary tale, the film gifts Duke a corker of a dual role – one that he grabs with both hands (you can read our review here). And, just like Get Out, it’s loaded with socio-political subtext – something that the actor found fascinating. “It doesn’t let anyone off the hook,” an animated Duke tells Den Of Geek when we catch up with him to chat about Us. “It begs you to question where you sit in cultures of privilege.”

There’s a lot to chew over in Us. Was that thematic complexity one of the things that appealed to you when you first read the script?

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The conversations that I thought would come out of the movie were a big reason why I wanted to be attached. I remembered what happened after Get Out and participating in those conversations and saying to myself after reading Us that I wanted to be more in the driver’s seat than the passenger’s – you know, not just wondering about why the choices were made and what it meant and if I had the right interpretation. I wanted to help in making some of those interpretations and helping to choose what direction the film went in, so that was really a big part of it.

Jordan Peele is on a roll right now – how was he to work with?

He really respects your process and includes you and invites you into his own. He creates a really comfortable space for you to do your best work. He listens more than he speaks. The whole experience just felt right. He also creates a really great team of everyone who knows what they’re doing. Everyone has a specific clear job so everything felt intentional and thoughtful.

You’re college pals with Lupita Nyong’o and you’ve previously worked together on Black Panther – do the two of you have a kind of acting shorthand now?

Absolutely. That shared acting lexicon was really helpful when we were doing this movie. We could just rely on each other to catch each other if we were doing something that felt risky. We were both creating spaces where we felt super comfortable. Even the bedroom scene, I never second-guessed it, what I did there, because I knew the characters were so disparate from us. In some ways, it would only help to elevate the scene. Working with Lupita, I always felt like I could be my best and my boldest self – and also help her to be her boldest self.

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The scenes where you’re fighting with your doppelganger are so effective that you sometimes kind of forget you’re watching the same person. How challenging were those scenes to perform?

Those scenes were technically a bit difficult, but Jordan made it really easy because of how he scheduled things, so we never really had to play both sides on one day. That helped us to really invest in one side and that person’s point of view, and not really think about the other side other than how you’re interacting with them. How do you see them, what would you do? The experience was a lot easier that way. I knew that I had to make bold choices that were easy to react to on the other side. So knowing I had to make bold choices on how I represented Abraham, for how Gabe would perceive him and fear him.

That’s the thing about fear for me is that it’s totally idiosyncratic, so I had to create a clear and distinct point of view on what Gabe found horrific; and then, conversely, what Abraham found horrific about Gabe based on what he’s able to see and detect. It was challenging, but it was really a great opportunity. I never saw it as a bad or a hard thing. I was almost like I got to act in two movies. I got to live and see the world through the Wilsons’ point of view, and I got to see it through the Red family’s point of view. 

The film has some really accomplished and well-staged set-pieces. What was your favourite scene to shoot?

It definitely had to be the home invasion scene – from the Wilsons’ side. That day was so much fun. It’s just like, “What’s going on? How is this happening?” It was really easy to drop into it, being Gabe, going outside with the baseball bat… In the film that scene is intense, but when you’re shooting it, it becomes really technical – like how do you work in the comedy?

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I had to rely on my improvisational nature, like the voice shifting when he’s first confronted with the Red family on his driveway. I had the idea that maybe he was code-switching – he starts off as the pleasant, respectable neighbour. And then [puffs out his chest], “Oh, that’s not working…Let me threaten them with a little bit of my black side.” [Laughs] And that doesn’t work. And now let me drop the voice and let them know that I’m serious… And that doesn’t work. All those shifts makes that funny, but it was also really technical work.

Talking about the comedy of the situation, the film does balance the scarier stuff with a lot of humour. That seems like it must be quite a difficult tightrope to walk in terms of the overall tone…

It was always there in the script, and that was one of the reasons I was so excited about the character – I thought he was hilarious. Gabe functions in so many great ways, but he really plays the function of the clown archetype. He has a lot of agency and can speak truth to power and really be the voice of the audience in that scenario. He can also be the lever of stress for the audience, to really relieve the tension that’s building. He has a really big heart as well.

I love characters that aren’t afraid to take up space in story and performance, and Gabe was one of those. He was he wasn’t afraid to just live in his own space. That was a really big part of how I enjoyed that character, and leaning into that clown archetype helped in the creation of Gabe and helped me to understand how comedy functioned in our movie. It was necessary, because there’s so much stress building up.

It’s quite similar to Get Out in that it’s full of subtext and wears its politics on its sleeve, although the issues it raises are different. How do you think it compares and what do you think people will make of it?

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I think the power of this film, where it differs from Get Out, is that it doesn’t let anyone off the hook. With Get Out, you could easily say, “If I come from an oppressed background I’m on this side of the equation”, versus the dominant culture and the side of the gentrified. What I love about Get Out was that it really discussed the politics and the violence that is associated with gentrification. We saw that enacted through – and on – human bodies, so we then got to redefine what violence looks like because we’re like, “Man, they’re gentrifying people and that’s horrific.”

With our movie, no one gets let off the hook. No one gets to say, “Hey, I’m on this side of privilege and comfort,” because as long as you’re even able to go and watch the movie, as long as you’re able to consume Us, you most likely fall under the umbrella of the privileged in our story.

It begs you to question where you sit in cultures of privilege. Who do you render invisible? Who do you render speechless? And if you are attaching yourself to privilege, whether it’s the construct of the American Dream or whatever, you then also become responsible for the sins of what it takes to create it. And are you prepared for those sins to have your face? Are you prepared for those sins to literally show up at your door? What if that happens? Would you survive the encounter of dealing with your legacy? I think the film really begs a lot of questions.

Us is out in UK cinemas from 22 March 2019.