Winston Duke on reuniting with Lupita Nyong'o in Us, and how sitcom dads inspired his role
Winston Duke made quite the impression in the all-star Black Panther cast by channeling a fierce tribal leader as the witty and imposing M’Baku, but for his role in Jordan Peele’s Us, he found inspiration in a less likely source: sitcom dads.
Duke, 32, tells EW that in order to play the endearingly buffoonish father Gabe Wilson in Us, he looked to Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Carl Winslow from Family Matters, and The Simpsons’ Homer Simpson. “I wanted him to have a familiarity,” Duke says of his character. “I wanted him to feel like he could be invited into your living room once a week and be welcomed back again and again on his hijinks.”
It’s that goofy quality that makes Gabe so fun to watch as he endures a roller coaster of scares and emotions — not to mention life lessons — over the course of the movie. In Us (out Friday), Gabe is the brawny alpha husband to Lupita Nyong’o’s quiet, introspective Adelaide, and father to teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), a competitive athlete, and eccentric mask-wearing son Jason (Evan Alex). As the Wilsons settle into their beach vacation at Adelaide’s idyllic childhood home, they come under attack from shadowy figures who reveal themselves to be the Wilsons’ doppelgängers. Known as the Tethered, they have escaped their underground dwelling and now seek justice from their above-ground counterparts.
Peele told EW back in December that he had some fun bringing Nyong’o together with Duke, her Black Panther costar and former Yale University classmate, to play his all-American couple. “I could see signs of them flirting online — they’re both flirts in general,” the director said. “You could see the couple in them who would want to be together, so the chemistry is just on.”
That chemistry is vibrant on screen as Duke and Nyong’o play the Wilson parents, exhibiting a level of comfort and ease with each other that reflects their characters’ long-standing relationship. Gabe likes to take charge and be heard, making him the boisterous yin to Adelaide’s melancholy-tinged yang.
That dynamic quickly flips with the Tethered: Gabe’s counterpart, Abraham, is brawny but meek, submitting to the orders of Adelaide’s double, Red, who takes charge of the attack on the Wilsons. To play Abraham, Duke says The Shining — a film that clearly has inspired Peele — helped him understand “how a family could function with an antagonist that was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, both familiar and foreign in how they appear to you.”
So what was it like to enter Peele’s new nightmare? Below, Duke reveals the challenges, exhaustion, and ultimately the pride he felt in making a movie that once again has filmgoers talking.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like to work with Lupita on crafting both the Wilsons’ relationship and the doppelgängers?
WINSTON DUKE: It was an incredible opportunity to both be a fierce collaborator and push each other in different directions. Also, I took it on myself as a personal duty to help curate a space that she would feel comfortable leading and carrying her first movie, comfortable pushing the boundaries and feeling safe enough to really risk and do great work. I wanted to be an active participant in that and an active ally, and that’s something that was never said; it was never articulated on set, but I think it was always felt, and Jordan contributed to that deeply. It was something we felt we had to do, and I was really proud to be there.
What does Us do that the horror genre isn’t known for usually doing?
For one, it’s an exploration of black psychology. We get to see there’s a lot going on in the characters’ heads. They’re not the product of just them being what they are in their world — they’re a product of their environment, they’re a product of systems around them and constructs that they have to interact with, and I think that’s really powerful.
I also think this Jordan Peele experience helps to redefine language. We only have one prescribed idea of what violence looks like, and the violence is physical and bloody, but I think we examine the violence of structures, the violence of constructs, the violence of ideas. In Get Out, we got to see and redefine violence through the approximation of gentrification. We don’t tend to look at something like gentrification as violent, but when speaking of the human body, they were gentrifying people. We get to really redefine words and language, and then we get to say what constructs get to be the first sacrifices, the first casualties, through the genre. Usually it’s people, limbs, blood, skins, and lot of times, people of color are the first casualties, but now a lot of constructs, like racism in Get Out was the first casualty. We get to see potentially the American dream be a casualty in this movie, and really the conversation of it. And it’s really important to note that this is not a judgement of and answer to anything. It’s not to say that the American dream is bad, but it’s meant to provoke a conversation of your place within it — what do you do, how do you participate in this thing, what sacrifices that you’ve made that people have made invisible for your experience, your pleasure.
Gabe is the symbol of that American dream. He’s chasing it with the boat, the bigger car, the house envy…
Gabe has to confront the fact that all the constructs that he abides to are flawed, and they’re crumbling in front of him. Gabe also strictly adheres to the patriarchy: He’s a product of the patriarchal conditioning, thinking he’s the head of the household and whatever he says goes. He’s the breadwinner and he has a trophy house, a trophy wife, the trophy family, and he’s forced to realize that all of these constructs don’t serve him. He essentially has to live in a space where he can’t be the classic masculine savior, he has to be overly communicative because that’s the only way to survive — to listen, and not be the speaker, and he has to be an ally and not a leader, because that’s the only way to survive.
So it ends up being a larger conversation with a really refreshing “what if?” What if this were to happen? Are you prepared to see these things sacrificed, are you prepared to see the things that you abide to crumble in front of you? Gabe serves as that example of privilege. To me, it’s outside his own, and that his paradigm of what should and could be happening here. Gabe also functions as the clown, that classic archetype that has a lot of power. Clowns are the only ones that speak truth to power…. He can make a critique, he can actually be funny in it, he can do so many things, and he also gets to be that pressure-release valve when things get too tense and hard to consume. He gets to insert some comedy to bring it back down, and he gets to have the largest heart.
What is Gabe’s relationship with his family members?
I think Gabe is a man attached to his possessions. He wants to possess everything around him, and that possession is really an attachment to his perfect life dream. His kids, who listen and adore him and find him funny, his trophy wife, who is gorgeous and talented and a projection of him… that’s his relationship with his family, that they’re an extension of himself. But in doing that, he, to some degree, neglects their individuality and their own personal experiences and has to learn that those experiences are honest and valid. He needs to get used to being an ally instead of a leader. Leadership can be exhibited through those qualities, and they’re just as potent, as powerful. Zora is her father’s daughter, and they’re very similar to their attachments to physical possessions — they see a lot of themselves in each other.
Gabe gets beat up a good amount in this movie. How were the physical challenges of filming him and Abraham?
I feel Gabe’s privilege was so pervasive that it was literally and physically crippling for him, so understanding that and leaning into it made it so much easier to do it in a realistic way, because I can lean into that and just revel in it. And then when playing against a character that’s also me, really defining the point of voice for that doppelgänger, Abraham, conveying the moods there to really achieve it.
Practically, Jordan was instrumental in making it come to life, where he didn’t have us do both characters on one day. We didn’t have to be oscillating a lot of the times, we could really just focus on being the one character at any given moment and just investing it. On the days that we did have to do both, which was seldom, we usually did the doppelgängers first and really got to live in that and sit in it and be consumed by it, and then to try to wipe that off to go into the Wilsons and carry some of the underlying emotional trauma through it all. So it was very helpful in how he scheduled it, and how much attention to detail that he put into everything.
Was there any scene that was the most challenging for you, or did anything go wrong with any of the physical stunts?
Some of the scenes had to be in the lake, so I had to do a lot of swimming, for hours actually, like six, seven hours. I was just exhausted. I was also running around and screaming, so your voice would take a pretty bad beating, so it was actually incredibly exhausting living in that world and playing both characters. Most people believe that the idea of seeing your doppelgänger as being really horrific, and it was horrific for the Wilsons, but I also treasured the idea that it must have been incredibly horrific for the Red family to see the Wilsons up close and personal as well, and that helped in not judging the character and really seeing them with empathy. That’s one of the strengths of this movie and strengths of the performances, is that I know I didn’t go into this movie and this performance judging the character, and it allowed me to see Abraham as a character with needs as opposed to just a generic good side versus bad side.
Having worked with Ryan Coogler on Black Panther and Jordan Peele on this movie back-to-back, what experience do you find you have on set with black directors helming genre stories like this?
The experience is one that’s truly enriching in many ways because you are now part of a cohort of people that are having really necessary, in-depth conversations that move our society and culture and communities forward. One culture particularly is Hollywood. It’s moving the needle and it’s saying that black psychology is worthy of investment, it’s incredibly important and can also be profitable, and that’s what these movies — Us, Get Out, Moonlight, Sorry to Bother You — really target. And they’re showing that we’re not a monolith, and they’re continuing that conversation of pushing the needle, so it feels really great to be a part of well-thought-out, curated conversations that move the needle.