Winston Duke confronts the meaning of life in Nine Days

The Black Panther actor's first starring role is surprising, enigmatic, and profoundly moving.

Allow Winston Duke to explain what many dizzy, dazzled viewers who wandered out of the Sundance premiere of Nine Days this past January could not: the plot, in 25 words or less. “I say it’s the story of a man tasked with a job in the afterlife to interview spirits for the opportunity to be born,” he tells EW.

It’s also, after several years of stealing scenes in films as varied as Black Panther, Us, and Spenser Confidential, his first definitive starring role; there’s almost no scene during its two-hour-plus run time that his character — a quiet, sweater-vested enigma named Will — is not on screen. (Though you will undoubtedly recognize several aspiring souls who pass through his desert waystation, including Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård, and Tony Hale.)

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As the man who ultimately decides which of them will, like velveteen rabbits, become real, his Will is something between a bureaucrat and a sage, following a set of rules only he seems to understand. And the movie, with its dreamlike Utah setting and banks of analog television sets from which literal life-or-death decisions are made, has already moved more than one early reviewer to reference the tender, surreal styling of indie auteurs like Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry.

Days’ creator, though, a young Japanese-Brazilian director named Edson Oda, found inspiration in a decidedly more personal place: the death of a beloved uncle. In fact, he was originally looking to cast an Asian actor in the part until he and Duke connected: “We met, we spoke about life as immigrants, so we connected on that front,” says the now-33-year-old, who left his native Trinidad and Tobago for America at age nine. “We connected on the spectrum of the depiction of masculine happiness and masculine pain, and that there’s no one way to show that... I feel like we just found each other, you know? I’m always looking for pieces that allow to do what I call climbing the mountain — I like a lot of twists, turns, trials, obstacles before you get to that summit. And after I read the script, I felt like I climbed the mountain. I had no idea really about Edson other than that he was a soulful person, because he wrote this piece.”

There was one familiar face, at least, that Duke could count on coming in: fellow Avengers alum Benedict Wong, the dry-witted Brit who appears as a sort of Guy Friday-slash-sounding-board to Will. Because the cast and crew were so isolated in rural Utah, he recalls, “We bonded super quickly. I already had a great relationship with Benedict from Marvel, we always supported each other, but I developed a great relationship with Zazie too. The work required it! It just required a lot of trust, because we were in it 14 hours a day straight.”

Speaking of days, why nine exactly? Duke laughs. “Edson said because he couldn’t fit into eight. But I come from a culture, a Caribbean background where nine days itself is very significant. Religious tradition kind of dictates that we mourn [a death] for nine days, because the spirit takes nine days to visit all the loved family members and say goodbye. And for me that was incredibly powerful, so that really made it palpable for me.”

So, too, did some of the feedback he got on the ground at Sundance. “What shocked me a bit was how resonant this was with younger audiences who are so much more apt, it seems, to deal with mental health and mental-health conversations than older generations," he says. "But a really moving experience was I had a military man, a veteran, about 6 foot 7 come up to me and say, ‘I’m Will. People don’t see the pain I go through because it’s not on my face, but I saw it in your eyes, I saw it in Will and it’s the same pain I have. I’m Will.’”

Other lessons from the experience landed even closer to home: “All these characters only had the present," he goes on, "so that was the thing that was a bit terrifying to think about for the spirits, the candidates — that they would cease to exist if they didn’t make it into life. And what it encouraged me as a performer and as a person to do was what’s really important is the present, the time that you have right now and what you do with it, and how you appreciate it."

He pauses; at the time of the interview, COVID-19 cases are rising steadily, and the passing of his Panther costar and friend Chadwick Boseman several days before is still fresh in the news. "I feel like the current circumstance has primed the world for this movie. It’s about embracing and realizing that when you strip away all the narratives — work is a narrative, money is a narrative, politics is a narrative — and you’re just here in life, what matters? What matters is sun on your face, walking on the beach, a bike ride, a barbecue. What matters is connection and love and family and life, period.”

Nine Days hits select theaters on Jan. 22, 2021.

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