Winston Duke Can’t Be Boxed In
Scowling to FKJ and Masego’s “Tadow” is a pretty nefarious task, but Winston Duke doesn’t so much as crack a smile when its svelte saxes and warped keys slice the tense air of a Midtown New York studio. Marking the midpoint of the Black Boy Joy playlist he curated for Spotify, the 6’5” actor stares down the camera with a glare that could send a mischievous tot running off in tears. From a white chair that looks embarrassingly miniature beneath him, he hunches forward at the lens and the cluster of people standing behind it, hands firmly clasped. Turn your head to the side. A little bit more. Duke pivots slowly, inching his chin to the left with surgical precision, eyes cutting the wall as if he’s sizing up someone no one else in the room can see.
There is a wrinkle in his olive Rag and Bone shirt. His stylist urgently flocks to his side to tug and tuck, opening the floodgates for the rest of glam — the groomer dabs his Adam’s apple and brow bone, his barber is armed with a cape, and his rep analyzes his pant cuffs from behind the computer screen — to tend to things that have hardly shifted in the two minutes he’s been sitting there. Winston’s facade hasn’t softened for the entirety of the first look, but by the time he stands to review the images, Machel Montano’s vibrant and percussive “Take It Slow” tumbles out from the speakers. Duke breaks form, unable to refrain from softly singing along with the Trinidadian soca artist, a hometown hero, and his body instinctively sways to the riddim. “Making up for not going down to Carnival this year, huh?” I tease from behind the Canon. And for the first time within the hour, he cracks a toothy smile and nods, still dancing.
While our team wonders what he’s really thinking, we forget Winston Duke knows how to commit. He’s a damn good actor. We’re in the presence of a man whose entire day job is to master the art of staying in character. As he floats from set-up to set-up, he comes alive in different ways, carrying with him the traits of all the versions of him we’ve seen on the big screen so far: The dominant stance and steely disposition of M’Baku from Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the grit of a tethered Abraham and the glee of Gabe Wilson from Jordan Peele’s new film Us. Duke can be whoever you want or need him to be when the camera’s rolling, but sitting face-to-face to figure out the real Winston is the true experience.
Enough time spent with the Yale-trained thespian will reveal that he’s quick on his feet when it comes to the creative realm. Duke plucking a story from thin air is impressive, and watching him do so in real time is a downright treat. When I meet him in the book-lined Reading Room of the art dealer chic Whitby Hotel a week or so prior, he’s been mouthing off all day. As we learned from Black Panther, Duke knows how to be a larger-than-life scene-stealer when he wants. Right now, however, the man who cemented his cinematic entrance as an intimidating mountain warrior is trying to conjure up a tender tale about critters.
“It could be a story about an ant that learns to fly because he wants to find love with a fly,” he says, entertaining a tangent he stumbled on about his enamoration with stories. The conversation began with his scary-movie preferences but landed on the fact that he’s drawn to narratives about almost anything. “I love stories period, it’s just gotta be tied to something. It has to be about something. That story I just described is about love.”
Without pause, we chuckle at the charm of his Pixar-perfect non-sequitur, but admittedly, it would be interesting to see where his mini Bug’s Life saga could go. He’s clearly interested, too. “That’s actually a cool idea,” he quietly repeats to himself, sussing out the synopsis to see if it could grow legs. “An ant? An ant that learns to fly because it’s in love with a fly …”
There’s more where that came from, but he doesn’t have time to tell it. His four handlers for the day gently call out the five-minute mark to wrap up an interview that has, presumably, gone on for an hour, but Duke isn’t done yet. Without truncating his stream of thought to honor the time crunch, he leans deeper into his last response. Hint taken. An additional 10 minutes have been granted, and although Duke has offered to shorten his responses to accommodate as many “last questions” as possible (and continues talking even as he gathers his belongings to leave), he simply has more to say. A lot more.
“I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” —Winston Duke
The Tobago-born film star has been stateside for more than 20 years, even attending undergraduate school in icy Buffalo, N.Y., but still has not adjusted to the bite of winter. “I can’t do anything below 60 degrees, honestly,” he says, cocooned by a massive Canada Goose down coat he refuses to take off, even though we’re indoors. He removes it only for a photo, revealing a linen summer suit and salmon shirt befitting the warm weather he’s accustomed to, then puts it right back on. So, no ski trips for you? He lets out Thor’s hammer of a hearty laugh, one of many that escape from him during our chat. “Ah, it’s never appealed. Snow is not my thing.”
Growing up along 116 square miles of pristine coastline he still refers to as “home,” despite emigrating from the island to New York as a child, means that he still subscribes to a very island lifestyle. Duke, now 32, moves at a nonchalant, easy-going pace, listens more than he speaks, and he considers himself flexible and always willing to change (“I try to maintain a feeling that’s like water.”). Anyone with ears can tell he’s a natural orator; his speech is painted with a charming lilt that intensifies the more comfortable he gets. Although he has a warm heart, his naturally dignified presence and stoic delivery may intimidate someone unfamiliar with a Caribbean’s stern humor.
Duke was insulated by the constant flow of love from his mother, Cora, his sister, Cindy, and the small community of Argyle that became an extension of his family, especially those who spent their days eating and drinking at his mother’s eatery, Cindy’s Restaurant, a local gathering spot. “This old man used to come every single day and spend a quarter to half of his day eating, just talking. He would tell all these stories about what Tobago was like before electricity came,” Duke says. “A lot of his stories were filled with a lot of magic because everything cast a shadow before 6 p.m.”
Young Duke’s mind was molded by this Tobagonian folklore, and Duke soaked in this gift of narration, although, for the most part, it was a private passion. He was a quiet kid whose traditionally-Caribbean family ideally wanted him to take on a practical, reliable profession like his older sister, who went on to become an infertility specialist. However, he knew their route wasn’t his calling. There were stories he soon wanted to tell on his own.
After the abolition of slavery in 1834 under the British Empire, indentured servants were brought into the country to continue the necessary manual labor. As a result, Trinidad and Tobago is now home to a mix of not only African natives but those from East India, Syria and China. Living on the diverse island exposed Winston to a bit of everything as a youth. His island’s major interfaith community meant that both Christmas and Diwali were celebrated by all, and Duke learned about the Bhagavad Gita, one of the Indian holy Vedic books, prior to immigrating to the U.S. He was exposed to the ins and outs of local politics since campaigning prime ministers and visiting presidential candidates would parade right past his house along the main road. And with black and brown bodies occupying all levels of the social and political scale from the homely to the elite, his dominant culture wasn’t squarely rooted in white supremacy. “That’s one thing that I didn’t have to grow up around,” he says. “Not to say that all those -isms didn’t exist where we’re from; it just manifests differently. Especially when you have a black president and prime minister, and then an Indian president and prime minister and coup by Islamic progressives.” These rich, cultural stories and the normalized integration of various lifestyles made it easier for him to see people as people instead of as others.
All this worldly knowledge and exposure did not age him, however. While surrounded by endless stimuli, as a child, Duke was still allowed to be a child. For most of his life there, he was spoiled by the delights of daily sea baths and river swims, endless spicy pepper pot and pone and pelau, toys and playtime. “I was sheltered a lot by a mother and sister and larger extended family that was just like, ‘You’re gonna keep your childhood,’” he says. “Children are treated like children, and men, especially in these family cultures, are babied for a very long time. The boy child is still very much a prize, and masculinity is treated as a prize in that culture. But as a result, I saw all of the women around me fighting a lot of the battles because they didn’t want me to fight it. They didn’t want me exposed. Then coming to this country, they had to shelter me in a whole different way: ‘We don’t want no police stopping you. Survive every encounter. Always take ‘no’ as an answer. No means no.’”
“Let’s put him in a role that white people don’t see coming.” —Jordan Peele
By no means was life handed to Duke on a silver platter; he just had the luxury of being ignorant to it all. “We went through hard times as well, but I never saw those hard times while we were living back at home,” he says. Because his mother owned a restaurant, he was never hungry. She would pay for a car to bring him home from school if she wasn’t able to. “I grew up thinking we had a private car and driver,” he jokes. “It was just a dude that she would pay to pick me up from school.” And because his mother was one of 12 siblings, somebody was bringing even more food to the house. “In my early childhood, I never thought about money. I didn’t have to think about it.”
That notion of not thinking about things has changed plenty. He has grown into this thoughtful, weighty version of himself, and he’ll tell you this. True to Caribbean culture, Duke grew up in a household that had a lot of nicknames for everyone, so until he reached the age of thinking for himself and “defying the rules a little bit,” he was known to his family as Winny. “It was Winny because Winnie the Pooh was a big thing, so Winston turned into Winny, and I grew into Winston. That name seemed like a big name for a child, I think. Winston Duke. It felt big.” Those cushioned Winny years did not reveal his passion for the stage and the screen in the way fans of his might expect. “My creative pursuits were pretty private for a really long time,” he says. “Just my immediate family knew that I wanted to be an actor, and 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.”
That acting bug didn’t actually break skin until his high school teacher dragged him outside of his comfort zone and pushed him into his first performance: a student-run, 24-hour play. Writers would meet one night to start writing, actors came in the morning to read and memorize the scripts, and the director put it together for it to be performed the next evening — basically, a whirlwind of fatigue with equal parts stress and reward.
“My teacher signed me up for that after she saw me do a presentation in Spanish class.” As a slowly acclimating immigrant going through New York’s schooling system, Winston didn’t know many people, so he kept to himself. “[I was] doing a Spanish presentation, and for some reason, I had a yo-yo in my pocket. I pulled it out and started doing it, going through my presentation.” She requested to speak to him after class, not because he was in trouble like he’d thought, but because she was intrigued. “‘You came alive in front of people counterintuitively,’” he recalls her saying. “‘You’re very shy otherwise, but in front of people, you came alive. I think that you should do the school theater.’ She went and signed me up for the play, and I had to show up.”
The fun of it all set him off, and he started tossing his hat in the ring for small projects, like mall auditions for The CW walk-on roles, but he knew he wanted more. “People who know me are always like, ‘You always seem like you know what you want,’ but it’s not like it comes easy,” he says. Duke has been a beneficiary of the power of his own mind on numerous occasions. He assesses himself almost daily to figure out if a particular course of action is or isn’t working out and how he should reroute accordingly. “I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” As far as acting was concerned, The Yale School of Drama, he surmised, would get him better.
His move to attend the Ivy League garnered praise from his family, as they finally accepted his acting dreams since he was “getting into a school where [his] ethnic mom could gloat about it.” After graduating from University at Buffalo, Duke spent a year diving into the audition process, but after bombing several auditions and waiting on line in several “this could be your big break” cattle calls that went nowhere, he knew more schooling was necessary. “I needed to be more competitive, and I did not have the tools necessary to do the work that I wanted to emulate,” he says. “I needed training. I decided at that moment that I was going to get into grad school. There was no Plan B. I put all my eggs in that basket, and then that worked.” By that, he means those strengthened muscles in stage and camera work, and small gigs snowballed into major TV appearances like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Person of Interest and Modern Family, the former of which sent his island into a tizzy. “There was an outpouring of love. It was all over every magazine in both islands. That was huge.” Then along came his big film debut with the Marvel canon: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and eventually, Avengers: Endgame.
READ MORE: ‘Black Panther’ Star Winston Duke To Portray Kimbo Slice In Biopic
Photographer: Stacy-Ann Ellis
Stylist: Jenny Ricker, Stylist Assistants: Thomas Kivell, Richard Sifuentes, Tabitha Sanchez
Makeup Artist: Laila Hayani
Groomer: Martyse Lewis
Videographer: Kristen White
Additional Style Credits (Header Image) | Jacket and Knit: Rag and Bone, Trousers: Vince, Boots: Frye, Chain Necklace, and Bracelet: David Yurman