“Nine Days” rocked star Winston Duke’s world hard, reminding him that all aspects of one’s life, be they major or minor, are significant. A year wrestling with COVID-19 simply drove the point home further.
“After 2020 in quarantine, we were really deeply reminded of how important those small moments were when we just couldn’t have them anymore,” Duke says. “What I wouldn’t give to have a hot dog in the stands of a baseball game right now, you know? We couldn’t do that.”
Duke, 34, feels we’ve all become “a little bit more reverent” during the pandemic and is excited to see what people take from “Nine Days” (in New York and LA theaters Friday, nationwide Aug. 6). In a remote desert in the afterlife, the stoic and reserved Will (Duke) watches the lives of various souls he’s chosen to exist on Earth on several TVs. When one of his favorite subjects dies suddenly, he has to choose a new soul to fill that vacancy from a crop of very different candidates played by the likes of Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgard and Zazie Beetz. (Adults who enjoyed the meaning-of-life themes of Pixar’s animated “Soul” will find much to like here, too.)
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His character is “a walking stress test,” much like Duke’s superhero character M’Baku in Disney/Marvel’s “Black Panther.” “M’Baku tests Wakanda and makes everyone question is the prince ready to rule,” says Duke, currently in Atlanta filming the sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (out July 8, 2022).In “Nine Days,” Will puts his candidates in tough situations and harsh circumstances to prove “if they could make it in a world full of real stressors or not.”
The Tobagonian-American actor, who’s adding to his superhero resume by voicing the title Dark Knight of the upcoming “Batman Unburied” podcast, talks with USA TODAY about his new role and returning to Wakanda without the late Chadwick Boseman.
Question: Will is a different guy than your ferocious M’Baku or gregarious Gabe Wilson from “Us.” What was the biggest challenge playing this introverted role?
Winston Duke: I’m the kind of actor that loves playing very, very big. (But) Will is a character that I believe functions from a bit of smiling depression: He’s incredibly functional, he can be really present and it’s not always apparent how badly he’s in pain until he hits rock bottom. Inhabiting that kind of skin was a pretty hard task.
Q: For souls not chosen, Will gives each a little glimpse of what life’s like. Looking back on your own past, is there one moment that you’d most want to relive again?
Duke: I would like to relive all the moments I’ve fallen in love in my life and relive that newness and wonder and curiosity and all that hope that I had for those people at the time. It’s really great to remember and keep in your heart that even though things don’t always work out, there’s always still light to balance some of the shadow that is present with all of us and in everyone.
Q: Is it fun being M’Baku again?
Duke: It’s really great to be back together with my cast and we’re working on something really beautiful and very special. There’s a mouse on my shoulder right now like, “You better watch your mouth.” I can’t wait to actually talk to you about that in the future. I feel like we will have a lot of interesting conversations, especially given the context of “Nine Days.”
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Q: How was that first day back without Chadwick?
Duke: Really hard for me to talk about because it’s also incredibly fresh. I miss my friend. And at the end of the day, the public has lost someone to look up to and someone to see themselves through, but his friends and family have lost a part of their lives. There is a very present hole in the lives of a lot of people who knew this man and loved this man.
the conversation of Black liberation and Black identity, it’s not something that’s lost on me. The preparation for that is going to be paramount. It’s a really important story for people to consume in the 2020s, and it’s a part of our collective identity that we just need to reengage with and remember. I’m ecstatic to be a part of bringing that to life.
Q: After making “Nine Days” and then living through the past pandemic year, are you a different man?
Duke: I have so much more gratitude for everything. Quarantine was incredibly difficult. Losing a friend was incredibly difficult. Losing family members to the virus was incredibly difficult, but it’s prepared me to be so much more of an empathetic (and) sensitive human being. I got into therapy for the first time, and that really helped me understand myself better, understand my work better, understand my function and my family better.
I remember being so busy before quarantine and just saying, “Man, I would just love a little break.” And then I got a year. (Laughs) I feel like a much stronger, better person that’s more equipped to keep moving forward. I think my personal Will would be proud of me.