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Variety is What Feeds Me: A Conversation with Winston Duke

Winston Duke does not own a pet, and he’s got no plans to do so. It’s not because he’s too busy—though busy he certainly is, doing press for Netflix’s Mark Wahlberg-fronted action comedy “Spenser Confidential” with the release of Sundance hit “Nine Days” on the horizon—and it’s not because he doesn’t like animals.

“I’m an animal person altogether, but I don't own any because I don't love the idea of owning animals. If they're in my life, I love them, but I don't know if I want to own anything. If they want to run away, they should be able to.”

That gentleness and regard for living things is a trait Duke shares with Hawk, the powerful aspiring MMA fighter he plays in Peter Berg’s “Spenser Confidential.” There’s a tension to that which Duke clearly relishes; Hawk wants to be the “LeBron James of MMA,” but he also makes time to care compassionately for Pearl, an aging pup beloved by his owner Spenser (Walhberg); he has no qualms about ramming a car through a storefront to take out a machete-wielding assassin, but when confronted by a grieving child, moves and speaks with tremendous care. It’s a performance of surprising depth, the kind of role that might be lazily written and performed as nothing but a physically powerful sidekick. Not on Duke’s watch. spoke with the actor on the eve of the film’s release about Hawk’s animal-loving side, how his physical performance changes from role to role, and what it’s like to learn from Mark Wahlberg how to throw a punch.

Did you connect with Hawk as an animal-lover?

Yeah. I think it was just the idea of being nurturing and taking care of living things. He respects life, which is a really interesting place to come from, him being a man who's an ex-con for manslaughter. He's this spiritual being who respects life, and he's trying to take care of things, and understands how to harness the energy that he has to be a fighter. I wanted him to be so much more than he was appearing to be. It was all these small moments: taking care of the dog, taking care of that little boy, the things that he was able to do that Spenser wasn't capable of.

We get little glimpses of who he is, but not much of his backstory. How much of that did you have to fill in on your own?

Pretty much everything. I had to do everything. And the script was always in flux. It was always changing. And we were developing the characters as we went along. Peter also gave me the free rein to even mess around with his dialect a little bit—we're thinking he's from the South, maybe even from the Caribbean. We wanted to tie some of these things in but still keep him a mystery. I was always trying to figure out how to make him memorable, to make him still feel very visible for the audience in a world that had so much kinetic, crazy energy.

So I went back “Lone Survivor” [another Wahlberg/Berg collaboration] that was crazy action packed, a lot of things happening. And I remembered watching that and really liking Ben Foster in that movie. I love his work. I've always loved his work. And I thought, ‘what was it about Ben Foster's work that made me remember him? He almost had no lines, no language.’ And I remember it was his stillness. He must've been going through the same process [I was]. How do you cut through a lot of big action, big loud things happening, and still communicate a character that’s very secure in who they are? I tried to bring a bunch of that into Hawk. You see him very still, he moves kind of slowly, but once he's moving, you can't stop him. He is the one thing that offers stability in a world that is constantly shaking, you know?

What was your movement training like when you were studying acting? What techniques worked for you?

I did some Lecoq, I did some Viewpoints. Biomechanics. I still do some mark work, to get into character. “Nine Days,” [the preparation for] that was all mask work. Mask work and mirror work, where I’m mirroring each character that comes into my presence and kind of shifting my energy into something totally different, being a mirror of them so that they would feel more comfortable.

But this one was more just changing my body. I like changing my body, because I never like wondering what I'm doing when I'm not moving, when I'm not saying anything. If my body's wider, if it's heavier, if it's lighter, if it's all those kinds of things, it functions differently in space. My breathing changes depending on how much weight I'm carrying, how much my muscles are defined, and how my metabolism is working. I feel totally different being M’Baku [from “Black Panther”] versus being Gabe Wilson [from “Us”]. They have different functions. M’Baku was like an engine, he's a well-tuned warrior archetype. Gabe’s a weekend warrior, so he is a little bit slower, he's a little bit more bouncy and can be playful, but he doesn't have the endurance, you know what I mean? And this guy is really different. I had this feeling of a wounded child inside the artifice of a badass warrior.

A lot of gentleness and a lot of power.

Yeah. Alan Arkin told me, “You have a very lovable likability on screen that's going to plague you for the rest of your career. “ [laughs] I never think about what I do when I'm acting. I fill up, and then I go out there, and I’m just … I am. So when I was watching the movie, it’s like, “Aw man, he's so sweet.” When you really look at him, when he has the time to just talk and smile. He's so sweet. And then he's throwing a guy through a wall.

You mentioned several characters you’ve played who have a lot of physical combat. Do you find yourself thinking about how Gabe would throw a punch, versus how M’Baku would? Or in this case, how you throw a punch at the beginning of the movie, as opposed to the end?

Completely. M’Baku is the trained warrior who's given his entire life to that. For him, I did animal work. I did so many different things to fill up that particular vessel. With Hawk, it was just really an organic fighting style. On set, we worked really in-depth to try to figure out the language between being in the ring and being out of the ring. How does he fight when he's against another trained opponent who is trying to win a match versus [how he fights] a guy on the street with a machete? It shifts. I put him through the wall. I pick this guy up and throw him across a table to intimidate. It was always like, “what's the function,” you know what I mean? We worked with a couple of UFC fighters who were consulting on the movie to kind of create that language. And that was pretty cool.

As to your question of how my punching changed, Peter actually made sure that happened. [He said,] “You actually have some of the same problems that Hawk does. You’re using too much of your size and you're usually trying to power through the punch with your arm. It comes from the hip.” I worked on that for damn near two months. Throwing the hip, just turning the hip, turning the hip, turning the hip until that last day. We shot a number of the scenes in sync in sequence, so that big fight scene was the last thing we shot before my wrap. So Mark really meant it when he said, “That's how you throw a punch.”

So is it fair to say that you learned how to throw a punch, making this movie?

An effective punch, yeah. It was really great.

Were you a UFC or MMA fan before making this movie?

For a while I was a big fan of UFC, a big fan of most martial arts and competitive fighting. I grew up with movies that really romanticize that. “Bloodsport,” other Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, those are huge imports in the Caribbean.

One undercurrent in this movie is the issue of gentrification, and a changing South Boston. Was that a sense you had of the place when you were on set?

It was a very honest description of South Boston. To my knowledge, a lot of the structures [we visited] were six to seven years old. Even where I was staying for housing was a brand new development. I found out the price and it was super expensive. For anyone with a working class lifestyle, it would be completely unaffordable. It makes you think of people's quality of life, definitely keeps you grounded in that sense of wondering about how people are making it, you know? The ways cities are shifting. I'm from Brooklyn, the Crown Heights area. And that was my entire experience, especially coming out of college and grad school. I wasn't able to afford the areas where I grew up. They'd all shifted. The trains look different. The demographic on the train wasn't people who look like me anymore. I was walking around town and was seeing graffiti that wasn't made illegal anymore. Yarn bombing, you heard of that?


They were pulling rocks, cobblestones out of the streets and yarning them and sticking them back in. And I was like, “This is vandalism!” No one cared. All that stuff, it's never lost on me.

But in this movie it's never anything very heavy handed, which is really cool, and it makes it so much easier to digest. Spenser is a fish out of water in his own neighborhood, he doesn't know how to eat anymore. He doesn't know how to gather information effectively anymore because he can't do it by hand. That laughter, that chuckle allows us to go, Oh, isn't that funny?” But it's still getting in there and it's going to the back of your head until you have to deal with it yourself. That's what I like about this film. It's like it's feeding you some vegetables stuffed in cake. I'm going to make you eat your carrots in this double-stacked chocolate cake, with tons of action and comedy and playfulness. And then gentrification.

You’ve gotten to tackle a number of different genres since “Black Panther.” Anything really high on your to-do list?

I haven’t been thinking of it that way, it's just been working out. I just love stories, and I want to tell different kinds of stories. I want to play approachable guys. I want people to see themselves in me the way I saw myself in so many actors growing up, and didn't see myself in so many actors growing up as well. I want to give what I didn't get, and I want to have viewers and kids and all these people just feel comfortable with themselves, for anyone who does look and feel like me. That variety is what feeds me. I love playing against the stereotype in a way, the stereotype of what people expect me to play. So if they see me in an action-thriller, they don't expect me to be doing Reiki on a puppy. [laughs] That's not synonymous with action-thrillers. A certain kind of guy, they may save the dog, but they don't think about the dog's mental health! Saving the cat is a whole different thing when it's Winston Duke in a movie.

I would love to do a rom-com. That's something that I love, laughter. I laugh every single day. There's no day that I don't laugh, even days I'm depressed I’m still laughing. I love laughter. I am a romantic at heart, you know. So I would love to do a rom-com. But I love all genres and as long as I can find the right story that feels real to me. 

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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