Before starring in 'Black Panther' and 'Us', Winston Duke went on hundreds of auditions and worked as a gift wrapper

Actor Winston Duke on stage during The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences official screening of Us at the MoMA Celeste Bartos Theater on March 18, 2019 in New York City.
Lars Niki | Getty Images

"Black Panther" and "Us" star Winston Duke may seem like an overnight success, but the 32-year-old says that his path to Hollywood stardom wasn't always so obvious.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the Trinidad and Tobago native says that as a young actor he worked several odd jobs, including waiting tables and working as a holiday-season gift wrapper, to make ends meet. He says that in his first year after graduating from Yale School of Drama in 2013, he went on about 400 auditions, and eventually landed roles in some off-Broadway shows, like an August Wilson play in Portland, Maine.

In 2014, he starred in one episode of "SVU" and in 2016 he starred in three episodes on "Modern Family." But even with roles on hit shows he says he was barely surviving. At one point, he says he questioned his career path and wondered whether or not he would be more successful doing something else.

Actor Winston Duke is interviewed live on stage during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festival at Container Bar on March 09, 2019 in Austin, Texas.
Jim Bennett | WireImage | Getty Images

"'What am I doing?'" he says he would ask himself on many occasions. "If I committed this much attention and intention to anything else, I'm pretty sure I'd be successful at it."

In 2016, the trajectory of his career took a major turn when his agent sent him to an audition for an as-yet-untitled Marvel project. That project ended up being the Oscar-winning film "Black Panther," in which Duke made his feature film debut as the warrior M'Baku.

After the film's release in February 2018, the Yale alum says that his life changed drastically. "It's been a blessing," he told Variety last year. "A lot of things come with this. It's a lot of attention. It's a lot of all these new people and gifts and all these things, but I remember when I wasn't working, I was praying a lot. When I prayed, I remember saying, 'I just want to work.'"

Since "Black Panther," Duke has landed several other acting jobs, including a second appearance as M'Baku in "Avengers: Infinity War," and a third appearance in this April's "Avengers: Endgame." His fourth appearance as M'Baku will likely come in the "Black Panther" sequel that Ryan Coogler has signed on to direct and write.

Aside from his work with Marvel, the 32-year-old will also star in the Netflix crime drama "Wonderland," and he's signed on to the action thriller "Heroine." He's also slated to play MMA fighting legend Kimbo Slice in an upcoming biopic.

Photo courtesy of Getty

Duke tells The Hollywood Reporter that the opportunity to star in Jordan Peele's latest horror film "Us" came about after a by chance meeting at an Oscars after party last year. He says when he spotted Peele at the event, he walked over to him and congratulated him on his Oscar win for "Get Out" and told him that he was a fan of his work.

"I'm not afraid to go up to people and just say, 'Hi, I'm new, and I'm a big fan,'" Duke says. "You can only be 'new' once, so I took full advantage of that."

At the time, Peele says he was looking for a male lead to star in his sophomore film alongside Lupita Nyong'o. After the meeting, he says he text Nyong'o, who attended Yale with Duke, to ask her how she felt about him playing her on-screen husband in "Us." She replied, "Hell yeah."

Already, the young star's performance is creating a lot of buzz. Peele tells The Hollywood Reporter, "I would call Winston and Gabe both the heart and soul of [the film].'"

Duke tells Esquire that after "Us," he hopes to lands more roles and opportunities "that are in conversation with larger social issues."

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