Meet 'Black Panther's Badass Women of Wakanda: 'I'm Really Proud to Be With Them' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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Meet the Butt-Kicking Women of 'Black Panther'
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"Finally! We have been waiting, right?" Angela Bassett proclaimed on the purple carpet ahead of Black Panther's world premiere. "Has there ever been so much anticipation for a movie?" she asked, rhetorically, as she then immediately answered her own question: "No. Not ever."
Black Panther, the latest installment in Marvel's cinematic universe and the first with a black superhero in the lead, is chock full of moments that will leave viewers in awe -- "More times than you have fingers and toes," Bassett promised -- including the ensemble of powerful women that King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) surrounds himself with: Bassett as Queen Mother Ramonda, as well as Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright.
"It feels like a weight is lifted," Bassett mused on the impact of the movie. "We've been waiting for so long. Clamoring, crying, just hungry for it for so long, even if we weren't big comic book aficionados. Once we got wind of it and the cast that's involved and the technicians, like Ryan [Coogler] at the helm and Rachel Morrison, shout-out for an Oscar-[nominated] DP. We're just thrilled by it. It's like breathing a sigh of relief, and I think we've done it absolute justice."
Ramonda is the wise widow of King T'Chaka, who was killed during the events of Captain America: Civil War. If you ask Bassett herself, that's about all she is willing to tell you about her character. "I was like, Don't ask me anything! Just, How about I not talk to anybody about anything about this?" she laughed about Marvel's infamous secrecy. Anyhow, what drew the Oscar nominee to Black Panther was the story, which explores both historical and universal themes of the black experience. "We read those stories in history, when mothers have sacrificed their children instead of allowing them to become enslaved," she said of the movie's themes of bondage and sovereignty. "We know that. We've lived and studied that."
"Has there ever been so much anticipation for a movie? No. Not ever."
Ramonda's only son finds protection through two warrior women: Okaye (played by The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira), head of the king's all-female protective taskforce, the Dora Milaje, and Nakia (Nyong'o), a Wakandan spy known as a "War Dog" and sometimes love interest for T'Challa. I would be remiss not to point out that neither Okaye nor Nakia is anyone's sidekick.
"The only person I'll be a sidekick for is Lupita Nyong'o," Gurira said during a sitdown with ET's Nischelle Turner.
"And I'll be your sidekick," Nyong'o grinned. "The time is coming, I swear."
Black Panther not only offered the actors the chance to join the ever-growing MCU, the crown jewel of cinematic superhero universes, but to work on something together again. The two have been friends for over a decade, having met for the first time on the theater circuit in 2007.
"The world of theater and acting is small when it comes to Africans, especially 10 years ago," Nyong'o explained. "I heard of [Danai's] play, In the Continuum, that she'd done out of the NYU program...She won an OBIE and I happened to be at the OBIEs with my best friend. He very boldly said, 'You have to meet Danai.' And he didn't even know Danai!"
"I felt like we must know each other," Gurira recalled. "I really believed we knew each other."
Gurira, an alumnus of New York University, was tasked with trying to convince Nyong'o to attend NYU, though she ultimately chose to study at Yale. Still, their paths soon crossed again. "When I got to Yale, the very first play that I got to understudy was her production of Eclipsed," Nyong'o said. "I was in that rehearsal room and everything and I made a promise to myself that one day I would get to play that character. And then it was my Broadway debut."
Both signed on to Black Panther without reading a script -- though, as both are "quite picky" about how African stories are presented onscreen, they each had extensive conversations with Coogler to hear his vision for the film and make sure they would be in capable hands. "They've been mangled many a time, let's just be honest," Gurira said. They also signed on to the project without know that the other had.
"While we were working on Eclipsed, we didn't know that we were both in it, because, you know, it's all top secrect!" Nyong'o revealed. "Until Ryan came to see Eclipsed and said, 'Yo, your girl...She's in it too.'"
To embody Okaye and Nakia, both actors undertook extensive physical training, which culminated in six weeks of Black Panther boot camps ahead of filming to bulk up and learn fight choreography. "Even the warm up was quite challenging," Gurira said with a laugh. Playing the head of the indomitable Dora Milaje, it was especially vital that Gurira be able to command attention even among the all-around intimidating group of women that includes fan favorite comic book characters like Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Nabiyah Be (Tilda Johnson).
"We had some amazing women in there," Gurira told ET. "I loved the women we got to get together for the Dora Milaje. Some of them are stunt women. Some of them are from dance. Some of them are from, like, circus performance! It was a very interesting group of women who came from all over the world and who all brought in grace and ability and all of that. It was interesting for me -- the differences between this character and Michonne in The Walking Dead is there's this history to how the Dora Milaje move. Okoye is totally a traditionalist, so she really is about form and specificity and she's going to keep that even when she's dealing with a bunch of baddies in Korea."
Rounding out the Black Panther cast is rising star Letitia Wright, coming off a standout episode of Black Mirror's fourth season ("Black Museum") to play T'Challa's teenage sister, Shuri. You only need to connect a few threads -- Shuri is princess of Wakanda, Marvel is owned by Walt Disney Studios -- to reckon that, well, Shuri is a Disney Princess.
"Hey, man, what can I say? I'm not going to say no," Wright said with a smile. "I'm just going to make sure I be a humble princess. I don't want a reputation of being a crazy princess."
Lest that imply something about her character, Shuri is also the brain behind all the tech in Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country on Earth. (For my money, Shuri outsmarts even Tony Stark.) Since she supplies her brother with all of his nifty Black Panther gadgets, you could reasonably also call her the Q to T'Challa's Bond. "Firstly, that was pulling me in," Wright said of Shuri's love of all things STEM. "I hardly see characters like this. I knew that if I was blessed to play this role, it would mean a lot, because it would put something out into this world that would be of inspiration to other women, other young girls."
Even considering just how stacked upon stacked this roster is -- Bassett and Gurira and Nyong'o, as well as Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker and Sterling K. Brown -- Wright runs away with Black Panther, the standout character in a standout Marvel movie. Her Shuri is sprightly, ebullient and so damn funny. I want the Shuri spinoff. I want Avengers: Infinity War even more than I already did. (Shuri's in it!) I want Marvel's Phase Seven, or whichever phase involves Shuri becoming Black Panther. (In the comic books, she eventually inherits the mantle.)
Already perfecting the role of a humble princess, Wright blushed, "Aw man, no. I think everybody did a good job! I'm just super grateful to be a part of such an amazing cast. I'm really proud to be with them."