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Winston Duke on 'Spenser Confidential,' Reiki for Dogs, and MMA

Peter Berg's Spenser Confidential has a particular cutaway shot that tells you everything you need to know about Winston Duke's character Hawk. He's sitting quietly, massaging a beagle's head with the same level of intensity he later applies to unraveling a conspiracy involving Boston's corrupt cops. The brief bit of dog therapy was Duke's idea, he explains when we speak on the phone. It's just another example of what makes Duke one of the most idiosyncratic actors working today. 

Duke is just the latest actor to play Hawk, best friend of Boston cop-turned-private investigator Spenser, here portrayed by Mark Wahlberg. Robert B. Parker's characters have been adapted many times over, but this 21st-century incarnation reunites frequent collaborators Berg and Wahlberg for an update with plenty of franchise potential. (The movie is based on a novel by Ace Atkins, who took over writing Spenser books after Parker's death.) In Spenser Confidential, Spenser returns from a stint in prison to find his bedroom being occupied by Duke's Hawk, a quiet MMA fighter. They end up becoming confidantes. 

Duke is still probably best known to audiences as Black Panther's M'Baku, but he keeps shifting perceptions every time he takes on a role, from the goofy dad and his tethered in Us to the upcoming drama Nine Days, which premiered at Sundance. During a brief chat, we talked about Hawk's incredible sense of style, dog reiki, and Eddie Murphy movies. 

Thrillist: I didn't know how big of a thing Spenser was before going into this. 
Winston Duke:
To be honest, I didn't know either.

How did you come aboard? 
Duke:
I didn't know anything about Spenser: For Hire. I didn't know it was a book, I didn't know it was a TV series. I just kept learning more as I went along after I took the job. What sold me on the job was Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg. Peter called and told me how much he liked my work and wanted to work with me, and said he and Mark were working on this project. [He] just wanted me to come in and play fast and loose with them and really just make something. I respected that because they are super well-established. They are superstars in their own right. I really just respected them just calling and saying, "Hey, we want to work with you." Mark called a couple of days later said similar things and really expressed how much they want me. I abide by the sentiment of "go where you're wanted," you know?

You want to work with people who want to work with you and appreciate you and want to support you. I took the job and then my lawyer weeks after was like, "This guy you're playing was like a huge cultural forerunner for coolness in the '80s. Avery Brooks was like a cool brother for us. We didn't have a lot of brothers on TV at the time who were so cool and represented strong masculinity for us. It's cool that you're playing Hawk. That's really cool man. I loved that show." As I kept going on, more and more people kept telling me different things I kind of started realizing it was this big deal with its own cult following. 

How did you envision your version of Hawk? 
Duke:
I wanted Hawk to be a character that's just a product and a child of today. He understands the trends. He is fully aware and really comfortable in his skin. He has a lot of confidence. I fought for his hair. I wanted his air to be reflective of his cultural identity. He is very proud of his blackness and celebrates it and that hair was it. He's comfortable taking up space but not being abrasively loud. He's very connected to the large while still at times feeling small. That was a really big thing for me. He's a guy who is in touch with spirituality. When I read the parts of him, on what he ate, I was like, yeah, he's a guy of now. He's drinking oat milk. He's eating salads. He has social media. He's always reading because there's an influx of how much information we have access to. He's a really smart guy and can do anything. He can hack into stuff. 

He wears really bright colors and patterns. Did you have any say in the costumes? 
Duke:
Everything was really up for discussion. We talked and chose what pieces really fit me and me as Hawk, and what is the most bold way of stating who that character is and how he wants to go through the world, especially a landscape like Boston that sometimes feels very black, white, and grey. All the color really pops out and says, "hey, I know who I am, I know where I'm going, I know where I want." 

One moment that I really loved was when you're sitting there and giving Spenser's beagle a head massage. 
Duke:
That little reiki treatment.

How did that come about? 
Duke:
That was complete improv, and it just worked. I was like, "I could give the dog a massage, a nice little reiki treatment." I went and I picked out some rocks and I placed it around him and I tried to balance the dog's energy. It actually worked on the dog. We had a reiki specialist who was one of the handlers on set and she was like, "Yeah, actually everything you were doing was actually correct." 

So the dog was loving it? 
Duke:
Yeah, it was actually really zen and chilled out during that scene. 

We don't get too much of Hawk's backstory. 
Duke:
The thing for me was, how do you create the brawler with the heart of gold who is also a mystery? I wanted him to always feel present in the moment. He's always taking in information and learning and that was one of the paths that kept me feeling very active in all the scenes. I wanted to figure out how such a great actor really communicated without a lot of language so well and so clearly focus and intention. I went back and watched [another Peter Berg movie] Lone Survivor and I watched Ben Foster, in particular. That sense of stillness and always very much taking in his surroundings and being there, I actually applied that to Hawk because I felt like it would also would work within this setting and this process of Peter's. It's a really good way to cut through all the energy that's always around. This movie moves so fast and so many things are happening. Stillness is a really good way to cut through all that frenetic energy. While Hawk is quite active, he's very still until he isn't. 

What was the training like for the MMA sequences? You are also attached to a Kimbo Slice biopic. 
Duke:
I'm a fan [of MMA]. I've watched it and all that kind of stuff. We had a UFC fighter be one of the fight coordinators on the project -- he was in the prison fight scene. He trained me a bit and showed me how to throw some punches and some kicks. We kept up with that throughout the filming. I worked out every single day while we were filming and kind of bulked up a little bit more. My relationship to it all is, I'm a fan and I take it in and everything I take in influences my work in some way. 

Are you still working on the Kimbo Slice project? 
Duke:
It's still in process. But we're figuring it out. 

spenser confidential
Netflix

What draws you to characters in that field? 
Duke:
Usually what draws me to any project is several things. One, the conversation that's being had. I always feel like whatever conversation is being had with the project is one that needs to be had right now. I've really interrogated masculinity and how masculinity appears in our society and on screen and in media in almost every project I've done. I always want my characters to change from beginning to end. They should never end in the same place that you meet them in the beginning of the story. I always love to show some sort of evolution and change in that two hours.Those are two of the main criteria I look for: What is the conversation and social conversation being had and is it something that I want to lend my person to? I'm lending my image. I'm lending my voice. I'm lending my sound. I'm lending my logic. I'm lending my way of interpreting character to that piece of work. So is it something that's going to change by me doing it versus another actor doing it, by me doing it as a black male, a 280 pound 6'5" black male versus like a 5'10"-6' white man? What does it change with me being in it and is it something I can be proud of? 

The Spenser idea is part of this history of hardboiled detective stories. What is your relationship to the PI genre? 
Duke:
I come from a culture where we don't even call genre movies genre movies. I grew up "action" just being called "action." My uncle when he'd watch all those Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal movies, we grew up just calling those "action." Like, "You know what we're watching tonight?  We're watching 'action,' like literally, they called them 'action,' 'action movies.'" I kind of just grew up watching all those guys, like Jean Claude Van Damme. I grew up watching the Death Wish movies. All those Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies. Buddy cop movies. I still enjoy all of Eddie Murphy's cop movies. I just went on a crazy binge watching the Beverly Hills Cops and 48 Hrs. I just sat and watched only Eddie Murphy movies for a week. 

Aren't they doing another Beverly Hills Cop movie? 
Duke:
I mean, yeah they're trying to. All those movies that came out in the 70s and 80s was a great time for films and it says something that we're still making those movies today.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.