Inside HEROINE 18

Superhero and super-warrior: actors Dominique Thorne and Thuso Mbedu in conversation
Film+TV | 11 April 2023
Photographer Matthew Brookes

dress and jacket both by ISABEL MARANT SS23; earcuff by RINALDY YUNARDI

In the vast, complex Marvel Comic Universe, Dominique Thorne’s Ironheart stands apart. The alter-ego of Riri Williams – a teenage engineering student from Chicago who builds a suit or armour from scrap metal – Ironheart is a blockbuster, new-age superhero whose powers resonate beyond the screen.

Having first made the jump from comic to film in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Thorne’s Ironheart made such an impact she’s set to reprise the role for an eponymous Disney Plus series created by Chinaka Hodge, which traces her story away from Wakanda: “We’re starting at her core, which makes everything so much more meaningful.” For the New York-born actor, Ironheart is more than a character, it’s an opportunity to present a diverse and inspirational story for a new generation. South African actor Thuso Mbedu is on this same wavelength following her acclaimed performance as a fierce, take-no-prisoners warrior in Viola Davis’ historical epic, The Woman King. Both Thorne and Mbedu are shaping new archetypes of empowerment, with killer moves to boot.

bodysuit and trousers both by FERRAGAMO SS23; earrings and ring both by CANDY ICE; necklace and bracelet
both by KALLATI; gloves, worn throughout, stylist’s own

Thuso Mbedu: Hello! It’s so nice to meet you.
Dominique Thorne: It’s very nice to meet you – I’m in awe of you.

TM: Thank you for having me, my goodness. Which side of the world are you on right now?
DT: I’m in Trinidad, it’s where my family are from. A cool 85 or 90 percent of my family is still down here. The last time I was here was twelve years ago, which is insanity.

TM: That’s a lot.
DT: Some of the family had come up to the States and seen each other, but there is nothing like going back home. I just got here yesterday and it happens to be Trinidad carnival next week, so there’s a very fun energy. You split your time between LA and South Africa, right?

TM: I came to LA around October 2020, but I spent part of 2021 to 2022 in South Africa shooting the movie [The Woman King]. I’ve been back here ever since. South Africa is far, man. It’s a 21-hour flight, so I go when I need to.
DT: You’ve been able to do quite a bit of work at home and in LA, do you have a preference or feel like there’s a major difference between them?

TM: The Woman King was my very first feature. Prior to this, back in South Africa I only ever did TV series, then The Underground Railroad [a 2021 Amazon Prime series created and directed by Berry Jenkins] was my first series here in the US. It was amazing that I got to shoot my first feature film in South Africa telling an African story. Shooting the first two weeks in my home province was special.
DT: Oh my god, incredible.

TM: Everything just fell into place, but what I came to realise very quickly is the difference in pacing between film and TV. With TV in South Africa, we can shoot thirteen episodes in five and a half weeks…
DT: I’m sorry, say again?! Wow. [both laugh]

TM: It’s crazy. Then going to the US and working with Barry [ Jenkins], we were shooting just ten episodes from August until March. When I got to set I was starting at eight or nine and finishing at three pm, I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m going to have to change up the pace a little bit because I’m going to be depleted within a week if I keep it up like this.” With you it’s the opposite, this is your first TV series?
DT: Yes. I feel you so deeply on the pacing. [laughs] For me, it’s become something I’ve had to orient my entire life around. Especially because you want to give so much of yourself to the character and the folks who are living a similar experience. You want to do it justice and to keep that up across however many months is a marathon. For me, it’s become about staying in a constant state of readiness, but in a way that is also constantly replenishing. I’m trying to figure out what that looks like to me, because doing [Black Panther] Wakanda Forever involved having lots of those days where you’re only in one scene but you’re there from sun up to sun down. Whereas with the series, I’m in almost every scene and every episode. We got there in May, started shooting in June and finished in November for six episodes. [laughs] So I absolutely feel you, but shooting a series also kind of feels like shooting a bunch of mini-movies.

TM: I obviously need you to take me right to the beginning of the character, tell me everything about Ironheart.
DT: The intro for Ironheart is also kind of wrapped in my career. My first film was with Barry – which is crazy, I love that synchronicity – from there I did Judas and the Black Messiah where Ryan [Coogler] was a producer and right before I’d also auditioned for the first Black Panther somewhere in the mix but that did not go

bodysuit and skirt both by ALAÏA SS23; earrings by MARA PARIS; ring by LILLIAN SHALOM

“This is the first time I got to be so deeply involved in all of the moving pieces that come together… I get to work out all those things so the presentation of this girl is as grounded as possible.”

TM: I’m going to cut you up here because you say it didn’t go but I’ve heard some people talking about your audition and how much you killed it.
DT: Man, it was a good time. The experience was so pivotal for me in so many ways and there were three rounds of auditions for it between LA and Atlanta. I knew before I left the audition I wasn’t going to get the role.

TM: It was a ‘not yet’ moment.
DT: It was, I also had so many things in life I needed to tend to. It relates to what we’re talking about now, making sure you’re in a mindset and a physical state that supports you being able to endure and deliver. I was not there at the time, despite how badly I wanted to deliver. I just knew that if I was to get that role, my life would not be healthy enough to support whatever the change would be.

TM: That’s interesting because I’m the type to go, “You know God I wanted that, what was the point of this exercise?”
DT: Right, it’s like “What are you trying to prove, sir?” [both laugh] A lot of solid relationships were made there as well and what they told me at the time was, “You’re great, we’d love to work with you in the future, but you just don’t have the experience.”

TM: Oh dang, OK.
DT: Then I worked with Barry and did Judas after that. So this was midway through 2020 and I was told I’d be getting a phone call from somebody – that’s all my agent said to me, and it ended up being one of the producers I met all those years ago in that audition. They called to tell me about the character of Ironheart, asked if I was familiar with her, which of course I was, and asked if I’d be interested in playing her. That was truly the scope of the process of becoming her, that conversation is where they also mentioned she would be introduced in Wakanda Forever and I had an introductory conversation with Ryan about who this girl is from his point of view. He was really just walking through how he views her as central to moving the story forward but also as an individual. I had so many questions, this is a girl who’s meant to be nineteen or twenty, from the South Side of Chicago, and she ends up taking up the moniker of Ironheart after her best friend and stepfather are murdered at a cookout. One of them dies from a gunshot wound to the heart, which is why she takes up the name Ironheart. In the comics and film she’s said to have built her suit from dumpster-diving around her campus, she’s this woman with super genius intellect. That says something to me about who this person is, with scraps she’s making something beautiful. Ryan also affirmed that by saying she’s definitely an adrenaline junkie, all of these things that just help get you into the mindset or disposition of this person. It wasn’t until we actually got to filming Wakanda and I got to see the suit, then you’re inside what this mind has created and that did something totally different. I feel like most of the things I learned about Riri – the real juicy parts of her character – didn’t fully come through until we started filming the series, because now we’re going into her world. Wakanda is the greatest introduction to a young Black genius in the MCU [Marvel Comic Universe] but, at the same time, she’s in other worlds. She’s pulled out of any sort of familiarity, is taken on a ride and that’s the version of her we get to know. But when we start to do the series, we’re going into her home, where she came from, her family, and all the things which make her more of a person. I think that’s where most of the fun lies; there’s so much possibility and potential because any worlds she’s going to or tapping into in Ironheart are starting from her own. We’re starting at her core, which makes everything so much more meaningful.

TM: Can you summarise the training? Obviously, Danny Hernandez [Stunt Coordinator] is a person we both know because he went from The Woman King to working with you guys, I absolutely love him. What did your experience of stunt training look like, and now you’re in production what does a typical day look and feel like for you?
DT: I love that man Danny Hernandez. A few months before we got into filming, I made a request that we see Riri Williams fend for herself and we see her fight with her own two hands, that was something we weren’t able to see with Iron Man.

knitwear and shirt, worn underneath, both by MIU MIU SS23; headband by PIERS ATKINSON; earrings by CANDY ICE; socks stylist’s own; shoes by MANOLO BLAHNIK SS23

TM: I love that.
DT: I wanted to get to the heart of it and that’s something Danny really heard me on, so I got what I asked for. [both laugh] We did all sorts of training, we started with boxing, we did a bit of judo, a bit of Jujutsu, Muay Thai and then we had some knife work in there. We had a good taste of everything, which I’m sure you’re familiar with as well, he was so big on making sure I built a library of skills so that on the day if I need to change something I already have the knowledge. I’d started my own personal endurance training before Black Panther and continued it straight through, but I’d say it was May or June when Danny and I got into the thick of training almost every day, rotating through those different fighting styles which was incredible.

I think that and the knife work were probably my favourite things to focus on, from there it was really taking a mix of everything and filtering it through this girl who isn’t a trained or professional fighter. It’s very gritty, and very scrappy, so taking all of the skill and technique and filtering it through someone who is just trying to survive makes for something really fun. I also appreciate how the team was very open and wanted to hear my thoughts, my feedback, and my perspective on how Riri presented herself. Sometimes I’d jump into meetings with hair to talk about how else we can speak to who this girl is through her hair, because we’re recognising this is one the first times the MCU is highlighting a Black female in this way. It’s so central to the story being told, and I feel like we’d be remiss to not allow her hair to be a moment we’re capitalising on, so sometimes I’d go into meetings to figure out what else we could do without doing too much.

This is the first time I got to be so deeply involved in all of the moving pieces that come together, of course we know it’s a big group project but now I get to talk to the hair folks, the stunt team, and the dudes handling the flame throwers. I get to work out all those things so the presentation of this girl is as grounded as possible.

TM: When we were shooting The Woman King I remember I constantly used to say to Gina [Prince-Bythewood, director], “Oh my gosh I can’t wait for people to see Lashana [Lynch],” because we spent so much time together and there were so many moving pieces, but not everybody is behind the monitor. I’m feeling her energy in real-time and I’m like, “You guys don’t understand what this woman is doing.” Obviously, you can’t reveal anything because the season isn’t out, but what do you look forward to sharing with the viewers the most?
DT: Despite Ironheart being the title of the show, this really is a collective story. There are so many folks in the cast who are truly from Chicago, so many are really living these lives we’re out here talking about, it just brings something fresher, deeper and more meaningful. Like you were saying, you can feel it in the room when you’re doing it, yes we’re all acting and playing make-believe, but everyone is pulling from a very real place.

It can be a bit scary when folks are expecting to see something this new from the MCU, they’ve never done anything like this before, but I think it’s really reassuring to see the people who are playing these characters are as authentic to themselves as they are to the story we’re telling. That really makes for something very beautiful, even just getting to visually see this kind of representation in a real way on screen – I hope people are ready. [laughs]

TM: I absolutely love that. Speaking of representation, as a Black woman being within this huge universe, what does that mean for you to be able to share such an important role with kids who are still coming up? We know they’re going to eat it up, they will absolutely love it. It’s just unfortunate we weren’t necessarily as represented [when we] were kids, you take what’s there and you have dreams and aspirations until we’re told, “Oh that dream is not for you, sorry.” But you’re coming in and saying, “No, your dream is valid, you can see it through me.”
DT: That was a big push for me to take the role, this was the first offer I was ever extended and it just felt a little different to think about stepping into something not having sought it out. In my experience, when you prepare for an audition, you think about it, you dream about it, so when the moment comes, you feel ready. You’re like, “This is something I worked for.” Whereas with this there is a certain level of boldness I felt to be like, “Yes I will do that.” So I wanted to first make sure I felt I could do the best possible job if I were to say yes, but also think about what it means for my career and go down the rabbit hole of what it means to be in a ‘superhero’ movie.

I think the thing that cut through any questions, concerns or hesitations I had was exactly what you’re talking about: this visibility and representation coming from a different place, a place we know has a wealth of resources to make sure it reaches every possible audience. It’s coming from folks committed to telling the best story possible and committed to giving audiences an impactful cinematic experience. Also by way of the story being told, by way of the content, by way of the actors, by way of the Black women you have writing, by way of the Black women you have producing, it’s allowing us and younger versions of us to see themselves represented across the film in front of and behind the camera. It feels real, it doesn’t feel performative, and it doesn’t feel like something this big company is trying to do.

bra, gloves and underwear all by VEX; earrings by CANDY ICE; boots stylist’s own

TM: They’re not just ticking a box.
DT: Exactly. They’re going about it in an authentic way and it makes me feel like I have to challenge myself to make sure that, even though I’m playing the super genius, I’m allowing this to be a moment where I’m showcasing how it looks when you add being from Chicago on top of that, or being a nineteen-year-old on top of that. Hopefully, the combination is giving young Black girls an opportunity to see Blackness differently, but also in a way that feels familiar and fun. I’m forever hoping to expand the view or the ways we can be viewed. I have a question for you now…

TM: Wait, hold on I need to know your ‘why’. Why you’re in this industry. For me it’s purpose, but why this route, why acting, why this very hard industry? Because you also speak of your faith, it’s especially harder for people who are prayerful to be in this industry, it’s even discouraged in some instances. So you have to have a very strong ‘why’ to keep at it.
DT: Yeah man this whole thing came to me at a point where I had such strong feelings about everything and no idea what to do with it. I found theatre, acting, Shakespeare, and to me it was the most rewarding way to channel all of these things. Number one, to feel a sense of alignment, expression and fulfilment in a way I had never felt before, which can be a very addicting feeling. But also right alongside that was realising how much a given piece impacted the people watching it or taking it in.

I went to a school where we were taught the point of this thing we were doing was centred around empathy, excellence and engagement – those were our three e’s. [both laugh] For me, the engagement part became so big and I was so taken by us giving somebody the opportunity to be changed and not saying, “I demand you subscribe to my doctrine.” I think it’s why the arts have maintained and withstood time, why they were discouraged and banned from certain spaces in time was because of the collective power that exists to move people or convince people. I’m more so committed to the positive side of it, [in that] moment you’re giving somebody an opportunity to disconnect from their life, to feel a moment of ease, to feel some calm, to feel relief from whatever is going on – fabulous, wonderful, love that. But also if you are giving somebody an opportunity to look at someone else in a way they wouldn’t have before, with a little more compassion, to see there are more similarities between our experiences than whatever topical treatment of your life has convinced you to believe in, I’m all for that. It’s the main reason why, despite having whatever personal egoic thoughts about what my career as someone who loves Shakespeare is supposed to look like, I felt so convicted to try this whole Marvel thing. It’s the opportunity I’m giving to the group of people who mean so much to me, the young Black boys and girls. So my ‘why’ is definitely the opportunity for change.

TM: That’s something I enjoy about performing when taking on a new role, I like to take on roles that scare me and force me to do research so I can learn something new, whether it be physically in terms of fighting or gaining a new skill, or mentally as a person in society. Knowing this person is 100 percent different to who I am and is informed by their backstory or their environment, I will readily take on something like that because of what it does to you as a human being, and as an actor. You have to go into the space without judging the character you’re going to play, because if you go into it having made a judgement, you won’t serve the narrative for what it could be, and then you’re short-changing the audience as well. It’s a teachable moment for both you and the audience, which is something I really enjoy.
DT: Absolutely.

“It’s the opportunity I’m giving to the group of people who mean so much to me, the young Black boys and girls. So my ‘why’ is definitely the opportunity for change.”

bodysuit by AMORPHOSE; earrings by ISABEL MARANT SS23; ring by CANDY ICE; boots stylist’s ownpage: bodysuit by AMORPHOSE; earrings by ISABEL MARANT SS23; ring by CANDY ICE; boots stylist’s own

TM: I think we need that attitude as people in general. The older I get, the more I realise people are hurt out here. A lot of people are not OK, even as they interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, they’re interacting from wounds they’re both aware of, but also unaware of. So the empathy you speak of goes a very long way and that’s something which has been gifted to us by our career choice. We have to be empathetic, we have to be sympathetic, and we literally have to put ourselves in the shoes of a stranger to be able to tell their story as authentically as possible, whether we agree with their convictions or not.
DT: I’m very curious to know how you feel as someone I can confidently say is a learned woman, you are an educated woman, you are a woman of faith, you are a woman who believes very deeply in protecting this part of you and this perspective you have… As an artist, I’d like to know what the intersection with the ‘industry’ has been like for you and how you see yourself maintaining your ‘why’ as you move through it.

TM: I touched a little on what my ‘why’ is, but my ultimate why is to build my ‘influence’ to a point where I can use my name and network for the upliftment and betterment of others. At the top of that list of others are children, children without homes, and children without families. Ultimately I want to build either an orphanage or an academy where people with money can sponsor the education of those children – that’s my ultimate ‘why’. I’ve had times in the past when it’s been difficult in the industry and I was like, “God, what’s up? You’ve put this in my heart, I’m not able to do this by myself but things aren’t making sense right now.” I would want to choose a different career path but everything in me says I can’t.

That’s what keeps me going. There are good and bad within this industry. The love and excitement are absolutely genuine and I’m so grateful for it but we’re also truthfully in a system that was not created for us, one as Black people, two as women. We see this time and time again, however I am grateful my ego is not involved, if it was an ego thing where I was like, “I’ve got something to prove, you better take note of who I am,” then we’d be in a lot of trouble. [both laugh] For me, it’s just about keeping my head down, doing what I believe I was created to do and fighting when and how I can. I don’t have to fight every battle because it could potentially result in burnout or being a complete outcast, and I can’t help anyone if I’ve been completely shut out. I’m constantly reminding myself why I’m in this. Genuinely it’s not about me, it never has been. I’m trying to help those who cannot help themselves, just as our grandmother helped my sister and I when our mother passed away when I was a kid, without our grandmother I wouldn’t be where I am today. A lot of children in South Africa are in child-headed households and their futures look really bleak.

Thanks to my grandmother I didn’t have to be in a child-headed household and so my future looks different. So, how can I be that for someone else? I’m grateful to be in a position where I am slowly and surely able to have conversations that will make a difference in people’s lives. Being exposed to people such as Barry, such as Viola [Davis]… I love acting, it’s my means of expression, it helps me make sense of internal chaos, and it’s an outlet where I believe as I heal, those who receive it, receive the healing they need too. I think that’s what has helped me stay consistent and also helped me keep my head down. I’m not in it for the fame, hence why I put the word ‘influence’ in inverted commas. I don’t care about fame, if I could work, have the influence and disappear I 100 percent would.
DT: As if I couldn’t be in any deeper awe of you. It really is so refreshing and cleansing to the spirit to hear because I’m definitely still at the phase where this is all very new for me. This is my third project and I think I’m also making sense of the internal chaos. This has been a very helpful experience, and I’m glad acting is the world I’m having to still ‘figure out’. I don’t think there would be a reason for us to still be here, for us to be even having this conversation, if just serving and amplifying ourselves was the extent of it. I feel you on the children, I think for me it’s on the educational side of things, where I am now is because of the emphasis my mother put on education. Even today in Trinidad I spent the morning at schools because that’s the point of it for me. I think it’s even more encouraging and affirming to know we are peers in this industry who are like-minded on the reasons why and how we do things. It makes me feel so much more grounded and tethered to the same purpose we were talking about. Amen!

dress and bracelets both by SAINT LAURENT by ANTHONY VACCARELLO SS23; earrings by RALPH MASRI

Interview originally published in HEROINE 18. 

photography assistant GAL HARPAZ;
fashion assistant ALEX HANSEN;
digi operator JASON WANG;
production JENNA CRANE

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