Dominique Thorne made her MCU debut in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever as Riri Williams (a.k.a. Ironheart), a young genius from Chicago’s South Side who builds her own flying armor, but she seems to have always been destined to be part of the franchise. Five years ago, as a sophomore at Cornell University, she went through a series of auditions to play T’Challa’s sister, Shuri. Though Letitia Wright took the role, Williams was one of the finalists, and impressed Marvel execs so much that they offered her the role of Riri Williams a few years later without any further auditions. Now, Thorne — who previously had small roles in If Beale Street Could Talk and Judas and the Black Messiah — is an instant superhero, with her own Ironheart Disney+ show on the way next year.
You’re currently on the set of Freaky Tales, which I assume is a horror movie?
It’s very cool. Definitely genre-blending, outside of the box. It’s a nice way to step outside the [Marvel] universe, change it up. I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a lot of fun so far.
You auditioned for Shuri in the first Black Panther while you were a sophomore at Cornell, and you got very far in that process. Now that you’ve seen up close what Letitia Wright brings to it, what was different about your take on that character?
My take on Shuri? That’s such a good question. I think that a lot of my perspective was focused on what I was doing at the time, which was being entrenched in education. So I think I was definitely leaning super-heavy into the science aspect of it, with that being the way into understanding this young woman. I also remember really trying to get a solid accent down. So I had met up with some West African international students that I was familiar with, and had them training me on the dialect.
When you didn’t get the part, could you have in any way anticipated that Marvel Studios would later just come out and offer you another part altogether?
They said that they would! How much I believed that is another thing, but they definitely did say it. [Casting director] Sarah Finn actually sat down and had a nice, long, very genuine conversation with me. She was definitely an advocate of mine, supporting me and what I was doing, how much I believed in getting that education of mine. She said that once I got some more experience that they would like to work with me in the future. I was just like, okay, cool. And they meant it! So that’s really cool.
And when Marvel producer Nate Moore called you and offered you the role — which they already knew meant both this part in Wakanda Forever and also the Ironheart series — was there any part of you that had any hesitation?
Yeah. My entire background is a theater background. Shakespeare was my thing at the time. It still is. I love Shakespeare. I wasn’t really interested in film. But being upstate in Ithaca, I didn’t have the same access to that theater community that I used to have, and because I wasn’t studying acting or film or anything related to acting while I was at Cornell, I wanted to still be connected to it in some way. So I ended up auditioning for film and TV.
And so because that was where I was coming into it from, I was nervous about it. I was also a huge Marvel fan, as was my family. I was totally into the MCU, but I was definitely nervous, as I think most actors are, about being pigeonholed. But I very quickly told myself that any sort of limitations placed on me in that regard would most likely only come from myself.
And so the question became less about the business of taking jobs and more about the reason why I had committed to acting anyway after graduation. Which was, because I cared about the stories being told. And so then I just started to refocus my thinking on, do I care about the story being told? Do I believe in the creators? I was able to answer those questions in the affirmative. And so I chose to believe that as long as I step in that direction of doing stuff that I believe in, that everything should work out. I guess we’ll see if my thinking was correct.
Joe Robert Cole, who co wrote the screenplay, told me one of the things he liked about having Riri in the plot was just that she was a Black American character bumping up against all these Wakandans, which was a dynamic that worked so well with Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in the first movie. What was it like playing with that aspect of it all?
Just as an actor, it’s such a tempting and treacherous line to walk because those accents are so enticing. [Laughs] So just on that front, trying to stay focused on Chicago and that dialect became super important.
Also, I think it was fun because part of what made me feel excited by the character was the demographic that she would be representing. Because I felt like I didn’t see that demographic represented in the way that Riri does in the MCU yet. And when we look at Riri as the super-genius that she is, Wakanda is the most beautiful way that she could be birthed into this [universe].
Black brilliance, Black beauty, the culture being displayed so vividly and so truthfully on screen — that accounts for the love that audiences have for Wakanda as a nation. It’s no secret that seeing that same sort of reverence and joy and love and affection being granted to the Black American experience is definitely something that is sparse. So it became really important to me to think, as the actor playing Riri, how can I really barrel through this film with all of that energy? How can I tap in most authentically and most truthfully to the things that make the South Side of Chicago lit, and beautiful, and something that people are proud to represent?
What was different about shooting the action than that you could have never expected?
I had never done wire work before. I guess it’s that learning curve, understanding how your body operates while being suspended in the air. And then tack on a suit that’s 52 pounds. So for me it was really just training my body to step into Riri’s physical form because she has to be incredibly strong no matter how small she is, to bear all that weight and fly it and do all that she does.
And then, of course, when it came to the underwater portions of it, I had to get really comfortable and familiar in the water, especially to play a character who can’t swim. That was its own challenge, having had actual fear around water for a long time and only recently getting to the point where I was comfortable, because I had to take a swim test to graduate [due to a long-standing Cornell tradition]. That literally that was my only saving grace when it came time to get into swim training and free-diving training for this. The free-dive training was really just getting like my body comfortable holding CO2. It’s not so much that you can’t breathe, they would say, as it is getting your body used to holding CO2, and not being able to release that. So I’m proud to say I got my breath-hold up to a minute and 40 seconds. Meanwhile, Mabel [Cadena, who plays Namor’s second-in-command, Namora] is up to, like, six minutes! [laughs]
You already finished shooting the Ironheart series, correct?
I did on November 2nd. Wow.
And you’ve said we get a broader sense of Riri’s personality in the show. Can elaborate on that a bit?
Oh yeah. Because we also have to remember that the Riri we see in Wakanda Forever is a Riri under duress. She is in this super heightened situation.
And she’s…I wouldn’t say silencing herself, but acting however someone would act when they know that they are responsible for causing a war between nations. However someone would act when they’ve just been kidnapped in the middle of their day when they were planning to go to differential equations class in 15 minutes. So it’s a lot of heightened situations, which means we get to see Riri doing her best to perform respect for royalty, to know her role as the person who incited all this pain.
We’re not seeing Riri in her everyday life. Just by nature of getting to spend more time with her in the series, we’re getting to see her at neutral rather than, like, on 10 all the time. And also we’re getting to see her in her element, which is quite literally the opposite of what we saw of her in Wakanda Forever. We’ll get more time to see what the other colors are and to see how she leads her life, rather than how she is when life is leading her
You’ve revealed that you’ve gotten advice or blessings from Brie Larson and Robert Downey, Jr. Are there other secret MCU conversations?
[Laughs] No, no other covert MCU conversations, other than those two.
Just as a fan, what MCU characters are you particularly hoping Riri will get to interact with?
Where do I begin? I’m super-excited to see what Blade does in the MCU just because I’m a huge Mahershala Ali fan. Dr. Strange — again, this is all selfish because I’m just fans of these actors — but I think it would be super cool to see him with Riri. And also, this is…I feel like I’m probably just like every other MCU fan when they heard that Riri being developed, but I definitely share the excitement and intrigue about [whether] she’ll cross paths with Miles Morales [the version of Spider-Man first seen on-screen in Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse]. I really enjoyed that chunk of the comic books.
To go back to the beginning, it is really interesting to act so extensively with Letitia as Shuri when, again, you auditioned for the role. How much was that on your mind?
Honestly, I think from the moment that I felt in my spirit that I wasn’t getting the role, I’m the person that just lets it go. And honestly, I was thinking, “Is this gonna be the thing that gets me out of Cornell early? Is this gonna be my way out?” And it was not. So a lot of my energy went to focusing on getting my degree. But by the time I got to work with her, it was far more about seeing the person that I was excited by when I saw the first Black Panther, the same way that I was excited to see Angela Bassett knowing that this is Queen Ramonda, and this is like How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Or stepping into the table read and here’s Michaela Cole.
It was a lot more, here’s this actor that I know is a badass. Especially considering the nature of both of our characters. It was also about what colors can add to the space that work to emphasize why these two people on screen is like such a big deal.
They’re very similar characters in a way, and yet very different. And the two playing against each other really helped emphasize the differences.
Which I think is a beautiful thing for, again, like just representation across like the spectrum of Blackness and Black genius, yeah.
What kind of world are going to see in the Ironheart show?
I think it’s a world that is very much grounded in truth. Like we were talking about earlier, it’s exciting to see a Black American perspective enter the chat. There’s a lot authenticity to the setting that I believe folks who are truly from the south side of Chicago would hope to see. Having Black female voices behind the screen on this project, including voices that are from themselves, from Chicago behind this project, has done a lot to really entrench this story in truth.
Then you can play around and test the limits with Riri, of how honest, upfront and straightforward she is about any given situation. Or about speaking her mind about something that we were probably all thinking, but she’s the one to say it. And what other emotions or circumstances exist on the polar opposite side of what was shown to us in Wakanda?
When you get a chance to go back to theater, do you have a dream role?
Oh, man. My audition piece when I was auditioning for colleges was Lady Percy from Henry IV, Pt. 1. That’d be it.
Have you been able to get a sense of how Riri already means something to people?
I went to some store yesterday and they needed my ID, and as soon as I put my ID down, the girl at the counter, like, convulsed. I’m like, what happened ? Are you okay? She totally flipped out and it doesn’t help that I got that ID while we were filming, so I literally have the hair that Riri has when she’s in Wakanda in the photo. She, like, did laps around the store — she was very excited. That was really heartwarming to see. Things like that are super sweet. And I popped into a student screening in Chicago, and a group of girls caught a look at me and lost it. They couldn’t have been more than maybe 11 years old. So it was super, super sweet.