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Actor Winston Duke originally thought he’d been passed over for a part in Marvel’s Black Panther.

“My agents love pranking me,” the actor, featured in People‘s Ones to Watch package, says in this week’s issue. “So they called and were like, ‘You really need to sit down for this. We’ve got some bad news.’ ”

In fact the news was anything but: Duke learned he’d landed the role of the villainous M’Baku in the upcoming blockbuster.

“I went quiet, just dead quiet on the phone,” the Trinidad and Tobago native explains of his reaction. “And I started sobbing because it meant so much.”

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Credit: Kwaku Alston

Duke — who has appeared in the TV shows Person of Interest, The Messengers and Modern Family — says he grew up immersed in comic book culture.

“I was a big comic, cartoon, animation nerd,” the Yale School of Drama grad says. “So I was really familiar with it, but not as much with Black Panther. The neighborhood comic guy where I live in Los Angeles, he pulled every single issue of comic that my character ever appeared in. He found me the first appearance of my character and recommended different iterations of the comic that I look into. So the entire culture of this comic book world has been super supportive since day one.”

Marvel Studios Hall H Panel
Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty

On set, Duke had support from fellow Yale grad Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the titular hero’s love interest, Nakia, in the action film. For both stars, appearing in the first standalone black superhero movie felt like a milestone.

“We saw the first Avengers movie together and had wondered if we’d ever get to a be in a movie like that — such a big budget, crazy vehicle with special effects and tons of funny, cool people that you admire,” Duke recalls. “And we were just like ‘Yeah, I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.’ And then for this to be my first movie, her first Marvel film, we were like ‘Can you believe that happened? Do you remember Avengers in New Haven, Connecticut?'”

Black Panther hits theaters Feb. 16.