Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which dropped on Disney Plus on Wednesday, introduced a new armored hero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Riri Williams, aka Ironheart, is an MIT student and genius inventor who managed to craft a suit of armor based on that of late Avenger Iron Man.
Bringing Riri to life on screen is actor Dominique Thorne, whose previous work includes Oscar nominated movies If Beale Street Could Talk and Judas and the Black Messiah (the latter was produced by Black Panther writer and director Ryan Coogler). She previously tried out for the role of Shuri, which resulted in Marvel offering her the role of Riri without an audition.
Riri is also getting her own series -- Ironheart -- on Disney Plus this fall and seems likely to show up in the upcoming movie Armor Wars and to battle alongside her fellow heroes in Avengers: Secret Wars.
Working with facial tissue maker Puffs, the actor also brought some superhero energy to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. She surprised patients with personalized Puffs Plus Lotion tissue boxes, posters and bragging rights about their own MCU encounter.
I got to chat with the enthusiastic Thorne via Zoom about bringing fun to kids facing medical issues, how life has changed since being cast in a Marvel movie and the challenge of introducing a new character in someone else's story.
Tell me about these hospital visits, what do they entail?
We went to the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, with Puffs' Power Pals program -- the hospital chooses kids to be represented as superheroes. They get this beautiful big comic book cover-style poster of themselves, with the mask, the cape and the costume on. Representing a [movie] superhero, I got to remind them about their true hero strength, and hopefully encourage them to keep fighting as they battled some very real things. Ultimately, it was a day to spread some joy and I think the mission was accomplished.
How do the kids react to you?
It was adorable, it was definitely very funny. There are a lot of very quiet, shy kids; you have to ease in and warm them up by asking their name and their age, and if they have a favorite superhero. To which some of them said "No" -- they were not superhero fans! But others absolutely were.
It was a mix of different kids, different energy levels. By the end of the day, it was a beautiful thing to see everybody warm up a little bit and laugh. And there was a pretty legendary tickle battle between me and some of the kids. I think we got joy in the room and thoughts that were not related to treatment or whatever else they're dealing with.
I guess it ties into acting -- you have to read the room and see the emotions.
Absolutely. Trying to encourage fun as much as possible, but not push anybody too far.
How else has your life changed since you got the role?
The most jarring bit of it would be folks who may stop me on the street, or come up to me, or might be staring at me from across the room. I now have to wonder if they're staring at me because they've seen this movie. Or did I drop something? I'm from New York, where staring at somebody can mean so many different things. And now I have to consider "Oh, maybe they've just seen Wakanda [Forever]." And now when I go to get a salad or coffee, someone might also ask for a picture.
Riri first appeared in comics in 2016, making her a recent character compared to many other Marvel superheroes. Do you feel liberated in crafting the inner life of a character that's relatively new and people have fewer preconceived notions about?
It wasn't so much about how new she was, because there is a little bit of creative flexibility that exists simply with the transition between comic book and film or television. And in my own experience as a fan of the MCU, the aspect I appreciate most is how much a character can grow, while still maintaining the core from the comics.
With Captain America, for example, there's that loyalty and trust, the idea of duty that's just uncompromised between the comics and the adaptation. But in terms of his swagger, how that changed, his presence when he entered a room, how you feel when you see him on screen -- all of those things, in my opinion, were gifted to us by Chris Evans' portrayal.
So to hear that Riri would be translated to the screen, and by Ryan Coogler. I definitely felt like there was space to trust, not only the things that felt most natural, but in the information given to me by Ryan about how he sees Riri, how she relates to Wakanda, how she relates to Shuri. With the ideas that I may have had about her, I did my best to leave some room for that to change in relation to these characters that are already established.
Your presence in Wakanda Forever was a relief, in that Riri represented hope for the future in an otherwise pretty heavy movie. Was that something you considered or were even aware of in your preparation?
Not at all. That was not something that even occurred to me until I was sitting in the theater, watching the movie at the premiere. With the response that we've been getting, which has been beautiful, we can see the power punch that was Riri's entrance in Wakanda Forever.
But at the time, we were introducing a character in somebody else's story without the privilege of a deep dive into who they are, how they work, how they where they come from. To me the goal was "How do I showcase a full human with these glimpses?" and with these moments that are also just incredibly heightened versions of herself, because of the nature of the plot. I knew that I would later get a chance to do that deep dive [in Ironheart].
At the time it was really about rounding her out and making sure that I'm considering the emotion, the experience or the words and [figuring out] what's informing that. Where within her is that coming from, what experiences have given her that perspective. I wanted to portray someone who isn't one-dimensional, whether that's overly nervous or overly comedic, to present someone who's a human with a range of emotions, and has found themselves in a very intense situation.
How did you feel when you first saw the armor, whether it was concept art or the prop?
Seeing concept art for the suit, I had so many questions that were finally answered when I got to see and try it on for real. So many people have asked if it was a fully practical suit or was it CGI -- that is a fully practical suit, all 52 and a half pounds of it.
Getting to put that on for the first time was definitely the most grounding factor, in my introduction to Riri. So yeah, it was pretty badass.