Mark Willis, a 27-year-old Oak Park native, has been to Wakanda, and at least part of it is in Atlanta – or more precisely, in some woods just outside of the southern metropolis. He knows, because he was in “Black Panther,” the $1 billion box office smash film that features the mythical African country.
Willis plays a Jabari warrior in the Marvel blockbuster, but when he first decided to audition for the role he didn’t know the phenomenon the movie would become.
“There was a posting online for a project called ‘Motherland,'” Willis said in a recent phone interview, referencing the film’s working title. “They said that they were looking for a black male who is tall, athletic, with a muscular build and handsome. I thought I was at least one of those.”
Willis, who played football on scholarship at the University of Wyoming, had been acting for roughly three years in productions like “Chicago Fire,” “Empire” and “Chicago P.D.” before landing the role.
When he arrived on set, Willis recalled, he was stunned by how many black actors, actresses and off-camera personnel were employed.
“I was so amazed, because I’m not used to seeing that on every set,” he said. The film’s main stars — such as Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o — in addition to its director and screenwriters, are all black.
The experience, Willis said, was as grinding as it was awe-inspiring — from speeding to get to a 10 a.m. audition (he arrived with two minutes to spare), to having to suddenly change plans as he was en route to New York for a commercial shoot after getting the text that he was hired, to arriving in Atlanta to shoot the scene and meeting Boseman and Coogler.
“It was very intense,” he said. “We only had like two days to get every fight scene down. The first day we had to learn everything and the second day it was getting it perfect. I worked 12- and 14-hour days.”
Willis said that he saw the finished film, which was also shot in South Korea, at its Atlanta premiere.
“I got to reconnect with some of the people I met on set and we were all just amazed,” Willis said. “When we were on set, we were surrounded by blue screens, but when they put it all together it was a totally different world. I was like, ‘How did they do all of this?'”
The whole experience, Willis said, has been mind-blowing and encouraging. The Oak Park native, who attended Mann School, Percy Julian Middle School and Oak Park and River Forest High School, has been acting and modeling for fewer than five years.
Willis said that despite having access to CAST and BRAVO, District 97’s renowned performing arts programs, he didn’t think about acting until he came back to the Chicago area after college.
“I was really into sports growing up,” said Willis, who along with playing football was also a teammate of NBA player and Oak Park native Iman Shumpert on the OPRF basketball team.
Willis said that his interests turned to performing arts after his aunt encouraged him to audition for a role in a “Star Wars” film.
“She said, ‘You’re a character, you should audition for this,'” Willis recalled, laughing. “When I got to the audition, the line was wrapped around the block for hours and hours. It was raining and cold. I get to the front and I learn that it’s been cut off.”
Fortunately, Willis said, he was able to audition online. Even though he didn’t land the job, he said, the experience was his initial immersion into what has now become a career.
In addition to landing roles in TV shows and films, Willis is also a commercial model. Currently, he said, he’s a brand model for Target.
And if his Wakanda experience is any indication, there’s nowhere for Willis, and his fellow actors and actresses of color, to go but up.
“I feel that Hollywood has to take notice now, because this has become a $1 billion movie,” Willis said. “I think it will lead to more opportunities for African Americans. This whole market seems so untapped right now. They’re opening people’s eyes with this thing.”