JABARI WARRIOR: MARK WILLIS’ BIG BREAK

BLOCKBUSTER“BLACK PANTHER” HIGHEST GROSSING SUPER-HERO FILM

In an effort to be a magazine that encompasses the total inspirational experience, Trendsetters to Trendsetters Magazine has allowed me to seek

out and share the stories of those who are often times overlooked. The little guy, the unsung hero, the story behind a story…to encourage the next person into their purpose and spark him or her into destiny. This cover story is one such article and we are about to boost someone’s hopes that dreams really can come true!

       Allow me to entertain you with a bit of an introduction. On February 16, 2018, it was the beginning of a beautiful moment in the African American culture because it was the release date of the now BLOCKBUSTER film, The Black Panther. The mythological Marvel brand brought with it an awestruck nation of Wakanda people, who worshipped the panther god Bast, portrayed in an African rendition of a modern-day Garden of Eden surrounded by landscapes draped in blue aquatic skies and matching waterfalls. The sci-fi integration of spaceships with tribal masked undersides soared high above lands that looked like some of the countries existing in the continent of Africa today with huts, villages, and massive animals roaming free. Their leader T’Challa played by Chadwick Boseman is seen taking over his father’s reign immediately following his father’s death. One scene begins with a ritual of an opponent from another tribe, M’Baku (played by actor Winston Duke), the leader of the Jabari Tribe and arch nemesis of T’Challa, stepping up, to fight to the death, to obtain the Kingship role. The Jabari Tribe was the mountain tribe living in a land blanketed by crystal white snow and who worshipped the gorilla god Hanuman in the original comic book version. While T’Challa’s tribe represented the sleek, wise, sneaky, and covert black panther who would pounce upon you at a moment’s notice, then rip you to pieces… the gorilla represented its strength by its ability to come forth boldly with wild grunting noises, to warn off its enemies. Followed by a demonstration of beating its chest to let you know there would be no fear if it came to ripping you to shreds. Both animals have strong wills, just different ways of achieving their defenses; the panther coming unexpectedly upon you and the gorilla busting down the front door.

       Now, drawing your attention to the present story at hand, it is not by chance that up and coming actor Mark Willis landed the role of a lifetime as a Jabari Warrior. God had aligned Willis to “come through the front door.” This 27-year old actor who was born in Springfield, Ohio and later moved to Chicago was prepped for this amazing destination. Learning how to fight as a youth using Karate, earning a communications degree, and playing football at the University of Wyoming gave him at least the agility, chiseled features, and ability to problem-solve situations that would play out in his favor for this role. When I asked Mark to share his journey to this once in a lifetime role, he explained it this way…

     “So, about a year or two ago when it was announced on a casting site, I saw myself being a part of this film in some capacity, so much so, that I sent in my headshot and resume to the casting director. However, I didn’t hear anything back. So, I said, ‘Okay God, I feel you will show me if this is for me.’ After not hearing from them, I resent my information out to them and then again nothing came back at that point, I believed it to be a “No.” Then in October of last year a casting person on a SAG casting site said, “Super Hero movie entitled Motherland, we need people who are black, athletic, tall, handsome, and muscular.” I figured I was at least one of those, so I responded. I didn’t know what it was and I needed the SAG credit to join the union, so I just submitted. I was scheduled to do a Pepsi commercial in Dallas as a “dancing Dallas Cowboy” on the football field and we were not allowed to have our phones on the field. We were dancing for hours and hours and during that time I had missed two or three texts that said something like this, “This is the casting director from the Motherland casting and we saw your information and need to know where you are located to hand off to the head of the casting department and we need this information in thirty minutes. Hurry up.” Now keep in mind, this was about FOUR hours later and I felt like I had missed this opportunity and the casting director was going to be mad at me…so, wonderful, I thought. (laughs)

       So, I go back home to Chicago thinking that I had missed an opportunity. Then I get another text that night and this time it said, ‘Hi, this is the casting director of Motherland/Black Panther and we want to set up an audition for tomorrow.’ I looked up the information and sent it to my good friend to verify and he sent me back a text saying, ‘Dude, this is legit!’ This is about forty-five minutes to an hours later. I immediately text the casting director back and said, ‘I’m available. What is the next step?’ I didn’t hear anything for an hour and I thought I had missed another opportunity to be in Black Panther. Then I get a text back that said, ‘Great! You are confirmed for tomorrow in Atlanta at 10 a.m.’ I was like…I don’t have a flight to get me there. I got on Kayak.com and there was like one flight with the last seat available. I was too excited to sleep on my flight thinking about my audition…and sitting next to a baby, I wasn’t going to get any rest anyway. I got to the airport in Atlanta at 9 a.m. and got into my rental car at 9:30 a.m. I did the speed limit at the place and to get through each security, I had to take a picture. I get into the parking lot at 9:58 a.m. and I didn’t have time to change so I had to do the audition in the clothes I arrived in. The audition was intense and I was making a few mistakes, but it was so much fun. I felt like I had done my best.

       I get back on the plane and head to Chicago, to prepare for a shoot in New York all in the same week. While I was there, another shoot I had scheduled was canceled, so I was in New York for three more days. The whole week I was like, ‘I haven’t heard back from them,’ so I stayed in NY. As I was walking through Time Square, I got a call from a Georgia number, so I let it go to voicemail because I thought it was a telemarketer. When I listened to it later, it said, ‘This is Black Panther, give us a call as soon as you get this.’ I don’t think I ever dialed a number so fast in my life. The guy on the other end said, ‘We saw your audition, we loved it and we want to hire you.’ I was like, ‘When am I needed?’ He said, ‘Tomorrow…’ and I said, ‘Ummm, I’m in New York right now.’ And he looked on his paper and said, ‘We have you on our paper as a local guy in Atlanta. You are a local guy, right? And you can get here, right? Because if you are not local, we have to go to the next person we have in mind.’ So, I did what any sane person would do in my situation… I lied like crazy and said, ‘Of—course, I’m local and I can be there tomorrow. No problem.’ Then he was like, ‘Perfect, you are hired.’ I get off the phone and jump back on Kayak to book another flight and there are absolutely no flights available.

       I said, ‘Oh noooo! I’m about to get fired!’ So, I called my aunt and said, ‘Sooo, I heard from Atlanta and I got the job. She said, ‘Noooo, you didn’t book it? That’s great!’ I replied, ‘Yeaaah, but here’s my problem…’ My aunt was like, ‘Boy! If you don’t get off this phone and get to Atlanta!’ I tried again to find a flight and it was one flight at 9 p.m. and it was now 6:30 p.m. at the time. I sprinted back to my room using my old football moves, grab my things and told the lady at the desk I needed to check out. She told me, ‘We have to charge you for the days you are not using.’ I blurted out, ‘I don’t care!’ and gave them my card and it declined. I called the card company and they said, ‘Well we see you purchased a hotel in Atlanta, and then again in New York, so we didn’t think it was you.’ I was like, “Yeah, yeah, it’s me, now unfreeze my card.’ They unfreeze it and it goes through and then I sprint again to the subway and there were four more stops to get to the airport and then the subway stops in a tunnel. There is no signal, here I am alone with NO cell phone, like WHO am I going to call if I can’t make it? Then I realized--I know WHO I can call, and I started praying and I said, ‘God, I trust You. You got me this far and I know You are not going to let me fail…and now we are stopped on the subway.’ Then the train starts up again. (he breathes a sigh of relief)

I figured that security was going to be crazy and so I hurried up and got everything checked in and I get to the gate just in time for the last call for my flight.”

       You can breathe now! I know…that is how I felt as Mark was giving me details, blow-by-blow of his intense roller coaster ride of events leading up to this amazing casted role. So, I made the notation that I knew it must have been great working with such accomplished actors like Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Forrest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, Sterling Brown and his on-film Jabari leader and look-alike, Winston Duke? Mark began to explain that he had actually worked with Whitaker on the set of Empire a couple of months earlier when he played the character who married Whitaker’s on-screen niece. When we were talking, he said jokingly, ‘You married my niece.’ I was like, ‘You remember me. Wow!’ Then we connected on set with Black Panther. That was so cool. Willis went further to say that on his first day on set they had to go to Tyler Perry’s studio to shoot in their costumes and to get a haircut. He explained that after receiving his haircut, after it took 30 minutes to get to the location, he looked so much like Winston Duke, that they sent him back to the barber’s chair to change his hair. This is where his signature zig-zag comes into play. Again, he heads out bolting back to the set, this time looking like Mr. T’s little brother just in time to learn all five fight sequences over the next two days.

You could hear the excitement in Mark’s voice when he told me how he practiced through the night so he would be prepared for the day of filming. I met Winston Dukes, Lupita, Daniel, and Leticia when we were at the place for the fight scene and I was amazed at how they interacted with us. Then he went on to explain how in the last days of filming, Chadwick came on the set to shoot his scenes and how much the seasoned actor was really down-to-earth to the stunt and production people. Mark’s voice lit up as he described the fact of how with such ease, Boseman talked to them. He ended that conversation with, That’s how I want to be.

     Although Mark had a few credits behind his name in filmography as a double for the main character on Chicago PD’s Laroyce Hawkins who plays Kevin Atwater, for three seasons, he had also been filming commercials, shooting modeling campaigns for the big and tall brands Goodfellow & Co and A New Day sold in Target stores today, (inset) and filming a Pepsi commercial the same week he auditioned for the Black Panther. He explained that he was still nervous being cast in such a huge film that would go on to become one of the highest grossing movies in Hollywood’s Marvel brand in the United States, surpassing The Avengers and sinking the Titanic’s blockbuster gross making it the 34th biggest grosser of all time topping in April 2018 at $1.3 billion, Forbes Magazine reported. This put it in the rankings with previous hits like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avatar, and The Dark Knight; the 10th movie to gross over $1.3 billion worldwide between Disney’s Frozen and Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the 3rd biggest unadjusted grosser to earn more than Titanic.

       As we were ending the interview, I got more intimate with his takeaways from the movie and begun to share that one evening when he was playing around, the main star, Chadwick Boseman was wrapping up a scene for the day when Mark and another person on the set were doing a fight sequence. The other actor snatched Willis and he fell over, then Chadwick said, “Oh no, you lost.” Afterward, Mark did a backflip off the ground and turned around, prompting Boseman to say, “Oh my God, what did you just do?” Willis explained that for Chadwick to take an interest in his abilities as he was waiting in the van to be transported, was somewhat humbling to him. He closed out our conversation by acknowledging how his mother and aunt were his greatest fans. His aunt was also the person who encouraged him to get into acting by encouraging him to audition for a part in the newer series of Star Wars when that opportunity came to Chicago.

       Since the film in February, Mark has been interviewed on the radio, the local news station in his hometown, and in online magazines. In Chicago, he participated in the Wakandacon event. Mark has been on a pilgrimage to schools to read to elementary school students the Black Panther comics and even received numerous fan letters from the students that he encouraged during his visit. However, the most bestowed honor was given as he visited Horace Mann Elementary School in Oak Park, Illinois at the request of the Principal, Mrs. Faith Cole. I am so proud of how well Black Panther has done and I am hopeful for the future roles like the one Black Panther provided to me. I would like to see us portrayed in more films than those centered on drug dealers, drug addicts, and slaves. There are a lot of quality films out there and I am ready for that! If you want to keep up with Mark and what he is doing visit his Facebook page: Mark Willis and all social media platforms as @marquillis33. He can currently be seen on the web series “Conrad” as Officer Chet and you can check it out on all social media as @conradseries.

       Mark Willis is living proof that no matter how difficult the road may be in getting to your destination, you will get there if you are determined, resilient, and creative enough to make the journey. When you make it there T2T will be waiting to share your story, also.

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