Mark Willis, of Oak Park, still can’t believe the universe aligned to secure him a role in the world’s No. 1 movie, “Black Panther.”
The 27-year-old plays a Jabari warrior in mythical Wakanda, in the Marvel and Disney phenomenon that’s still crushing box office records worldwide.
The film crossed the $1 billion mark this past weekend to become the sixth-biggest superhero movie, and 21st among the highest-grossing movies ever.
“The magnitude of this movie still blows my mind,” said Willis, an Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate. “The fact that it’s a movie that shows us in such a positive light, as kings and warriors, no drug dealers, no drug addicts. Just pulling up to the set every day was an experience.”
A month in, the film helmed by an African-American director, Ryan Coogler, with a primarily all-black cast, still owns the box office, obliterating all films released in its wake.
For Willis, who shared his story recently with Chicago Public Schools students, the road onto the set of Wakanda was strewn with almost as much drama as stoked by Chadwick Boseman and nemesis Michael B. Jordan.
Raised by his single mother, a nurse, Willis excelled in football in high school, earning a Division I scholarship to the University of Wyoming, where he played four years and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications.
Returning home, he stumbled into a love of acting after being hired as an extra on the set of the TV series Chicago Fire in 2014. Pivoting into full pursuit of acting, he soon notched roles on other series filmed here; Sirens, Empire and Chicago P.D., where he plays the stunt double of actor Laroyce Hawkins.
In between was modeling and commercial work, never dreaming his goal of breaking into film would be realized in the historic “Black Panther.” Even small roles will live forever in this blockbuster film.
When Marvel announced the impending film in October 2014, Willis, like many actors, watched for information on casting, sent his portfolio and waited. Months passed. He heard nothing back. He sent it again, still heard nothing. So he forgot about it.
Two years later, filming began, taking place January to April 2017 in Atlanta and South Korea. The movie was due out at year’s end.
“Fast-forward to October 2017. I’m looking through a casting site for work. I see a listing for a movie called ‘Motherland.’ It said, ‘We’re looking for an African-American male who’s tall, muscular, athletic and handsome.’ ” Willis said. “I figured I was at least one of those.”
Days later, shooting a Pepsi commercial in Dallas, he got a message back from the “Motherland” folks. They wanted materials from him at 5 p.m. He’d gotten the message at 1 a.m. “I’m like, ‘Oh great! Missed that opportunity,’ ” Willis said.
“I get back to Chicago. There’s a different message, this time from ‘Motherland/Black Panther,'” Willis said. “They said, ‘Hey, we have an audition set up for you tomorrow. Are you available?’ ”
“At first, I didn’t believe it was ‘Black Panther,’ because everyone thought they were all done filming. I texted him back, and they needed me in Atlanta by 10 a.m.”
“I searched and searched and finally found the last seat on one of the last flights out that morning. I arrive in Atlanta, sprint through the airport, and blow all speed limits to get there at 9:58 a.m.”
Willis headed home after the audition, boarding a flight to New York the next day to shoot a commercial. While there, the phone rang.
“They said, ‘This is Black Panther casting. We love your audition, and we want to hire you. Can you be here tomorrow at 9 a.m.?’ I said, ‘I’m in New York.’ They said, ‘If you can’t get here, we’ll go on to the next guy.’ Of course I said I would be there,” Willis said.
“Again, I snagged the last seat on the last flight out, leaving at 9 p.m. It was 6:30 p.m. I made it to the gate just as they announced the last call for the flight,” Willis said. “Meeting Chadwick was awesome. Coogler was like a really cool guy too. It still blows my mind to this day that I was able to be a part of this. I’m praying for a sequel, and that they bring the Jabari’s back.”