Ryan Coogler didn’t know how to swim before making “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
The 36-year-old filmmaker told Variety, “A lot of us were raised to be afraid of water.” He admitted to his own fear and talked about the different ways. Black people have been kept out of pools and the ocean over the years.
“Before I could direct this movie, I had to learn how to swim.” Late in October, Coogler is at Variety’s cover shoot with two of his leading actors, Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright, just hours before the Marvel sequel’s world premiere.
As “Wakanda Forever” introduces Namor, the ruler of Talokan, a hidden underwater realm and a surprising new threat to “Black Panther’s” fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, about half of the movie’s scenes take place in the depths of the ocean.
“A lot of Black and Mesoamerican people are in the water in this movie,” Coogler said with a laugh to emphasize the cultural significance of the setting.
“I’m excited for people to see what these two did in the water,” the director said, praising Bassett and Wright before pointing to the whole cast.
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Many of the actors learned to swim for the movie and trained with world-class accessible diving instructors and an aquatic stunt team put together for the shoot.
“I was just amazed by how many stunts they all did and how ready everyone was to start and learn how to free dive.”
Since Coogler is the kind of director who likes to be as close to his actors as possible instead of being stuck by the monitors, he found himself strapped to a hookah at the bottom of a water tank, learning how to free dive with the actors.
“If the camera is in the water and the actors are in the water, I have to be there too,” he told Variety when they met with him again a few days later to talk more about how the movie was made.
When training started, Coogler’s best swimming skill was just knowing how to “stay alive.” So, as you might expect, there was some learning to do.
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People who have tried to free dive probably won’t be surprised to hear that Coogler, for example, had a hard time learning how and when to clear his ears at first. (He now knows that it’s done on the way down, not on the way up.)
In the end, Coogler found it rewarding to learn how to navigate those depths and get over his fear. “It was a crazy feeling, like I couldn’t believe I was this far underwater,” he said.
“Then I worked on holding my breath and got used to it.” Plus, Coogler wasn’t alone, which helped.
Bassett, who plays the unique Queen Ramonda, the queen mother of Wakanda, said that Coogler asked her a very important question after telling her about the story’s complicated emotional arc. Can you stick your head in the water?”
It’s not a simple question. Bassett said, “You know, Black girls have a long history with water and their hair.”
“Some of us don’t know how to swim very well, which will mess up that press and curl. It’s a big deal.”
Bassett said “a little bit” when asked if she could swim. After training, she went from being able to hold her breath underwater for “about 20 seconds with effort” to two minutes.
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At about the same time, her co-star Lupita Nyong’o, who played Nakia, one of Wakanda’s best War Dog spies, ran out of time.
“Before we started making this movie, I could swim, but I wasn’t very good at it,” Nyong’o said. “For sure, I didn’t have to swim in public. I now know how to do that for the rest of my life.”
Even though it wasn’t a competition, Mabel Cadena (Namora, Namor’s top lieutenant) seems to hold the record for how long someone can hold their breath underwater. She did it for a whopping six and a half minutes.
“The first rule is, ‘Don’t freak out,'” Cadena said when asked how she did something so unique (which sounds much easier said than done).
Like many of the actors who trained on their own before working with the divers on set, Cadena hired a Mexican Olympic swimming coach to help her reach her goal of being so comfortable underwater that it felt like she lived there, just like her character does.
Alex Livinalli, who plays Attuma, Talokan’s fiercest warrior, said, “I remember the first few times I went into the tank. When you go in there, you start to feel scared.”
“It takes time to get your mind into that state of relaxation and to learn how to get the most oxygen. And [Mabel] made the most of it.” Tenoch Huerta Meja hasn’t kept it a secret that when Coogler and Marvel asked him if he could swim to play Namor, he got around the question in a creative way.
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He told them, “I’ve never drowned before.” Once he got the part, he started taking lessons. “I know how to swim without floaties,” he told Variety today. And now that he has trained to hold his breath underwater, it all feels “like meditation.”
Namor, one of Marvel Comics’ oldest superheroes, and Talokan were always meant to be in the “Black Panther” sequel. However, it’s interesting that so much of “Wakanda Forever” takes place in water, which is often used as a metaphor for grief because of how feelings of loss rise and fall like waves, sometimes crashing so hard that they completely take you over.
In the cover story for Variety, Coogler, Bassett, and Wright talk about how the cast and crew first went deep into their grief over the death of franchise star Chadwick Boseman, and then literally dove into the deep end, all to pay a fittingly grand tribute to their friend, both on screen and behind the scenes.