“Black Panther 2” Star Dominique Thorne Talks Ironheart and Learning to Be Still

“On the other side of my first step in the MCU, I'm not as fearful about anything the way that I was before,” Thorne says.

Dominique Thorne makes a lot of eye contact. I don’t mind it. Her dark brown eyes are considerate and nonintrusive. They match her voice, a warm, tranquil hum that makes me feel as if we’re two friends sitting in the back of a library, swapping secrets. But right as we’re about to get to the good stuff, she pulls back. “Oh, my God! I really need to figure out how much I can talk about this,” Thorne says. “This is the hardest thing to do.” For a moment, we'd both forgotten a crucial detail: I’m sitting across from Marvel’s newest superhero.

Before Thorne joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Ironheart, making her dynamic debut in November’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, she belonged to Planet Brooklyn, growing up in a Trinidadian household in East Flatbush, the eldest daughter of three. The 25-year-old actor studied dramatic theater at Manhattan’s Professional Performing Arts School, racking up impressive accolades during her senior year there, including being named a US Presidential Scholar in the Arts by the White House. 

But before this New Hollywood 2023 inductee became a bona fide theater kid with a formal education in the craft, she was a cinephile with a love for the classics. “This is going to sound so... but I was obsessed with those old-school Hollywood movies,” Thorne says with a laugh. “Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, all of that. The old-school stuff was definitely my bag for a long time. My favorite movie for years was Rear Window. After that I got into theater, but when it comes to film, I definitely like the old-school Hollywood vibes. If only they would have not been so…” 



As an actor who has become known for her almost exclusively Black filmography — If Beale Street Could TalkJudas and the Black MessiahWakanda Forever — the irony isn’t lost on Thorne that the films that first shaped her taste as a storyteller are severely lacking in melanin. But these days, Thorne says she’s most inspired by the diverse work of her peers, the creatives pioneering the next Golden Age of Hollywood. “Getting to see other faces in Hollywood now that are making the choice to tell stories truthfully, that’s super encouraging," she says. "There's just a whole bunch of fun, new, different, exciting things coming out that are pushing us to do more.” 

Thorne is contributing to that push by rewriting the rules on how to be a movie star and using her nonlinear journey to the spotlight as testimony. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” Thorne tells Teen Vogue. “Now I'm like, ‘I can play a lawyer.’”

Dominique Thorne wears a Christian Cowan dress, Harbison cape, Guiseppe Zanotti heels, and Misho earrings.Jingyu Lin

Thorne attended Cornell University where she did not major in the arts, which may seem like a curveball to everyone else but her, for whom it made perfect sense. Her parents were immigrants and she wanted to understand the immigration system better. Simple as that. After a few years of honing her academic interests, Thorne landed on a human development major with a minor in inequality studies. “That seemed more relationship focused…. It was a lot about understanding how people's immediate and larger environment[s] contribute to who they are and how they are,” explains Thorne. “I figured, I don't know how I'm going to make it back to acting, but when and however I do, it seems like [this] would be relevant.”

Thorne describes the college version of herself as “quiet, in my own world.” But, she says, her friends would describe her as the one who was always “down to ride” and “committed.” Throughout the pursuit of her degree in human development, Thorne maintained a connection to the arts by sending in self-tapes and auditioning for film and TV roles. “I was definitely committed to getting the tapes done,” says Thorne. And during her sophomore year, she landed a breakout role in 2018’s Barry Jenkins-directed adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, as Sheila, protagonist Fonny’s younger sister. She was cast in her next role as Black Panther Party member Judy Harmon, in the critically acclaimed Judas and the Black Messiah, in 2019, her graduation year. 

Thorne's time at university gave her time to grow as a person. She got the full college experience. She was engaged in extracurricular activities and mentorship programs, worked on-campus jobs, and even pledged the Mu Gamma chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a Divine Nine sorority. Thorne calls her experiences at the predominantly white Cornell “hella Black.” Her cultural education at Cornell did more to prepare her for her future filmography than perhaps any performing arts course could have.

“Once you get to college, you get, number one, your own lived experience, but then you also get a broader, more tender look at what it all means," Thorne reflects. "I think it all culminated for me in college.” 

The environment she created for herself in and out of the classroom put the Black experience in America “super heavy” on her mind. “When auditions did come around for Black Panther or Beale Street or Judas, there was definitely a part of me that was a little bit more energized," she recalls. “I had more to say about it. I had a much stronger perspective than some of the other projects that had come through the pipeline at the time that didn't work.”

Thorne continues, "When you get a piece of material, I feel like you can tell if the writer is thinking about whiteness or if they are truly, authentically open to another experience, adding depth to whatever they've already written.”

Taking on meaningful Black stories was what Thorne calls a combination of “self-work meets destiny meets the right timing.” Timing.

Dominique Thorne wears a Christian Cowan dress, Harbison cape, Guiseppe Zanotti heels, and Misho earrings.Jingyu Lin

When Thorne was a sophomore, she auditioned to play Shuri in the first Black Panther, a role that eventually went to Letitia Wright. Thorne got incredibly far in the casting process — behind-the-scenes footage of her audition with Chadwick Boseman recently went viral on social media — and she has spoken extensively about how being cast as Shuri then could have accelerated her life, jumpstarted her career, and taken her out of Cornell early. It is perhaps too strong to say she was glad she didn’t get the part at that time, but she did feel loyal to the experiences she was having in college, plus she had faith in a larger plan. “I really feel like by the time [Wakanda Forever] came around," Thorne says now, "I was ready in a way that I had only learned to be because of everything I went through at college and post-grad.”

After passing on Thorne as Shuri, Marvel casting director Sarah Finn and the rest of the Marvel team expressed their interest in working with her in the future. Thorne didn’t fully believe them back then, but they meant it. A few years later, producer Nate Moore called and offered Thorne the role of Riri Williams, a.k.a. Ironheart, with no audition required. Thorne was no longer tethered to school. She had more acting experience. Everything slotted into place.

“There also wasn't this insane pressure,” says Thorne. “I think, oftentimes, we can put pressure on things that crack it in the wrong ways. Whereas if you let things flow naturally, it tends to take better shape.” Because what is for you will not pass you, and the role of Riri Williams is unquestionably for Thorne.

Audiences got to meet 19-year-old genius inventor Riri Wiliams on-screen for the first time on the MIT campus, moments before she was plucked from her dorm room to help the Wakandans protect their kingdom from a new threat. This introduction set the stage for Ironheart, Riri’s own Disney+ series, arriving next year.

In preparation for her debut as the character, Thorne read almost all the source material that was available for Riri, carefully tracing her appearances through the comic books. While Thorne might not be the next Tony Stark, she is, like Riri, an analyst of her craft, which she studies through and through.

“My understanding was that the presentation of Riri in Wakanda Forever and in Ironheart could be drastically different,” says Thorne. It was important to her to know the comic-book version of the character on an intimate level so she “could make the choice to translate” details to the screen if an opportunity arose. 

“I can't imagine not taking that time to do the dive," she adds. "But then at the same time… there is nothing to research. There is nothing to know. You either feel it or you don't. That's sometimes where the magic happens. But when you know what the ‘rules’ are, it's easier to break them. [Like if I was] playing someone who is supposed to drown, I want to be the best swimmer in here.”

Dominique Thorne wears a Victor Glemaud catsuit and Prounis earrings.Jingyu Lin

The first scene Thorne shot on Wakanda Forever was with icon Angela Bassett, but that didn’t intimidate her. Instead, Thorne was intimidated by the idea of introducing her character to the world with limited screen time and limited information, “rolling into” filming for Ironheart right after Wakanda Forever: “I [didn’t] know if the choices I made worked or not,” says Thorne. “What's her family like? What's her home life? Does she believe in God? All of these questions about who this girl is were questions that were only going to be answered by the [Ironheart] scripts, which I didn't have at that time. It was like, how do I represent and portray a full human, but also leave room for the rest of her personality to be filled in later? How do I represent a point of view but not commit too strongly to anything, 'cause that could change?”

At the time of our interview, Thorne is exactly three months removed from wrapping production on Ironheart. She now knows Riri Williams better than anyone in the world. Filming for the show began in Atlanta and ended in Chicago — Riri’s hometown and “a respected character in the story” — where the series will mainly be set. “I bet many people have never seen a person who's supposed to be the smart one, the nerd, pull up and run somebody's pockets," Thorne says with a laugh. "And I think that is beautiful. There are so many more layers we're getting to [show about] what it looks like to be young and Black and from Chicago.” 

Thorne’s voice takes on an air of reverence when she recalls that last, “charged” day on set, filming outside of Riri’s house with all the cast and crew present, many of whom she now considers family. “You [could] feel the shared understanding that's grown between us,” she says. “We started not really knowing how it was going to go down, especially when episodes were still being written as you're shooting. But by the end… [it was] a beautiful, beautiful feeling."

Thorne continues, "We wrapped around midnight and immediately after — literally, the same night — I went back to my hotel room to pack, to leave four hours later to catch the flight to London for the premiere of Wakanda Forever. It was crazy, but also such a beautiful tie-back to have finished this behemoth of a project, leading a show for the first time in my life, and then getting to go back to where it all started.”

It seems the stakes of Thorne’s career get higher and higher with each year. “As they should,” she says with assurance. On the cusp of Ironheart’s release, she’s easing her way into the new reality of superstardom, but not entirely shedding the old one. For now, Thorne says, she’s still getting used to the norms of celebrity, whether that's having to involve a dozen people in her decision-making process about future projects, the newfound ability to take a solo trip to Switzerland, or getting stopped in Sweetgreen by Marvel fans. 

Meanwhile, her LinkedIn page is still active. Thorne may currently have her feet in between two worlds, but she’s ready to take the leap whenever she’s called to jump. She wants to be remembered as a risk-taker, someone who “showed up fully every time,” with “no opportunity wasted.”

Dominique Thorne wears a Victor Glemaud catsuit, Charles and Keith heels, and Prounis earrings.Jingyu Lin

Thorne tells Teen Vogue, “I’m very, very, very grateful for this whole journey that Ironheart gave me, because that's the only reason why I feel now, on the other side of my first step in the MCU, I'm not as fearful about anything [in my career], the way that I was before.”

There is only one word in Thorne's Instagram bio: providence. By definition, providence is divine will. Protective care, foresight, extraordinary intervention. Timing, but God’s timing. The graphic T-shirt she wears during our interview reads “Lord’s Child” in thick script. Understanding Thorne’s philosophy for her career, her vision of what’s next, and her dream for her life is simple when looked at through the lens of providence. Dominique Thorne will do everything in her power to block out the noise and prepare herself for the success she knows is meant for her, and for the opportunities to change the world with her art that she has steadfastly prayed for.

“Nothing about this journey or this walk has been easy for me, so I'm okay continuing to refuse the easier path of stress, worry, and anxiety," she says. "I'm much more interested in challenging myself to figure out how I can continue to exercise patience, peace, and stillness, because that has always been the thing that keeps me feeling like me. Focusing on my obligation and what my contribution is, that's always the center point for me. From there, I can be most helpful — I can be the best partner, the best castmate, the best collaborator, the best coworker, the best artist that I can be, once I’m able to meet that need for stillness within myself.”

Thorne refuses to let the gaze of fame alter her perception of the world or the expectations she’s set for herself. “I expect a performance I can be proud of, that I can respect. I am, without a doubt, my toughest critic,” she notes, leaning forward in her seat. “If I can see performances for myself that capture simplicity in the ways that I enjoy and that I respect, I will be absolutely content…. But it's something that just happens.” 

That’s the secret: For providence, for the divine strike of timing, there needs to be surrender. When Thorne let go of Shuri, she made space for Riri and all the roles to come. “Creativity [isn’t] something that is yours. It's a gift, a feeling, a vibe that flows through this world,” says Thorne. “And if it touches you at the moment when you're able to actually do with it what it’s intended for, then beautiful things happen. I would love to just make sure I'm putting myself in a position to continue to catch those moments when they arrive.” She sits back. She surrenders.