Check It Out

“It’s Never Too Late”

She started acting at 88; four years later, she’s recognized everywhere for Black Panther.

by Kelyn Soong
© 2018, The Washington Post

Dorothy Steel, 92, starred as a merchant tribe elder in the blockbuster film Black Panther.

Steel’s mind was made up. She had been acting for only three years and didn’t want to audition for some “comic strip” movie she’d never heard of. And at 91, Steel told herself, there was no way she could learn to speak with the African accent the role required.

In late November 2016, Steel asked her agent, Cindy Butler, to kindly decline the invitation and went about her day.

When her grandson called, Steel casually mentioned the offer. Niles Wardell, 26, was stunned. This is not just comics, he told his grandmother: This is Black Panther. This is a big deal. When she still wasn’t convinced, he decided to turn the tables on the woman who has been his source of wisdom.

“My grandson said to me, ‘You’re always talking about stepping out on faith. I either want you to man up or shut up,’ ” Steel recalled, laughing at the memory.

Steel would get another audition and took the chance. And now millions of people worldwide have seen her in the role of a Merchant Tribe elder in the 14th-highest-grossing movie of all time.

At 92, Steel has become a celebrity in ways she couldn’t have imagined even a year ago. Anytime she steps outside in her home of College Park, Georgia, she is greeted with fans asking for a selfie or autograph.

“Hopefully, somebody who at 55 or 60 has decided, ‘This is all I can do,’ they will realize they have 35 more years to get things together,” Steel said. “Start now. It’s never too late . . . Keep your mind open and keep faith in yourself that you can do this thing. All you have to do is step out there.”

Nearly a decade ago, Elaine Jackson met Steel at the Frank Bailey Senior Center in Riverdale, Georgia, and was immediately impressed. Jackson, now the center’s manager, wrote and directed productions there and asked Steel to act the part of a teenager in a series of plays called “It’s Christmas.” During rehearsals, Steel would ad-lib. Her interpretation of the character had people hunched over in laughter.

Jackson realized she had a star on her hands. At 89, Steel got an agent and began acting in television shows and commercials. She has made multiple appearances on the soap opera Saints and Sinners, broadcast on Bounce TV.

“I always told her she should be in movies,” Jackson said. “Just because of her personality and in the way she portrays her characters. Everything we gave her to do, she just became that particular character.”

Steel poured this same passion into her character for Black Panther. She listened to Nelson Mandela speeches on YouTube for several hours a day. She immersed herself into the character: Where was this woman educated? How did she become so powerful? What had she done for her country, the fictional land of Wakanda? Steel knew all those answers.
An hour after seeing Steel’s audition tape, the Marvel casting producers called her agent. Within a day, she had the offer.

Born and raised in Detroit, Steel eventually worked as a senior revenue officer for the IRS for decades before retiring on Dec. 7, 1984—a date she rattles off with impeccable memory. Steel also lived in the Virgin Islands for 20 years before moving to Georgia to be closer to her son, Scott Wardell, and grandson.

She has lived a life full of adventure and travel—she bounced around the world as part of her job and was a bowler until age 86.

For three weeks last March, Steel got to experience what it’s like to be a big-time actor. A driver would pick her up at 5:30 in the morning and she would arrive on set about 7.

Her makeup took almost an hour to apply and then she was off to her trailer, where she would dress in her elaborate tribal elder costume— heavy boots, thick socks, large headpiece and layers of clothing—a process that took several hours.

Then it was time to shoot. Each scene needed shots from various angles, and she repeated her memorable line (“We don’t need a warrior. We need a king!”) dozens of times.

“Life is not just about sitting back. Life is about stepping out.”

On some evenings, Steel would not get home until 9 or 9:30. But she didn’t mind the long hours . . . She befriended Angela Bassett and was impressed in particular by the women on the set (“Their physical shape was just remarkable,” she marveled) and the movie’s positive and inspiring message. “This was a black nation [Wakanda] that was able to bring peace to the world,” she said.

Through it all, Steel was every bit a part of the Black Panther family as the A-list stars gracing the cover of magazines. Occasionally, when she gets stopped in the grocery store by autograph-seeking fans, she will think about that phone call with her grandson. It took getting out of her comfort zone to realize a dream she didn’t know she had.

“Keep your mind open and keep faith in yourself that you can do this thing,” Steel said. “All you have to do is step out there and try it. And if you don’t make it on the first step, step out there again and you’ll find something you can step out on. But don’t just sit back. Life is not just about sitting back. Life is about stepping out.”

(p. 11)

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No Retirement Age From Life

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