Ryan Coogler Learned to Swim for ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ Shoot: ‘If Actors Are in the Water, I’ve Got to Be in There Too’

Before filming “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” director Ryan Coogler didn’t know how to swim.

“A lot of us were raised to have fear of water,” the 36-year-old filmmaker told Variety, admitting his own trepidation and evoking the various reasons Black people have avoided — or ways they’ve been excluded — from pools and the ocean over the years. “I had to figure out how to swim so I could direct this movie.”

It’s late October and Coogler is sitting alongside two of his lead actors, Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright, at Variety’s cover shoot, just hours before the world premiere of the Marvel sequel. As “Wakanda Forever” introduces Namor, ruler of Talokan — a hidden underwater realm and surprising new threat to “Black Panther’s” fictional African kingdom of Wakanda — about half the movie’s scenes take place in the depths of the ocean.

“It’s a lot of Black and Mesoamerican folks in water in this movie,” Coogler added with a chuckle, driving home the cultural implications of the setting.

“I’m excited for people to see what these two did in the water,” the director continued, praising Bassett and Wright before nodding to the full troupe of performers, many of whom learned to swim for the movie and trained with world-class free diving instructors and an aquatic stunt team assembled for the shoot. “I was just impressed by how much stunt work they all did, how everybody showed up ready to go, ready to learn how to free dive.”

With Coogler as the type of director who prefers to be as close to his actors as possible, rather than stuck by the monitors, he found himself strapped to a hookah at the bottom of a water tank, learning how to free dive alongside them.

“If the camera’s in the water, actors are in the water, I’ve got to be in there too,” he explained, sitting down with Variety again a few days later to further discuss the making of the film.

When training began, Coogler’s swimming ability peaked at knowing how to “stay alive” — but that was about it. So, as one would imagine, there was a bit of a learning curve. Those who’ve attempted to free dive probably won’t be surprised to read that, for example, Coogler initially struggled to learn how and when to clear his ears. (He now knows you do it on the way down, not up.)

Ultimately, Coogler found learning to navigate those depths and overcome that fear was rewarding. “I remember it was a wild feeling, like I can’t believe I’m this deep in water,” he recalled. “Then I started to work on the breath hold and got comfortable.”

Plus, it helped that Coogler wasn’t alone.

Bassett, who plays the inimitable Queen Ramonda, queen mother of Wakanda, said that after Coogler pitched her the complex emotional arc this story would require, he tacked on an all-important question: “Can you swim? Can you put your head in water?”

That is no small question. “You know, Black girls have this history with water and their hair,” Bassett quipped. “Some of us can’t swim all that well, because it’s going to mess up that press and curl. It’s a whole thing.”

Bassett’s answer was yes, she could swim — “a little bit” — and, thanks to the training, she went from being able to hold her breath under water for “about 20 seconds, with effort” to a full two minutes. Her co-star Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia, one of Wakanda’s greatest War Dog spies) timed out at about the same point.

“Before we started this film, I knew how to swim, but I wasn’t a confident swimmer,” Nyong’o shared. “I didn’t need to swim in public, that’s for sure. That’s a lifelong skill that I now have.”

While it wasn’t officially a competition, Mabel Cadena (Namora, Namor’s top lieutenant) portends to hold the record, holding her breath under water for a whopping six-and-a-half minutes.

“The first rule is ‘Don’t feel panic,’” Cadena said, explaining how she accomplished such a feat (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 enlisted a Mexican Olympic swimming coach to help her achieve the goal of becoming so comfortable underwater that it was like she lived there, as her character does.

“I remember the first few days I went in the tank, you go in there and you start feeling the panic,” Alex Livinalli (Attuma, Talokan’s fiercest warrior) added. “It’s a process getting your mind into that relaxation state, learning to maximize your oxygen. And [Mabel] definitely maximized it.”

Tenoch Huerta Mejía has made no secret that he creatively circumvented the question when Coogler and Marvel approached him about playing Namor and asked if he knew how to swim. “I’ve never drowned before,” he told them, and once he booked the role, he began to take lessons. Today, he tells Variety, “I know how to swim without floaties.” And after training to hold his breath underwater, it all feels “like meditation.”

While Namor (one of Marvel Comics’ oldest superheroes) and Talokan were always intended to be part of the “Black Panther” sequel, it is striking that “Wakanda Forever” is set so prominently in water, a locale that’s often used as a metaphor for grief — the way that the feelings ebb and flow like waves, sometimes crashing so intensely that they totally overwhelm you.

In Variety’s cover story, Coogler, Bassett and Wright detail how the entire cast and crew first waded into the depths of their grief over the death of franchise star Chadwick Boseman, before quite literally diving into the deep end, all on their way to pay a fittingly grand tribute to their comrade, both on screen and behind the scenes.

Adam B. Vary contributed to this report.

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