In late November 2016, Steel asked her agent to kindly decline the invitation, and went about her day.
When her 26-year-old grandson, Niles Wardell, called, Steel casually mentioned the offer. Wardell 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 College Park, Ga., where she lives, she is greeted with fans asking for a selfie or autograph.
Steel’s scene-stealing lines in the film — delivered in a convincing South African accent — have inspired people that it’s never too late to try new things.
“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.”
Elaine Jackson met Steel nearly a decade ago at the Frank Bailey Senior Center in Riverdale, Ga., and was immediately impressed. Steel, who would go to the center regularly, started acting in the plays Jackson would put on there. Here was a woman in her 80s who had never acted before, but she would light up the room whenever she was on stage.
Jackson, now the center’s manager, wrote and directed productions and asked Steel to act the part of a teenager named Angela in a series of plays called, “It’s Christmas.” During rehearsal, Steel would go on stage and ad-lib lines.
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 getting parts 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.”
After receiving her second offer to audition, Steel went on YouTube and listened to Nelson Mandela speeches 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, Cindy Butler. Within a day, she had the offer.
“Everyone wanted to be on ‘Black Panther,’ ” Butler said. “I knew it was going to be a black cast. I knew it was going to be major. Once she realized what was going on, I knew it was going to be big for her.”
Steel didn’t grow up wanting to be an actor. She was born and raised in Detroit and eventually worked for the federal government as a senior revenue officer for the Internal Revenue Service 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 an active life full of adventure and travel (she bounced around the world as part of her job and was a bowler until age 86), and never thought of acting as a career.
But from a young age, Steel enjoyed escaping into the make-believe worlds of her books, something that acting allows as well.
“I can be whatever it is I’m supposed to be at the time,” she said. “I love it. … While you’re acting, you’re in this protected cubicle that people call the stage. You’re protected from the world. And that’s the first time in my life I felt absolutely secure. … You can just be whatever it is the character is supposed to be.”
For three weeks in March of last year, 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 would take almost an hour to apply and then she was off to her trailer, where she would get dressed in her elaborate tribal elder costume — heavy boots, thick socks, large head piece and layers of clothing — a process that would take several hours.
Then it was time to shoot the scenes. Each one needed shots from various angles and she repeated her memorable line (“We don’t need a warrior. We need a king!”) dozens of times.
On some evenings, Steel would not get home until 9 or 9:30. But she didn’t mind the long hours. She called director Ryan Coogler “the nicest man in the world,” and actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays the main character, would come up to Steel every morning and give her a hug and kiss.
She also befriended Angela Bassett and was impressed in particular by the women on the set (“Their physical shape was just remarkable,” she marveled) and the positive and inspiring message of the movie (“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.”
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