The pairing of Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o and Jordan Peele might seem like a natural choice, but there’s a surprise player who brought these creative minds together for the new horror movie Us — Daniel Kaluuya.
Nyong’o, 36, tells EW she was working on Black Panther with Kaluuya when Peele’s Get Out (which Kaluuya also starred in) hit theaters, and she ended up seeing the movie five times in a month.
“I just kept going because I was so intrigued and delighted and spooked out by Jordan and his mind and his ability to make a monster out of racism in a horror film that was so sociopolitically astute,” Nyong’o says. “So I developed a real desire and dream to work with him, and unbeknownst to me, he was harboring this desire to work with me.”
As fate would have it, Kaluuya, who played W’Kabi in Black Panther and Chris in Get Out, stepped in.
“While we’re shooting, Daniel said, ‘Jordan is asking to get in touch with you; can I give him your contact?’ I said, ‘What?! Here’s my contact!’ So we had a general meeting where [Peele] mentioned he maybe was writing something with me in mind, but he was very noncommittal. A year later he offered me this role by submitting it to my agent.”
And so began a journey that Nyong’o says pushed her to her most challenging role to date.
In Us (out Friday), Nyong’o plays Adelaide Wilson, wife to the goofy, brawny Gabe (Winston Duke) and mother to teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and eccentric mask-wearing son Jason (Evan Alex). As the Wilson family travel to Santa Cruz, Calif., for an idyllic beach vacation at Adelaide’s cliffside childhood home, she’s haunted by a traumatic incident from her past, and as the trip progresses, her unease heightens. At night, the Wilsons see four shadowy figures holding hands and standing silently at the end of their driveway. All of a sudden, the figures come after them and the Wilsons find themselves face to face with their own faces — the shadow figures reveal themselves to be doppelgängers known as the Tethered, who have been forced to live underground and are seeking justice from their above-ground counterparts.
All the main cast members play dual roles as their character and their doppelgänger, but it’s Nyong’o’s Adelaide and Red who elicit the biggest goosebumps. Red leads the Tethered, speaking in a deep, discordant voice as she threatens to cut off body parts with a pair of golden shears.
Below, Nyong’o tells EW about getting into the mindsets of Adelaide and Red, the exhaustion that Peele promised and delivered on, and how Us breaks new ground in horror.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you rehearse and play Adelaide and Red separately?
LUPITA NYONG’O: I had about the time it usually takes me to prepare for one role to prepare for these two, and I had double the work to do. The challenge was to hold down both sides of the argument… so I had to work with almost a mathematical precision to create these two characters and have them be as distinct as they needed to be, but also have them influence and be connected to each other. So it was a lot of research [and] physical preparation. I had to do ballet for Adelaide, learn that voice for Red, and do fight choreography as well, so it was very physically and emotionally and psychologically demanding.
What discussions did you have with Jordan and your costars about portraying the Wilson family and their shadow selves?
Winston and I have a long history. We went to drama school together, so we have a deep friendship and intimacy that is reliable, and so we brought that to this. There was a comfort level there when going into this with him. We trust each other personally as well as professionally, so we were able to do some risky stuff that the other person was game to support. In terms of the family dynamic, Jordan cast these incredible children, Shahadi and Evan, who are both extremely talented and very gracious children, professional, enthusiastic, passionate, and imaginative. We had a rehearsal process where we went to the Wilson home where we were going to shoot, and we built on our chemistry. We discovered our natural allegiances and exchanged a lot of very bad dad jokes, courtesy of Winston Duke primarily, and then Shahadi. So it was a very close and intimate relationship that we formed, and Jordan was ushered into that. We just really trusted each other’s creative processes.
Is there one particular scene you were watching or filming that made you realize it was something you had never seen before?
I think just having a black family at the center of the horror film is new, surprisingly so. I didn’t realize it at first, and then I thought about it and all the horror films I’ve experienced — granted that I haven’t experienced many, but it’s just not an image that comes to mind. So there was a refreshment with that, but also just the conceit of them being the all-American family. As you meet them, they’re dysfunctionally functional, and there’s something so familiar about their banter and quipping. And I love setting up that norm and what that does for other paradigms — what is normal and what is American — and then just totally devastating it with the nightmare of the untethering.
What do you feel Jordan brings so uniquely not just to this film, but to the horror genre?
Jordan’s strength as a filmmaker is that he, first of all, trusts his own creative impulses and trusts his audience to be intelligent enough and really catch onto the layers that he puts into his films. He gets stuff like that and he expects a lot from his audience, and when you expect a lot from people, they deliver a lot. So I think that’s definitely a strength of his. He has such a wealth of knowledge of the horror genre and cinematic history that he’s always paying homage to and always learning from or celebrating, so this film is full of that. He’s also kind of revolutionizing the horror genre by making it so politically relevant, and he just has a knack for telling risky stories, and also stories that shift the needle in popular culture.
How does this movie lend itself into conversations around sociopolitical issues?
Jordan’s exploring this notion that right now we’re preoccupied globally with the other, the monster that is the other: the other culture, the other country, the other political faction, the other religion, the other gender. And what about the monster that sometimes comes in the shape of the man in the mirror and the darkness that we humans are prone to and quite naturally inhabit, sometimes that darkness goes unattended to, unrecognized, ignored, and it is when that happens that we project it out externally and it becomes the destruction that we then have to contend with?
With Little Monsters and Us, two very different horror movies, what did working in the genre allow you to do as an actress?
Little monsters is a comedy with horror sensibilities, and Us is a horror with comedic sensibilities. They’re both quite unique within the genres they fit, and that fresh voice is what attracted me to both. I was interested in doing comedy and I was also interested in doing horror, and these two offered me very unique opportunities in both, and that has been really the dream. What I imagined success to look like was always to have a varied career where I could really dip my feet into different styles of story.
What’s your own relationship to horror, and has it changed now that you’ve made this?
I hadn’t watched horror movies for like 20 years before I decided to do this. I love to scare people, but I don’t love to be scared! So this, because I had to watch all those horror films, I’ve learned how to watch horror films, and if you watch them in the daylight, standing up, with the door open, then they’re doable. That’s the formula I’ve discovered.
Is there anything you learned while making this that you’re hoping to take forward in your other projects?
Truly I went through another level of trusting my creative instincts working on this because it was so hectic and extremely stressful, because it was two roles to play. And Jordan, before we started, had said, “Listen, Lupita, you’re going to be extremely tired, I just need you to know that.” So that made me really nervous, but when I started working on it, it needed my energy and focus on another level, and what ended up changing was me trusting my instincts and trusting that the work I had done to prepare was enough. And I spent a lot of free time taking naps.
Emotionally, after finishing a movie like this, how do you take a break from it? Did Red or Adelaide stick with you?
Because I was working on two characters at once, I think it’s actually what saved me from having to go to some deep therapy afterwards, because I couldn’t rest in any of their loins, I couldn’t. I had to have the elasticity of moving from one side of the argument to the other, and so exploring the opposite perspective was the therapy for both, and I was too tired to carry it any further. I left it all in that film, I tell you!
Given that you and Winston have your Black Panther relationship as well, could doing this movie impact Nakia’s relationship with M’Baku in Black Panther 2?
Oh wow. I feel like T’Challa would have something to say about that! Well, that’s a totally different universe, so let’s see what Ryan Coogler makes of it.
You have some exciting projects coming up with the ensemble 355 and Americanah, and you’ve been getting more involved behind the scenes as well. What are you excited to do on that front?
355 is a project that I’m really looking forward to making. Working with Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, and Bingbing Fan, those are such prolific women, and I feel very honored to be counted in their number, and to work with Simon Kinberg, who’s an extremely talented director. I can’t give you anymore information about that.
Americanah, yes, we are in full development and it is realer than it’s ever been, so excited to say that. The writers’ room is in session, and it’s being written into a TV series.
I’m excited, one of these days, to get back to documentary filmmaking. I haven’t yet found the story that I want to take on, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in. It’s amazing to see people are able to make docs so boldly now because there’s so much more material. We live in a time when everyone’s recording everything, so the opportunity to make visually engaging documentaries is really high.