Every character in Jordan Peele’s Us is a scene stealer: Lupita Nyong’o battles for screen time with herself in two Oscar-worthy performances. Winston Duke breaks the movie’s thick tension with his corny jokes (and even thiccer thighs). Evan Alex haunts as a feral masked boy who’s literally just waiting to light everything on fire. But the award for creepiest evil twin impersonation goes to Shahadi Wright Joseph, whose sunken eyes and “Mona Lisa smile, but make it horrifying” face seize audiences the moment her tethered character enters the frame.
Slipping into the role of Zora’s doppelgänger, the red-jumpsuit-clad Umbrae, was mentally strenuous for Joseph, who decompressed at the end of each shooting day with heavy doses of The Office (strictly the American version). As a speedy little sociopath, Joseph stabs a man to death in the street without a hint of hesitation. Throughout all her prey stalking, she seems impervious to the pain inflicted upon her in return, including an impaling. Vulture sat down to talk with the 13-year-old actress about getting to her dark place, working with Oscar winners, and who brought the dad jokes to set.
If you weren’t in Us, would you be allowed to go see it?
Yeah, because I saw Get Out when it first opened, and I was mind blown from that. I was definitely more aware of my surroundings after I left the theater, and I think that Jordan Peele really brought the black community together just from making this iconic movie. So, I would definitely see Us like a hundred times.
Us has a lot of very big ideas in it. Did you guys unpack those heavier thematic elements as you went along with Jordan?
We used to have a lot of meetings with Jordan, sometimes before or after we would shoot a scene. He would really just talk about what the scene meant to him. That helped a lot. It really made our performances a lot better, and he did show me where all of the little Easter eggs were. Like, I have a green sweatshirt that says “thỏ” on it, and it means rabbit in Vietnamese. I have a rabbit in my room, and I have a rabbit on one of my T-shirts. There’s a rabbit in Jason’s room. Plus, you know, Jason wants to become a magician, so the rabbit in the hat.
How was it having an Oscar winner play your mom and an Oscar winner directing you?
I was so grateful for Jordan, who really opened my eyes to see some of these messages, and everybody was so welcoming and just so sweet. I definitely want to work with them again.
How was it working with Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as a scene partners?
We were usually talking about what we can do to make the scene a little bit better. Then we would confer with Jordan and he would be like, “Okay, let’s try that.” And they’re really great method actors so they just go into their characters all day. I tried that and it helped a lot as well.
That seems really intense, especially when you’re playing through so many comedic elements throughout the movie. Was there a particularly hard scene to shoot with the really dark tones?
The invasion seen with the whole family, that was the toughest part, to really bring out that fear. Because I’ve never had to actually go that deep into my fear state. I’ve never experienced anything close to that traumatizing. So, that that was the hardest part. Everybody was really trying to get a solid day in red [jumpsuits, playing the tethered family] or a solid day as the Wilsons, because it was really tough to switch from Zora into Umbrae. Just the costume change and the makeup and hair took a little while, but also getting into the mind space. You have to do that really quickly because of the child labor laws. We can’t work past a certain hour.
Speaking of being a young actor, your phone acting was great. [Note: Zora spends a significant portion of her time on screen looking at another screen — her phone.] Was that in the script, or did that come from you?
[Jordan Peele] never specifically told me, you know, “You can just be on your phone all the time.” I wanted to make her a relatable teenager, and people are always on social media these days.
Do you relate?
A little bit! Sometimes I fall into the social-media trap.
And you got some great mean teen digs in at Winston with his dad jokes.
I taught him those! [Note: According to Evan Alex, he taught Winston his dad jokes.]
Oh, so is someone in your family totally into corny dad humor?
Oh, it’s me! We really got to improvise a lot. Jordan gave us a lot of freedom with the lines, and I think that Winston really did that a lot, you know, cause he’s basically like a sitcom dad.
And how did you snap into character as Umbrae, knowing that you wouldn’t be able to use your voice?
We need to use a lot of body language since the [tethered] people in the underpass don’t talk. I think that what’s going on in Umbrae’s head is really that she’s so interested in Zora, because she really wants to be her so much that she has to kill her, you know? I think she’s always been very jealous of her and she’s had so much hatred for her for so many years. Yet she has admiration for her, you know? She has the sun. She has the sky. So Umbrae really wants to show her how much she takes for granted every day, but she can’t, because she doesn’t have a voice to speak through. That’s why we have Red [Lupita Nyong’o’s doppelgänger character]. And, you know, the underpass is such a terrible place where people do not have choice of anything that they do in life, who to love or who to play with or just what to be. So, I just kept thinking about the comparison between Zora’s and Umbrae’s life and why it isn’t fair at all.
Which character was more fun to play?
I loved playing both of them, but I think that Umbrae was a little bit more exciting. I was definitely looking forward to that whole Zora and Umbrae chase scene. I think that that was my favorite, because it really shows the skill level that Umbrae has compared to Zora, how long she’s been training, and it really shows you how much she wants this.
Did you guys talk on set about who is the “us” and who is the “them”?
It depends on the circumstances, which perspective you’re actually looking from. The doppelgängers see the Wilsons as the them, and the Wilsons see the doppelgängers as them, and as Jordan said at SXSW, humans are really scared of the other for some reason, but sometimes the monster is really us.
One of my favorite parts of the movie was how subjective the role of the villain was.
But I’m glad that, you know, Jordan added the names [of the tethered family members] so that we wouldn’t look at them as villains. In a regular movie you would see them that way. You know, they show up at your house. They kill you! I think he was really trying not portray them that way. Just by the look of them the audience will think that they’re villains, but by the end of the movie they’ll have a totally different outlook on them.