Although the cast of Us is impressive — some of its key players include Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, Black Panther‘s Winston Duke and The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Golden Globe winner Elisabeth Moss — it admittedly doesn’t have much horror experience.
Moss, who plays a family friend of Nyong’o and Duke’s Adelaide and Gabe Wilson, has starred in a few genre thrillers (including The One I Love, which also deals with the idea of doppelgängers but in a far less horrifying way), and Tim Heidecker, who plays her husband, has acted in a couple of horrors but his credits lie largely in comedy films and TV series. Neither Nyong’o and Duke have even a day of horror experience between them, having always taken on mostly dramatic roles. Even though this group of actors aren’t those we could expect to star in one of this year’s most anticipated horror films, they all have the same reason for being there: they were each dying to work with Jordan Peele.
“I’d seen Get Out, I watched it five times in one month when it came out and I just loved it, I was like an evangelist for Get Out,” enthuses Nyong’o. “And so the idea, the thought that he wanted to work with me was just unbelievable and I was so excited about it. And then I read the script and I was even more excited! I would have done anything he asked me to do but then he asked me to work on a project that was so ambitious and so terrifying and exciting to be able to play two characters, I was in! It was an immediate yes.”
Likewise, Moss was a big fan. “He asked me if I wanted to do the movie when I was in the meeting with him and I just freaked out but pretended to be cool,” she laughs. “I was just absolutely thrilled! It was the opportunity to work with him, honestly. I think that’s what a lot of actors feel. We all just loved Get Out so much.”
Duke has been following Peele’s work since his days on MADtv in 2003. “I’ve always been a fan, but Get Out blew me away,” he tells us. “After that, I met him and congratulated him at the Oscars, and a few weeks later he called and said, ‘Hey, I have a project I’m working on and I’d love for you to be a part of it. I’m not going to tell you too much, I just want you to read the script, and then let me know if you’re interested.’ And we went from there. Immediately I thought it was the most original concept I had read all season. I was reading a lot of scripts, and I thought it was original, I thought it was bold, I thought it was brave and interesting, and it focused on an original story. It didn’t feel contrived, and it didn’t feel done before, and I was really interested in entering the genre with a black family at the centre. This horror-thriller genre with a black family at the centre really excited me. It excited me to be a part of this very thoughtful, intellectual universe that Jordan has created. What is similar to his other work is it functions on multiple levels. There’s the surface level that’s entertaining, thrilling, exciting and scary, and then there’s a lot of other functions that come about because it is an introspective piece.”
Aside from the film itself, Peele’s approach to directing really surprised the actors (in a good way), which was likely down to him also being an actor. “He actually ended up far exceeding my high expectations,” says Moss. “He’s a genuinely good director. He’s really good with actors… He allows you to do what you want… you can’t really do any wrong, and he’s just encouraging, encouraging you to go further, and grab the character, like a rod that you just throw out there and then get that string to catch something even better.”
Though there was a lot of fun to be had on set, working with Peele was still intense, Nyong’o says. “He is at all times making his favourite film and that kind of passion is infectious. He loves what he does and he is very good at communicating what he wants and he actually has a great demeanour for asking people to go to such dark places because there’s a warmth to him that makes it okay to do some really crazy, f-ed up stuff, you know?”
Us may be filled with f-ed up stuff, but Peele’s filmmaking methods still manage to come from a place with a lot of heart and good intentions. In short, he’s not at all ‘method’.
“He communicates really well, he’s very compassionate, very gentle and that is such a contrast,” Nyong’o continues. “He’ll come up to you and say things like, in the softest voice, ‘Can you just strangle her a little more?’ You know!? What are you saying? And he’s also a great performer so he would often play along with me and play the other character when I was in scenes with myself, and he’s so good at it, he’s such a good mimic as we know from Key & Peele. So yeah, it was just so much fun to work with him.”
Peele put his soul into Get Out and it paid off, and the same is happening with Us. The way he approaches horror is unusual and unique. It’s been a while since a director managed to inspire as much dissection and conversation about not just the film but society in general, whether it be their directorial debut or not, in the way that Peele has.
“He brings a lot of humour, which I think is great and really helps balance a scary movie,” says Moss. “But he’s also obviously extremely intelligent. He’s very socially aware, and is always making observations about humanity and race. He takes the dynamics of a horror movie, but there’s also a lot of intelligence there that is very apparent, and I think you feel like the film is grounded in a way that’s very fulfilling. Get Out is similar to Us in that it’s absolutely terrifying, but there’s also that sense of fun and entertainment, that I think is also very important to him to make a successful popcorn movie. But at the same time, you feel like there’s something deeper. He doesn’t shove that in your face. It’s not a moral lesson, but you do understand that there’s something deeper in there.”
“I think his work, they’re all strong conversation pieces and interrogations of who we are, and who we are as not just people but as a culture,” says Duke. “You’re reentering that Jordan Peele universe. I think he’s definitely reshaping a landscape of filmmaking, and the word ‘Jordan Peeleian’ is going to become something. It’s a Peeleian film. It interrogates culture and it interrogates the person. If forces you to ask how are you culpable, and where your position is in this dynamic. It’s like Get Out forced you to say have you experienced this or are you someone who perpetrated this kind of micro aggression? There are going to be similar cultural questions asked. They might not be about race, but there will definitely be questions.”
Us is in cinemas now. Get all the latest horror news with every issue of SciFiNow.