“I was fairly terrified just reading the script,” says Lupita Nyong’o, who stars in two roles in Jordan Peele’s Get Out follow-up, Us, due March 22nd. Playing both a loving mom and a creepy, scissor-toting, probably murderous doppelgänger of said mom (her fellow Black Panther actor Winston Duke plays the dad and his double) posed numerous acting and technical challenges, particularly when she shares the screen with herself. Still, she says, she “thoroughly enjoyed” the experience. Here’s what Nyong’o had to say about Us and Peele in an interview for our latest cover story.
Jordan asked you to watch 10 horror movies [from The Shining to The Babadook] to prepare for this movie. What did you take away from that experience?
Well, Jordan really does pay homage to the genre and to the canon of horror films. For me, it was useful to know what kind of vocabulary he’d be working from, what kind of aesthetics, what kind of style. So that was what I was taking away from the films, really. Not really acting notes per se, but the things that are going to influence the world he was creating, because the world in Us is so deeply from Jordan’s mind that in order to do my work as an actor, I really had to, like, interrogate him. My first point of research was Jordan’s mind. I had to try and get in there in as many ways as possible. That included spending a lot of time talking to him, asking questions for clarity, that sort of stuff. And then, of course, watching these films.
What were the challenges and perhaps joys of playing these very different characters who have to interact?
The first reason I signed up for this movie, one, was because Jordan Peele created it. And the minute I found out he was offering me a role I was like, “Yes! What is it?” You know? I read the script in one sitting, and by the end of the script, I realized my shoulders were so high up ’cause I was so concerned and nervous and actually quite frightened as I read it. And then, he was giving me the opportunity to play two characters. That was so exciting to me, the fact that I would get to play both sides, just the two very extremely different roles. It seemed like Christmas had come early. And then I started working on it, and I realized how taxing it is to play two characters with the preparation time it would take for me for one. So, it was quite the challenge to kind of split my mind and split my focus, ’cause I’m so used to investing in one person’s perspective. So, to do both justice is extremely tough. And then the technical challenges, being on set and basically acting with myself, was something that took a lot of sleep to get it right, which is the last thing you’re trying to do when you’re playing two characters, and a lot of focus. I had to focus quite intensely because every time I had to be fully in one character and also kind of having the out-of-body experience of taking notes for when I would play the other.
And the other thing is, of course, one of the characters is so scary — you were terrifying in the 15 minutes I got to watch! So, you had to find something in yourself that was, I guess, that scary.
Well, yeah. But you know, I definitely had to go to some dark, dark corners of my being to embody the one scary character. It was very intimidating to think of that character as scary or evil, you know those kinds of words I found to be debilitating. So, it was about getting beyond that because when you watch these scary movies, the evil is so ominous that it feels larger than life. To try and embody that can be quite daunting. So, it was about just really deeply investigating the character’s emotional motivation and being situated in that and allowing that to magnify the character.
Jordan points out that even though this movie — unlike Get Out — isn’t about race, the sheer fact of having a black family at the center of the movie is a statement.
Yeah, I agree with him. The subject of race is irrelevant to the experience that this family is going through. But the fact that this family exists in this particular genre and the legacy that is horror, that is the racial statement. The subject itself, what we’re dealing with in the film, is something else. And that in itself is refreshing as well, that the experience of black people is not always in context of their blackness. At the end of the day, Jordan, by putting black people at the center of his narratives, continues to expand our perception, our understanding of such people. As much as it’s not the subject of this particular film, it still lends itself to the expansion of the paradigms in this country.
You were already a fan, but what did you learn about Jordan from working with him?
I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the realization of Jordan’s imagination. He was such a joy to work with from the very beginning. One of the things that makes him an extremely incredible director is how compassionate he is, and he has incredible communication skills. At every turn of making this film, he was just very, very good at keeping everyone informed about what’s going on. And in doing so, you kind of get on board, and you root for him and you root for the work. I took it very personally, as did everybody else. He’s a great partner in that way, and he’s right there with you in the trenches. I remember when I met him over lunch. This is before he disclosed to me what it was about. It was a very, very preliminary meeting, and he asked me a question that no director had asked me. He asked me what my process was. What I needed from him as a director: “What do you need?” I began to weep, and he reminded me of this once we wrapped the film. And I wept because it was the kind of question that an actor would ask. He likes to cater to his actors’ processes, and so he approaches directing the actor with whatever way they would work most strongly. That kind of, like, bespoke directing that he’s able to do is invaluable, really. And he’s a great mimic, as we all know from his incredible work in comedy. So that came in very handy, as well — when we were doing the film playing both characters, he would often do my part for me. And it was incredible to experience him do that. He’s so adaptable, which I think is the elasticity of being a performer as well as a visionary director.
How else did his background as a performer and in comedy manifest itself?
He was always very good at breaking the ice. We’re working on this film, and it’s really scary. But there’s a comedic pulse at all times. And obviously, his brand of horror is also quite comedic. And he just has a knack for that. He can see the comedic moment in the traumatic moment, and that’s such a skill. Jordan makes the kind of films that he wants to see. And so to experience his enthusiasm… Every take, every scene, he’d be like, “This is my new favorite scene!” It’s so encouraging and exciting to work with someone who loves what they’re doing. It’s like a kid in a candy shop. He gets to make his favorite movie. That was just so refreshing, ’cause there is an expertise to it, but there’s also a sense of play that he never loses sight of. And I think that’s what makes him such a great creator, because he follows the fun. That’s what he does. He follows the fun.