There's not a bad performance in Jordan Peele's Us, but it's safe to say that the Wilson family at the center of the story specifically knocks it out of the park. That's Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke and the two kids, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex.
They were all at SXSW and I had the chance to sit down with Joseph and Alex while Peele, Nyong'o and Duke were on stage at the NBCUniversal House to talk a little about their experiences filming this scary, but poignant movie.
It quickly became apparent that Joseph and Alex had a sibling relationship off-screen as well as on, with Joseph in the older, more mature sister role and Alex all but bouncing out of his chair with excitement. Joseph spent the better part of the interview patiently guiding Alex through questions and clarifying for him when he needed it.
They had just seen the movie for the first time the day before and the excitement was apparent from the very first moment I met them. In the below interview we focus mainly on how they built their characters (both the Wilsons and their doppelgangers), but we also touch on how Peele directed them, how the cast bonded as a family and even a bit about Jaws since, as a nod to Alex's character, I chose to wear a Jaws T-shirt to the interview. Enjoy!
I wore this Jaws shirt just for you guys.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: (To Evan) That's your shirt from the movie!
Did they let you keep that shirt?
Evan Alex: No, of course not.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Have you seen Jaws?
Evan Alex: (Shakes his head "no")
Shahadi Wright Joseph: You should see it. It's not even that scary. Seriously.
Evan Alex: I just think I haven't been able to find it.
It's my favorite movie of all time.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: You'd like it. It's actually kind of funny.
Evan Alex: But have you seen Bumblebee?
Shahadi Wright Joseph: No, I haven't seen Bumblebee.
Evan Alex: Oh my God! So, the best part about the plane is that I can watch a movie. I was watching Ant-Man and the Wasp and I was like, "Why am I watching this when I could be watching Crimes of Grindelwald or Bumblebee..."
Shahadi Wright Joseph: I mostly just read on a plane.
Evan Alex: (laughs and makes gagging sounds) I'm choking, seriously.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Why, because I read on planes?
Evan Alex: Why? At least have it be a comic book.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: No, it's not a comic book. It's this book called Black Enough and it's about all of these stories about being a black girl in America. It's really good.
Most actors put their time and effort into building one character in a movie, but you both get to build two characters.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Yes!
It felt like you put a lot of work into both your character and their doppelganger. Can you talk about how you built your characters and how Jordan Peele worked with you to do that?
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Yeah. So, it was a lot of work for all of us.
Evan Alex: A lot of pressure.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Yeah, but I think it was a fun challenge. Jordan believed in us so much and he knew we could do it, but he just had to get out as much... Ha, "Get Out." He had to bring out as much as he could for him to get what he wanted for the film. I think that was a good way for him to talk to us. He told us how he wanted the scene to look, how he wanted it to feel, so I think that was a good way to get us out of shells and put an equal amount of work into both characters.
Evan Alex: It was really cool because you put an equal amount of work into your characters. Jordan can help you to understand a character's point of view. It's like what Optimus Prime says in all his movies...
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Oh my gosh...
Evan Alex: "One must fall and one must stand."
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Yeah, that's actually true! That's literally what this is.
Can you talk a little more about building... I don't want to say "evil" because the doppelgangers aren't exactly evil, but the alternate versions of your characters.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Zora and her doppelganger... I really wanted them to be polar opposites. Zora, she is a sloucher. She's always on her phone. She's really privileged, but she doesn't even see it. It goes over her head. I think her doppelganger has been preparing for the untethering her whole life and she learns to hate Zora so much, but she has an interest in her as well. "I wanna be you so much and I have to kill you."
I definitely got a playful feeling from her.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Yeah, right? It's like playing with her food because she knows she's gonna get her, so she might as well just take a little time with it.
Evan Alex: It's like you said. They just want to take their time. When I watched it I realized we have all these things that God had blessed us with and they didn't get it. They would be honored to have the privilege we get, but we don't even think it's privilege.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: We take it for granted, exactly.
Evan Alex: They would kill...
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Literally!
Evan Alex: Literally kill just to see the sun.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: And to feel happiness. That's one thing they just don't have.
The impression I get from hearing you guys talk is that you didn't have many days where you shot good and doppelganger on the same day. It sounds like it was one or the other.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Yeah. It was out of order sometimes, but we mostly did all the early scenes with us as the happy Wilson family near the end because we had built that relationship the whole time that by the end you could really see that we were like a real family.
Evan Alex: Especially when we got to hang out. When we were in Santa Cruz I asked Lupita (Nyong'o) if she wanted to go to the boardwalk with us because I felt like if we attached our performances would be so much better. We'd actually be a family.
I think maybe you just wanted to ride the Giant Dipper...
Evan Alex: No, I didn't ride it.
You didn't? I grew up in the Bay Area. I spent a lot of time at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk when I was a kid.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Seriously? Jordan rode it. A bunch of the cast and crew were actually riding all the rides during the shoot.
Evan Alex: I rode that one that was spinning like "Whooooooooo."
You mentioned that your doppelganger doesn't slouch and Evan, your doppelganger has a little spider crawl thing going on. Maybe you can talk a little more about the physicality you brought to those moments.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: During the audition, Jordan said that he wanted Zora's doppelganger to more sleek and more just on it all the time. Kind of like a cat. During the audition, I was doing Zora's doppelganger a totally different way, more like Evan's doppelganger. A little more like a monster. She's not really a monster, so why make her look like that? So, more sleek and more in attack mode all the time. I think that was a really smart way to portray her.
Evan Alex: For Bad Jason, he's not a villain. If he truly was a villain he would have killed Jason... like, if they were truly villains they would have just killed them (right away).
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Because they had the time!
Evan Alex: I feel like their family thought it was just wrong to kill them. I felt like they were like "We'll let you drag out your life as long as you can... until we kill you!"
Shahadi Wright Joseph: I also think they waited so long because they really just wanted to let them know why they were doing this because it would be very inhumane to just go to their house and just kill them without them knowing why. They wanted them to know what their life was really like and why they were doing this.
Evan Alex: Like Bad Jason. He has a temper, but a lot of kids have tempers. He had gone into that closet with Jason and he played his little game because he didn't want to just kill him.
Yeah, he seemed curious.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Exactly. Just like with Adelaide's doppelganger just fascinated with her and looking at her life and being like "This is what you have and this is what I have and it's not fair and that's why I have to do this."
Did Jordan give you any homework before you started? Was there anything he wanted you to watch or read?
Shahadi Wright Joseph: No. I know he gave some horror movies to Lupita to make her performance more authentic. I love horror movies so I watch them on my own! I think I've been preparing for this my whole life!
Evan Alex: No, naw. After watching Halloween I think I'm good for a while.