Set in the picturesque world of Santa Cruz California, Us, written and directed by Oscar-winner Jordan Peele (Get Out), stars Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Black Panther) as Adelaide Wilson, a headstrong wife and mother of two, whose idyllic summer holiday becomes a fight for survival when a spectral family of doppelgangers - led by her own personal double ‘Red’ - arrive at the family’s front door. While the film itself relishes in pegging the fright meter to the max, its young stars Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex - playing siblings Zora and Jason Wilson (along with their otherworldly doubles Umbrae and Pluto) - simply had the time of their lives.
“Making these movies is not really that scary,” says Peele of the mechanical nature of filmmaking itself. “Making them, we’re always seeing behind the curtain and anything that even begins to approach being actually scary, I will rethink how I’m doing it. Because there’s no movie, no amount of money, that would justify bringing any kind of trauma to a kid.” “We were also [the ones] playing the monsters,” says Lupida Nyong’o of the shoot. “We were the ones scaring ourselves... We were always doing one side [of a scene] and then doing the other side. It actually wasn’t a frightful thing to shoot.”
A native New Yorker, Shahadi Wright Joseph marked her Broadway debut as a nine-year-old, playing Young Nala in The Lion King, which she reprised in the live-action new release of the Disney classic. She joined the original Broadway cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock: The Musical, in 2015 and the 2016 cast of NBC television’s Emmy-award winning production of Hairspray Live!.
Moving to California with his family at the age of seven, Evan Alex got his start with an episode of Sesame Street (2017) and marked his big screen debut with Us.
The pair sat down with the press in Los Angeles to discuss making of their new film:
How did your casting in Us come about - and what was it like meeting director, Jordan Peele for the first time?
EA: We met Jordan [Peele, Director] at the same time at the audition. He was actually kind of sick the first time we met him.
SWJ: So we couldn’t hug him, but we really wanted to (laughs). But it was great because he explained the scenes so well. The scenes were so vague that he sent me to audition with that, but you couldn’t really make out anything else of the bigger story from it so he explained it to me when I got there which helped me a lot. He was very supportive and very welcoming.
Did you play both of your parts – Zora Wilson and Umbrae - at the audition?
SWJ: Yes. I got two scenes, but not from the film. One scene was a girl, exactly like Zora and the other scene was more like Umbrae, which was kind of fun (laughs).
What did your parents say when you got cast? Did you discuss it?
SWJ: We did. Mostly we were talking about how big this film was going to be and what that meant in terms of people [recognising you]. But, you know, I was just so excited to start rehearsals and to have the best experience of my life.
EA: Same, here.
But in a horror movie?
SWJ: I love horror, so it didn’t really matter to me and I love Jordan Peele as a director, so it was really great.
What’s the scariest horror movie you’ve seen?
SWJ: I saw The Exorcist (1973). It was funny.
You thought The Exorcist (1973) was funny?
SWJ: Yeah (laughs). What else? I saw The Shining (1980). It was funny in some parts (laughs). I think that was mostly just nervous laughs for me, though but it was great. I loved that one.
Did your life change when you got cast in the movie?
EA: Yes… It’s like winning an Oscar. You just don’t expect it.
SWJ: (Laughs) Because you know everything about winning an Oscar?
EA: No, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it on TV. They don’t expect it to happen. It’s a surprise!
SWJ: It did come kind of quickly. You know all of the attention. I really don’t like attention that much.
EA: You’re shy.
SWJ: I am (laughs)…
Did Jordan Peele ask you to watch certain films to get ready for Us?
SWJ: No, he didn’t. But I just love horror movies, so I just watch them anyway. Sometimes we binge watch them on sleepovers. I like The Babadook (2014) but I didn’t finish 1922 (2017). I fell asleep…And of course Get Out (2017). I love Get Out.
Did you rehearse many of the scenes before shooting them?
SWJ: We did, but not a lot of them.
EA: We really wanted to just get into them.
SWJ: We really just rehearsed the toughest scenes to do, which were basically about the Wilsons being vulnerable together.
Tell us about filming the action sequences.
SWJ: They were a lot of fun to shoot but it was double the work. For the more involved stuff, Jordan Peele [asked us] to tell the [stunt] doubles how our characters would really stand so that we could help them look more like us. That helped a lot – they’re incredible.
Which was easier to play, the Wilson characters or their otherworldly twins?
SWJ: Easiest? The Wilsons. I could relate to Zora so much. I think she’s relatable to basically any thirteen year old girl so it was really easy to portray her.
EA: The hard part about playing the doubles was… Well, with Pluto, it’s how he can move so freely while he’s crawling around on the ground.
Was that always you?
EA: Sometimes it was me. Sometimes it was my stunt double (laughs) - who’s an adult!
SWJ: The hardest part for me, I think, was just trying to be the opposite of myself. It can sometimes get really uncomfortable but I think Jordan really created a great environment for us to support each other and that really helped.
How did you get under the skin of your shadow character, Umbrae?
SWJ: I would take a minute before shooting a scene. Thinking like Umbrae and things that she’s gone through and why they are all determined to do what they set out to do - that anger that she has. But, she was also very interested in Zora as well, because she really just wanted to be her. She just wasn’t lucky enough to be the one to live like her.
How long did it take you to get her devious smile down?
SWJ: It didn’t take me too long. When I read the script it said that Umbrae was born laughing and that she had a really devious smile and so I was like, okay, I have to figure this out (laughs). It only took a couple of days to really get it down. At first it was kind of like a smirk, then it turned into a weird face and then it became a smile – and Jordan loved that one so we went with it.
What happens when the two characters you’re playing are in the same scene?
SWJ: They [sometimes] used digital face-replacement when we had stunt doubles.
EA: [Or] we’d film scenes two times. One time with the [stunt] doubles being bad and [us as] the Wilsons being good and then the other time as us being bad and then the doubles being good.
Did you know the entire script and the ending ahead of shooting?
EA: We did but every scene we did we would also have those little scripts, just what we were filming [that day], so we wouldn’t have to learn every single thing, as if we were doing the whole movie in one take.
SWJ: We would get a 24 hour notice on what scenes we were doing, and a little mini script of what that would be. We’d already have it memorised but would use that as a refresher.
Was it as scary to make the film as it was to watch it?
SWJ: It’s definitely scarier to watch it.
EA: It wasn’t so scary [on set] because we knew everybody.
SWJ: You’ve created relationships with everybody, so it’s not really scary being around them.
What makes Jordan Peele so good as a director?
EA: It’s how he thinks. He can go really deep into a horror film, but he also makes you feel comfortable filming something. He’d always brighten the mood while making it.
What was the thing that surprised you most about making the film with him?
SWJ: What really surprised me was that Jordan really wasn’t that intimidating. I thought that he would be, because he’s so talented and so successful but he’s really just so nice to everybody and he created such a great environment for everybody to work in. I definitely want to work with him in the future.
What was it like when you saw the film cut together for the first time?
SWJ: It was just so incredible. You know, I was kind of shocked. It’s like, “I’m here but I’m there.” (laughs). I also remembered shooting all of the scenes and what was happening in between shooting them but actually seeing the finished movie... It was just incredible.
Us is out on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-Ray and DVD today.
Tagged in Horror