While our fractured America remains under the metaphorical microscope of the Oscar-winning “Get Out” auteur, his aim has only grown more complex and ambitious in his second directorial effort. When “Us” opens March 22, it’s guaranteed to leave audiences with a few burning questions, the hip-hop classic “I Got 5 On It” ringing in their ears, and a healthy fear of scissors.
Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide Wilson, a woman whose Santa Cruz vacay with husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex) is interrupted when a quartet of deranged doppelgängers appear one night in their driveway. The shadow family is led by Adelaide’s twisted double — a woman known as “Red” — and she has a plan.
Mayhem is unleashed, along with Peele’s signature humor and deftly orchestrated chills and thrills. The cast delivers stunning dual performances as both their primary characters and their malicious mirror-image counterparts, known as the Tethered, who sport red jumpsuits and a single glove.
Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss are also on board as well-to-do white friends of the Wilsons, but the film avoids the sort of specific examinations of race that might be expected of Peele’s “Get Out” encore in search of more internal and wide-reaching targets.
Where “Get Out” interrogated a kind of racism that hides in plain sight within liberal America, “Us” “is not a movie about race — but it is, to me, about filling in another gap in representation,” says Peele, “and that is this idea that I haven’t seen a horror movie about a black family.”
Debuting “Us” to a rapturous reception and rave reviews last week on opening night of the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, “the feeling was electric,” Peele said a few days later in Los Angeles, still excited by the early forming discussions around the film. “I felt like people’s eyes and ears were open and ready to receive this film, and there are so many ways this movie is designed to be challenging.”
Two years ago, “Get Out” made a similar splash as a surprise midnight screening at Sundance, premiering to a wave of positive reactions before riding that buzz all the way to four Oscar nominations and an original screenplay win for Peele.
Joined by Nyong’o and Duke at the London West Hollywood, Peele explained how the seeds of “Us” took root when he was finishing “Get Out,” unable to ignore the post-election division he was seeing all across America.
“I think [‘Us’] is more than a political movie,” said Peele, “but in the post-Trump era, the finger-pointing in this country was turned up to a whole different notch — whether it’s the finger-pointing at the outsider, the mysterious invader, or the finger-pointing at other Americans who voted a different way.”
“The feeling that we all feel we are the good guy in our own story prevents us from facing our demons,” he continued. “I wanted to make a movie that allows everybody to face their demons, in whatever faction you want to put this movie through the prism of. But as a starting point ... the United States and our xenophobia was the front and center idea to grapple with.”
Although primarily set in the present day, “Us” opens at a beachside boardwalk carnival circa 1986, and cultural landmarks of that era reverberate throughout the film.
“[It’s] a time that held a great duality for me,” said Peele, who makes references early on in his film to “Thriller” and Michael Jackson — “a person with a great duality attached as well.” (Peele’s film arrives in theaters a few weeks after HBO’s incendiary documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which he has not yet seen. “Apparently, I must,” he said with a nod.)
“It’s no mistake, it’s no coincidence, that the Tethered are wearing red and have one glove, either,” he said. “We address a few of the phenomena that were happening at that time. For me, growing up, it was a very confusing time.”
The duality that a young Peele saw in “Thriller”-era Jackson was the superstar and the monster, he said. “But you talk about things like Hands Across America and even the Challenger disaster,” Peele says of the Reagan years, and “there was this kind of almost Stepford-creepy sense of American hope that we can do anything as long as we just hold our hands together, that we can reach the moon if we want.
“And there’s a very dark side of that which I still feel. All of that imagery, Michael Jackson included, is about the duality of that time.”
While working on the screenplay for “Us” he ran into Nyong’o, who won her Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” and starred in last year’s blockbuster “Black Panther,” at an event and told her he was writing something with her in mind. Later, they dove deep into the script during a long phone conversation.
“She started asking really good questions, questions that I didn’t have answers for,” he said, “so the discussion immediately challenged me. [That] was one more piece of excitement for me because your fear as a director comes from, ‘What happens when I get to that thing I don’t know the answer to?’ And when we got to those points, beautiful realizations came from it.”
In addition to analyzing the themes, motifs and references Peele planned to employ in “Us” — including the charitable stunt Hands Across America, white rabbits and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk made famous in the ‘80s classic “The Lost Boys” — his stars did their cinematic research to become more fluent in a previously unfamiliar world: horror movies.
“I wanted to be able to talk to these guys the way I can talk to my horror fan buds, super nerds, about horror movies. And part of it is just having these reference points and being able to go, ‘You know how in that one movie, that happened? This is kind of like that, but different,’” said Peele.
Among those film references: Kenneth Branagh’s “Dead Again,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” the sci-fi classic “Alien,” the Korean psychological horror “A Tale of Two Sisters,” and “Mirror Image,” a chilling episode of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” the spooky sci-fi anthology series Peele is rebooting for CBS All Access this April.
But there was also mischief to Peele’s method: “Lupita was very clear that she was very scared of horror movies, and that to me was like, ‘Mwahahahaha!’ ”
Nyong’o agreed. “I didn’t think about that aspect when I said yes to his film,” she said. “I was like, ‘Give me some films to watch’ and he sent me this list. With the last one, he wrote: ‘Enter at your own risk.’ It was ‘Martyrs,’ ” she said of the ultra-violent 2008 French horror film.
“There was a slow progression — it started with ‘Dead Again,’ which I was like, ‘OK’ ; ‘Let the Right One In’ — quite romantic. And then it just kept getting more and more dark and horrific. By the time I watched ‘Martyrs,’ I tried to watch it early at night, so I asked my friend to come over at 7 and we were done by 9:30, and I was so shaken. Then he said, ‘OK, see you.’ And I just started crying, ‘Please don’t go.’ And he had to stay for like another two hours.”
“It’s also very fun, interesting and informative for me to understand what specifically makes these guys afraid,” said Peele. “With Lupita, I found that things that have her questioning her own sanity is the sweet spot.”
“Accurate,” she answered. Duke, who previously worked with Nyong’o on his debut film, “Black Panther,” had a different relationship with the genre.
“I didn’t have any experience with it other than, like, watching ‘It’ or ‘Critters’ as a kid,” he said. “I was like, ‘There are no black people in here.’ Or, ‘They die quick.’ They’re the first sacrifices to the genre, so there’s not really anything that gives us a chance to show ourselves, so I had a weird, distant relationship with horror.”
Peele turned to Duke. “I had you experience one of my worst fears, which is an open body of water at night.”
“Yeah, that wasn’t fun,” Duke said with a laugh. “It’s rare to feel completely dropped in and living in your purpose,” he said. “The film is attached to everything that I’ve identified for myself as the kind of artist I want to be in the world. I want my work to have a social justice footprint. This is a social justice burying-your-whole-body-in-the-sand.”
He turned to Peele. “One of my favorite things about your movies is that they are essentially reframing and redefining things. With our movie, we interrogate what power and convenience and privilege actually look like and how violent it actually is, whether you’re intentionally participating in it, or if you’re just like Zora and clicking and swiping [on a smartphone] but not thinking about arms or legs being cut off overseas to get you the parts and minerals to get you these phones that you buy.
“It’s a re-imagination of violence: What does violence really look like? Who’s actually being violent? The people with the scissors — the actual weapons — or the people with the toys who are blind to it? Which culture is actually more violent?”
Both Duke and Nyong’o speak of the psychological impact of the demanding shoot, which required the actors to flip between their main characters and their Tethered counterparts, sometimes in the span of the same filming day. For a key moment in the final act, Nyong’o spent 16 hours a day staging a challenging stunt sequence.
The actress has been earning early acclaim for her gut-wrenching dual performance as Adelaide and Red, probing deeply into both characters to craft different movements, accents and mannerisms that distinguish them as wholly disparate women. She rooted the Adelaide character in the spatial awareness of a former ballet dancer, as Peele had written her in the script, and gave Red’s movements an unpredictable and uncannily cockroach-like scurry.
Even more challenging was locating equal empathy within herself to bring both characters to life.
“This story is very much about Adelaide, but it’s also very much about Red; they’re both heroes of their own stories,” she said. “So it was about making sure I approached them with that commitment — and it was a challenge, to have to advocate for two diametrically opposed sides, but it’s also the thing that made me grow the most as an artist.”
To find Red’s voice — a haunting, halted cadence that escapes from her throat — Nyong’o was inspired by a neurological voice disorder she researched and developed for her character.
“I was actually inspired by the condition spasmodic dysphonia, which is a condition that is caused by trauma,” Nyong’o said of her painstaking process of research and vocal training. “Sometimes, it can be physical, sometimes it can be emotional or even spiritual; it’s inexplicable sometimes how people end up with this condition — but it results in your vocal chords involuntarily spasming and creating an irregular flow of air.”
“A couple weeks before shooting, she pulls me into a room and shows me the voice for the first time, and it really was like nothing I’d ever heard in film,” said Peele. “The mood when these guys were in the ‘bad’ — it was just crazy how the atmosphere in the room on set would shift. And these guys were in it, by the way. They were not budging from their characters.”
“It was particularly hard to wait in [the character of] Red,” said Nyong’o. “Because there is a very isolated quality to the Red world.” On set, she says, people would avoid making eye contact with the actress when she was in her Tethered character. “Everybody whispered around me, which I really liked.”
Only Peele was brave enough to come visit her on set while she was in the “bad” place. “She’d be standing in the corner, just terrifying,” he joked.
As Red reflected the darkest counterparts to Adelaide’s seemingly idyllic life, so too did Duke’s Tethered persona, the imposing and brutal Abraham, represent a polar extreme to Adelaide’s loving — if status-obsessed — husband, Gabe.
“I felt like Abraham needed Red at all times,” said Duke. “She was the light in the tunnel. So on the days when we were the Red family, I never felt comfortable if she wasn’t in sight.”
“Which was its own challenge,” Nyong’o quipped with a grin.
All three hope that “Us” sparks conversations around a range of topics including systems of privilege, inequality, violence and destruction.
“Accepting the duality that, actually, evil is human,” said Nyong’o. “Darkness is a part of being human. Oftentimes, you’ll hear there have been atrocities in the world and people will say, ‘How inhumane.’ But the more distance we put with such things, the harder it is to keep them under control, because humans do heinous things and they do not lose their humanity when they do.”
“They employ it,” said Duke.