‘Us’ kids Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex on playing doppelgangers for Jordan Peele
In one of the most terrifying moments of Jordan Peele’s latest horror thriller, “Us,” now playing in wide release, the Wilson family (played by Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and young actors Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) are confronted by their own menacing doppelgangers in the darkened living room of a Santa Cruz vacation home.
The sequence, which brings the Wilsons face to face with their seemingly nefarious counterparts — known as “the Tethered” — for the first time, required multiple days of shooting, four body doubles and occasional facial replacement. It would have been a daunting task for the most experienced veteran, let alone two budding stars under the age of 18.
“That took about three days,” said Joseph during a press day at the London West Hollywood hotel following the film’s world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. The 13-year-old plays eldest daughter Zora and her counterpart, Umbrae.
“Oh yes,” said Alex, 10, who plays Zora’s younger brother, Jason, and his shadow, Pluto. “That was hard. Especially because we were in front of the fire.”
“Yeah, the fire was really hot,” Joseph agreed. “We were crying for a long time; we were dehydrated. It was great, though. The end product was incredible.”
What makes that initial confrontation so impressive is the dramatic contrast between the “ordinary” Wilson family and their murderous counterparts, especially considering that the actors were tasked with playing both roles in the same filming day. Alex called it “a challenge.”
“Sometimes, I had to go into makeup to put in [Pluto’s burn scars],” he said. “We’d come back as the ‘bads’ and we took like five minutes to get in sync with our character.”
“Right,” agreed Joseph. “Because it does take a while to really get into character and to really understand him or her. But it was actually a lot of fun. And Jordan really helped us by talking with us.”
The director, whose 2017 debut feature “Get Out” revolutionized black horror and won him a screenplay Oscar, would pull the young actors aside to convey what the scene meant to him, what he wanted to portray and what he wanted the audience to feel, Joseph recalled. “So that helped a lot. And it really pulled the team together.”
“He’s really silly and goofy on set,” she added. “But he gets into a different zone whenever we had to play our doppelgangers because he knows that we have our own processes for it.”
“When we were the ‘goods,’ he’d joke around,” said Alex. “When we were ‘bad,’ he wouldn’t goof around that much. He’d be focused.”
After sending in a self-tape, Joseph was invited by Peele to come in for a formal audition. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible,’ ” she said.
Alex followed a similar audition process, reading for Peele three times before being offered the role. The two actors first met during a chemistry read. “Jordan had to pick good actors,” Alex said. “But if they couldn’t work together well, the movie wasn’t going to do well.”
Working with Oscar-winning actress Nyong’o, who plays the Wilson matriarch Adelaide and her shadow (dubbed “Red” in the film’s end credits) was as instrumental as working with Peele, Alex said.
“She would teach us things and really help us get in the mood when we were working with her. You really got to feel the mood because how she would feel, you’d have to feel that way too.”
Both Joseph and Alex say they preferred playing the Tethered versions of themselves to the straight-laced Wilsons. “They’re so cool because they’re like, ‘We have trained for years for this day,’ ” said Alex of the Tethered and their master plan. “They’re amazing. Like how their movements were — how fast they could move just to kill their other selves.”
Alex, who has performed in over a dozen shorts and a handful of TV series, became interested in acting after his mom encouraged him to perform mini-scripts in exchange for treats.
“I didn’t even need treats because I already enjoyed doing it,” he said. “And then we moved to California and that’s where my acting career really [started].”
By contrast, Joseph got her start in musical theater, appearing in 2016’s “Hairspray Live!” and in the Broadway production of “The Lion King” before nabbing the role of young Nala in Jon Favreau’s upcoming photorealistic animated remake (Beyoncé voices her adult counterpart).
“Unfortunately, I did not get to meet Beyoncé and Donald Glover [who voices Simba],” she said. “But I hope to. I’ll definitely see them, probably, at the premiere and during press stuff. But it was great. I got to work with J.D. McCrary who plays young Simba, so I wasn’t totally alone.”
Both Joseph and Alex are self-described horror fans, though their film choices belie their young ages. (Born after 2005, they belong to Generation Alpha, or the generation that follows Gen Z.)
The two are also fans of Peele’s directorial feature debut, “Get Out,” though are careful not to liken that film with this one.
“I loved it,” said Alex, whose charmingly hyper personality is miles apart from both characters he portrays in the film. “It was creepy. I think the creepiest part is when you actually saw brain. It was just so nasty because it was like, ew.”
“Yeah, it was great,” said Joseph. “I think it’s definitely really different because of the theme. Jordan definitely wanted ‘Get Out’ to be about race and this one definitely isn’t.”
Instead, the film mostly sidesteps political and social commentary, focusing instead on the duality of the self and the finger-pointing that has intensified in the post-Trump era. Though Joseph has her own ideas about the film’s latent messages.
“The theme is, ‘We are our own worst enemy,’ ” she said. “So I think the story really circulates around that. You can definitely see how the Wilsons take simple necessities for granted that the Tethered don’t.”
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