For interpreting the character nuances in his highly anticipated follow-up to Get Out, Jordan Peele called in some Ivy League muscle.
His latest horror film, Us, has almost a dozen actors playing dual roles as part of a complex examination of identity and fear in the contemporary sociopolitical landscape.
Peele challenged his performers to play against themselves. And he credits Yale-trained actors such as Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen — the “Yale Black Mafia,” as he calls them — for helping to pull it off.
“This incredible squad of black Yale-trained actors is killing it right now,” Peele said during the South by Southwest Film Festival. “Working with them taught me a lot about what it means to dig deeper and deeper. I was very challenged by them. The illusion that the movie creates is a part of what I’m proud of, but it’s no small feat what these guys did.”
The story follows Adelaide (Nyong’o) and her husband, Gabe (Duke), who take their two children for a family vacation with friends at her childhood home on the California coast. While Adelaide confronts some dark secrets from her past, her family faces a more visceral threat from a gang of home intruders who look and talk just like them. As they decipher the meaning behind it all, the captives try to plot an escape.
“We looked at making them deeper than the surface-level monster. They’re not just there for the scare. These are individual characters that have depth,” Peele said. “I thought of the [doppelgangers] as, at least figuratively if not literally, a manifestation of our internal darkness, our guilt, the things that we suppress. We all have that shadow self in us somewhere. This movie is about exploring that.”
Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) admits she’s not a horror aficionado, but became a fan of Peele after seeing Get Out while she was making Black Panther. A few months later, she received the screenplay for Us and agreed to star almost immediately.
“He layers his films with so many different themes and devices,” Nyong’o said. “The characters we play are separate but linked. It was a challenge to sort it out in my head. I would be playing one character one day, and then the next the other. Jordan said I would be really tired, and he delivered. I was exhausted.”
Peele, 40, said he’s energized by the ways in which recent horror films have transcended genre trappings and addressed social issues. He shares those ambitions for his own work.
“I’m a fan of horror. I love most offerings in that space, as long as someone is basing a horror movie on a personal truth. I love the artists who are pushing the boundaries and giving us their own unique voice,” Peele said. “The biggest crime I can do as an artist it put forth something that doesn’t work. My DNA is the desire to provoke. If I’m not doing something that might piss people off, then I’m probably doing it wrong.”
Although Us doesn’t confront race as directly as his prior film, Peele said he intends to continue bringing culturally relevant stories to the screen with black actors and filmmakers playing critical roles.
“In terms of on-screen representation, there’s been for so long in the industry these business ideas that black people can’t open movies overseas, these myths that are brought on by a systemic racism. It’s a self-perpetuating prophecy,” he said. “We need opportunities to succeed and we need opportunities to fail. With this movie, I got to see a horror movie starring a black family that’s not about race, and hopefully we’ll make some money with it.
“What the world has been witnessing during the last few years is that it’s a worthy investment artistically and monetarily to see fresh talent and stories and perspectives that we’ve been deprived of. I’m always going to be looking to further the conversation about representation in all of my movies.”