Jordan Peele didn't waste much time in crafting a follow-up to his Oscar-winning, hit horror/thriller Get Out. His latest directorial effort Us recently held its premiere screening at this year's SXSW in Austin, Texas. So far, critics have been raving about the movie and it looks like we may have a modern horror master on our hands. Sure, it may be a bit early to make such bold statements, but the man, by all accounts so far, is two for two in a big way. With the movie's release just around the corner, the cast and Peele descended upon SXSW to talk about the filmmaker's "new nightmare."
Us was one of the marquee projects making its way to the festival this year, with fans lining up around the block hours in advance to catch the premiere screening. I was able to attend an intimate q&a the night after the premiere screening with Jordan Peele and cast members Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Tim Heidecker, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Alex Evans. The panel was narrated by GodisRivera who, without spoiling anything for those who hadn't seen it, got them all to open up about the movie to those in attendance.
The cast started off the SXSW discussion by talking about the fact that they were required to play multiple roles in the movie. While Jordan Peele has been good about maintaining the secrets of his latest, this much has been revealed in the trailers. As such, it presented unique challenges for the actors. Lupita Nyong'o started things off, with Elizabeth Moss chiming in on that front as well.
Lupita Nyong'o: It was a challenge to play two roles in the same movie. The challenge is what attracted me to this film. Of course, working with Jordan Peele was high on my list. But playing these two characters, the main thing for me, the challenge was to sort them out in my head so that I could go from playing one to the other. Because on any given day I would be playing one character, then the next day the other, and sometimes I would play both in one day. So it was about finding the physical, emotional and psychological vocabulary to have them be distinct in my mind. Jordan and I had lengthy discussions about who these women were because they are separate individuals. They're diametrically opposed, but then they're also tethered together. Jordan gave me keywords for each one that had my imagination blossom. Those words I won't share because it might reveal too much, right?
Jordan Peele: I don't know what you're talking about.
Lupita Nyong'o: Amnesia here. I remember. That was the thing. And finding that physicality for me was the first thing so that I knew in my body who these people were on any given day.
Elisabeth Moss: For me, I just had a conversation with Jordan for about an hour on the phone that was just the most helpful think we could have done, I think. We talked a lot about the good and bad versions of my character. Being an actress I'm not unfamiliar with certain elements of the bad version of my character. It's sort of that person that we hope as actresses we are not. He allows you, like you mentioned, imagination and Jordan, one of the most incredible traits about you as a director is you allow for the actor to have the biggest imagination possible. There's nothing you can do that's too crazy, too funny, too weird, too scary. So you just sort of sparked my imagination with the script and with our conversation, as to how crazy this girl could be. But we also wanted to make sure, one of the big things we talked about was that it was very grounded in reality and that it was as real as possible. I had a lot of fun playing the other version of my character.
Following that, the chat diverted to Jordan Peele who, prior to asserting himself (rather quickly) as a master of modern horror, was known for his comedy. Even though Us is, by all early accounts, a true horror movie, comedy does have a role to play. Peeled talked a bit about that from his perspective.
Jordan Peele: In a way, when you build that much tension, when you're building tension and you create that dynamic, the audience is really ready for that release valve. So, when I put these comedic moments into a movie like this, it's not like when in a comedy scene when you're planning on sort of getting a laugh at these beats. It's more about trying to create grounded characters that react in a realistic way and if you have actors of this caliber who can access these very real, recognizable characters, it clicks. It was so amazing to watch the movie with a full audience last night because feeling those moments work, not only as a laugh, but also as a relief for the audience is a huge thing and it's important for the film.
Speaking more about the laughs, the chat transitioned to Winston Duke. The actor, coming hot off of last year's Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, plays a very different character here as the father of the family at the center of the story. And he's a big key to those comic relief moments in the movie.
Winston Duke: For me, Gabe represented a lot of dads I grew up with externally because I didn't have a father in my home. So how I saw fatherhood was a lot of times played out on TV. So I saw a lot of sitcom dads and I grew up thinking that's really what fatherhood was. When I saw Gabe, the all American dad was totally a concept for me and I wanted to bring that because that's what I know fatherhood as, and that's my own particular point of view of it. Those fathers kind of had a lot of dimension. They were never afraid to be funny. They were never afraid to be vulnerable. Carl Winslow was everything all in one. It was just that. To also lean into the function of what he was there to do, which was to sort of be the clown, but a clown is also functionally a truth teller. So, to be able to just be honest in moments, and sometimes be the voice of the audience, where you could be in the situation but still have enough distance from it where you could still find it funny was really important for me to convey with the character as well.
We then moved on to the younger cast members of Us, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, who play the children of this family. They both spoke a bit about their experience and what they managed to take away from the older cast members. Both totally held their own and asserted themselves as capable young stars on stage.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: It was really inspiring being around all of these talented adults. I think that Elizabeth once said in an interview that by the end of shooting it was kind of like a competition to make Jordan scared. Because, I think that for Evan and me, it was kind of satisfying seeing Jordan happy with us, because he is all the time, but when he's really proud of us it feels really good.
Evan Alex: Well, she took the words right out of my throat. The experience was really cool because working with Elizabeth, sorry that I called you Emma, and Tim and Lupita and Shahadi and Jordan, when he was proud of us it made me feel good. When I was seeing Lupita, how she would get prepared, I would use that in some of the scenes. So it helped me a lot. Thank you [to Lupita]. It was really a cool thing to do with all of them and it was really fun.
Following the premiere screening of the movie, #UsFirst began trending on Twitter. The hashtag relates to people within the black community and the media getting to screen the movie in advance at special screenings. Jordan Peele was asked about the place that the digital space has as it relates to conversations, not just about cinema, but about larger social issues, specifically within the black community.
Jordan Peele: This movie, like every movie I'll ever make, the reward for me is the conversation it sparks and I felt if this movie had gotten out into the world in some respect, but not to black Twitter, that would be a problem. And so I wanted just to make sure this conversation starts in the right way. This is a movie, I had never seen a horror movie that centers around a black family. Though this movie is not about race, that very notion in itself, I think is something I'm very proud of, and I'm very proud of the fact that movie can exist without being about race. It can transcend. Anyway, to come back and answer your question, yeah, the internet, the way people discuss this movie on the internet, whether it's through YouTube analysis, whether it's through Twitter, it's become one of the most important ways this movie effects the world because people walk away from this movie feeling and thinking one thing, when they start talking to other people and sharing thoughts, it becomes a whole different thing. I'm just excited to watch.
When the first trailer for Us dropped, there was a lot of conversation around the use of the song I Got 5 on It. Music has its part to play in this movie, as it does with all movies. Jordan Peele talked a bit about his approach to the music in his latest effort and how it was used to make the movie more effective.
Jordan Peele: First of all, my composer Michael Abels, who also did Get Out, he just crushed it on this one. I think it's a very, very special score. I've developed this love for the well-timed needle drop. Spike [Lee] does it, [Quentin] Tarantino, [Martin] Scorsese do it. These guys are huge influences. When an interesting song is used in a horror movie to good effect, I eat it up. That's a big part of what we're trying to do.
Another challenge for the cast was having to convey certain emotions in a scene with no dialogue. Tim Heidecker who, like Jordan Peele, is best known for his comedic work prior to this, finally got in on the conversation. In this case, he was back to his comedic ways.
Tim Heidecker: You don't have to remember any lines. So it's pretty easy. Tell me where to look, Jordan. Smile this much? A little more? A little less? Okay. Hold it? Okay, we're good. Pretty much, right?
Jordan Peele: Every one of these actors has a unique methodology and a unique instrument. They've got their history and their training and their different skill sets. One of the most fun things for me is trying to meet them at their ideal process. For someone like Tim...
Tim Heidecker: Like me.
Jordan Peele: Someone. Not Tim specifically, but if I were to talk about someone who shared his qualities, I would be included to give him premises and let him improvise. Let him find some things, find his character. What I found, without getting too far into it, he has a pretty extraordinary physicality.
Tim Heidecker: It's true.
Jordan Peele: We have some dancers on the stage here today but Tim was kind of a surprise in his physical prowess.
Tim Heidecker: Thank you. Yeah, I hurt my back a little bit doing some stuff. I didn't stretch. But the camera is so close to you and I think we all know after making stuff that you can very quickly go into a place of over-the-top unbelievability. When stuff works, it usually feels when it's very natural and small because the camera blows everything up onto a giant wall that you guys all see. I think it's checking in with everybody throughout and saying, "Is this too much? Is it not enough?" Then dialing it in.
Lupita Nyong'o: My experience, I don't really pay attention to lines or not lines. Obviously, when you have lines you have to memorize them, which is extra work, but you're telling a seamless story, right? And sometimes it calls for dialogue and sometimes it doesn't. So the commitment to your character's point of view and what they're fighting for exists whether you have lines or not. What I found actually more taxing than you did, we all have our different experiences, I found the challenge for me was sustaining a state when I was playing Adelaide, was sustaining a state of fear and determination all day, every day. That was challenging because it's a level of adrenaline that your body only naturally experiences for a brief spurt. But when you're acting in a horror film such as this, you have to sustain it all day long. So I had to find different mechanisms to renew that state of fear because, like Tim said, the camera is so close it can tell you're lying. That was a big challenge for me because I've never had to do that, to find ways to play games in my head to stay in that state.
To close things out, the cast was asked about how they've perhaps gotten in their own way in life, since being one's own worst enemy is a theme in Us. Tim Heidecker joked that saying dumb things on Twitter was his Achilles heel. Evan Alex then talked about not going to bed early enough on nights before a long day of shooting. That prompted a closing remark for Jordan Peele, who complimented his cast with some kind words.
Jordan Peele: There were a few scenes where you [Evan] were about to nod off... The truth of the matter is, it was long hours, we had really long hours, everyone's playing two roles. This was something that was exhausting for the adults, and for these guys to keep up and stay in it, and stay in the game and regain that focus was a real feat. Those moments didn't bother me because when he got tired, he got even more real. I just can't say enough about how hard these guys fought. As an actor I've never shot a movie this intense and this many days, so my hat's off to you guys.
Luckily, those who couldn't attend SXSW this year to catch the premiere won't have to wait very long to get in on the horror thrills. Us is set to hit theaters on March 21 from Universal Pictures. This q&a has been edited for clarity.