Warning: Mild spoilers for Us ahead.
The concept of Jordan Peele's new film Us is fairly creepy on its own: The film follows the Wilson family on vacation in Santa Cruz, where they encounter underground, murderous versions of themselves. The red jumpsuit-wearing "villains" are the Tethered, underground beings bound to walk (literally) in the shadows of their above-ground counterparts and speak in twisted, cracked voices and guttural grunts. For very understandable reasons, that really pisses them off. So the film continues, in true horror film fashion, as the Tethered work to violently remove their unknowing captors, who are just doing their best to fight for survival. Peele has explained that the film is an introspective metaphor for the battles we fight within ourselves, which lends a sinister intimacy to the horror flick. But the actors who play both the Wilsons and their uncanny Tethered counterparts took it upon themselves to add a few more doses of terror themselves.
"Once we were in our bad looks, [Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke] would literally go into their roles for the whole day," actress Shahadi Wright Joseph, who plays the Wilsons' daughter Zora and the Tethered couple's daughter Umbrae, tells Refinery29. "You can definitely see the professionalism, but it was also kind of weird. They would be talking about normal things, like, 'Can I have some coffee?' And they're using a weird, creepy voice. And of course [Duke's Tethered character] Gabe, doesn't talk. So Winston would just grunt all day."
Wright Jones decided to follow Nyong'o and Duke's lead and join in on the method acting challenge. "I think that it definitely helped a lot."
But there were other subtle shifts that Wright Joseph credits to her co-stars, particularly Nyong'o. "Lupita actually suggested that the makeup artists take out the eyebrows [on the Tethered characters]. That was such a great idea because it's a slight change, and that's what gets you really uncomfortable because you've fallen in love with the Wilsons and their look," she explains. "It is really spine-chilling."
I saw that Umbrae was very fierce, and that she's powerful and confident. If she wasn't a murderer, she would be like every girl's dream.
Shahadi Wright Joseph
It makes sense that Wright Joseph, who's having a pretty big year with the release of Us (which originally scored a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes) and Disney's The Lion King, is so enamoured of her co-stars and their methods. While she got her start on Broadway (she played young Nala in the stage version of The Lion King, just like she does in the upcoming film where Beyoncé plays adult Nala, NBD), these are her first major film roles and she's working with an Oscar-winning writer/director, an Oscar winning actress, and a beloved actor who stole the spotlight from the titular superhero in Black Panther — people that she's looked up to for as long as she can remember.
"Lupita has always been such a big inspiration for me ever since I was little, and of course Winston Duke as well, as soon as I saw Black Panther. He's funny and he's got such a big personality, so I definitely wanted to be a screen daughter for that," she says, admitting that she was a little intimidated by being cast in the project. "I really had to get out of my own head and just do the work. When I met Lupita and Winston, all the fears just went away."
And the final project after letting those fears melt away is, well, absolutely terrifying. Wright Joseph's creepy perma-smile as Umbrae, the Tethered to the Wilsons' teenage daughter, is something that will surely haunt audiences long after the credits roll. In fact, the actress says she even managed to scare herself. "It was a little bit terrifying. It's so weird seeing me like that," she says.
Still, there's something she kind of likes about her red-suited character. "I saw that Umbrae was very fierce, and that she's powerful and confident," she says, of her first time seeing Us. "If she wasn't a murderer, she would be like every girl's dream."