Lupita Nyong’o has a new appreciation for those characters in costume at amusement parks. Mainly because a few days before this interview, she was playing one of them at Universal Studios. It’s not what you’d expect for an Oscar-winner, but such is Nyong’o’s up-for-it attitude, she told Universal staff she’d be happy to throw on a boiler suit and reprise her Us character, Red, for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights.
Nyong’o’s publicist shows me a video of her in character at the park. Onscreen, a passing girl looks carefully at the actress’s face before realizing who she is, then literally bending double in shock, her hands to her mouth. But mostly, the park-goers shuffle through the spooky exhibit unnoticing, passing by Nyong’o and her creepy paper cut-out Us prop.
“I realized in that moment, when I was doing it, I was like, ‘Yo, this job is really hard,’” Nyong’o says, “Because not everyone that walks through the door is into it. They’re just like, ‘Yeah, this isn’t really for me, it’s not scaring me.’ Or they’re out to break your concentration. So, it’s hard to work in an environment where not everyone is respecting the suspense of disbelief.”
Jordan Peele’s Us is a deliciously dark, deep dive into humanity. The Wilsons, an apparently ordinary family on a beach vacation, are confronted one night by their doppelgängers, or ‘shadow’ selves—flipside versions of them who have somehow busted out of an underworld dimension. Although Nyong’o was faced with the grueling task of playing two versions of the same self—Adelaide Wilson and her counterpart, Red—her respect for Peele was tough to resist.
“I already had such a big artistic crush on Jordan,” she says. “I had already expressed to myself after seeing Get Out how I’d kill to work with him. Then, by the time I was reading the script, I was biased in his direction.”
Us does not outwardly make race a part of the story, which was part of its appeal to Nyong’o. “In Get Out, the subject on the table was race and its paradigms, and how that can affect and afflict one,” she says. “In Us, it’s class and privilege, and the fact that we have a Black family taking us through the story is a matter of circumstance. It’s not the exceptional thing. And that in itself I find radical and refreshing. People of color don’t always see the world through the color of their skin.”
During that initial read of the script, while she found the idea of playing both Adelaide and Red “intimidating”, she was wholly intrigued and went to Peele for further explanation. “Jordan writes in a very layered fashion and he writes with symbolism,” she says. “Things aren’t what they seem, and you can tell that this is calling on something bigger, something that has existed before, these cultural references, political references, cinematic references. I certainly didn’t understand the depth and the breadth of it in my first reading.”
What Peele explained he wanted to explore with the doppelgängers and their shadow world, was, Nyong’o says, “us being our own worst enemy, and the monster sometimes coming from within.” And given his intricate knowledge of the genre, Peele asked Nyong’o to watch a catalogue of horror films, including Dead Again, A Tale of Two Sisters, Let the Right One In, Signs, Martyrs, The Babadook, Annihilation and The Shining.
I explain how Sarah Paulson once told me her conjoined twins role in American Horror Story was the hardest thing she’d done to date. Nyong’o’s face lights up at the mention of Paulson, with whom she worked on 12 Years a Slave. “She’s amazing,” she says. Does Nyong’o relate, given the Adelaide/Red situation? “I can only imagine”, she says with reverence.
There was, of course, undeniable difficulty inherent in playing both Adelaide and Red. “I had to flip back and forth,” Nyong’o says of the shoot experience. “For the most part I wouldn’t shoot the same character on the same day. So at least I’d have a Red day and then an Adelaide day. On some rare occasions I had to do both.”
The main challenge was playing opposing sides of the same coin. “I was the offender and the offended; I was the hero and the villain,” she says. “I was playing both sides of an argument, coming for each other. That was the conflict. The conflict was between these two people. So, it was very complicated in my head.”
What made things even worse was the fact that towards the end of the story, a twist reveals that Adelaide and Red swapped places when they were young children, and mind-bendingly, their roles are actually the reverse of how they appear.
“I had to prepare and develop a roadmap for myself for their emotional and mental life,” Nyong’o says. “With Adelaide for example, we spoke a lot about her pursuit of normalcy. She doesn’t want anything but to pass. That’s her thing. She has a deep, dark secret, and she’s not trying to gain any attention. For that reason, I approached her with a more naturalistic performance sensibility.” What that looked like in practice was a sort of ‘folded-in’ stance, and a sense of concealment. “I tried to always hold her with more diagonal posture, twisted, in a way. She’s got something she’s hiding. She’s never straightforward in the way she stands.”
In contrast, Red has an utterly different sensibility and physicality. “She is who she says she is,” Nyong’o says. “She’s misunderstood, for sure, but she’s straightforward. And Jordan had talked about her having this regality, and also a cockroach quality to her. The way she moves, you can’t tell what direction she’s going to go, and cockroaches move in a very skittery manner. But then, also, her resilience.”
When Red speaks it is with a deep, rasping whisper—a sound Nyong’o describes as, “a hybrid that was specific to this fictional character, rather than a representation of one human experience or another.”
While Nyong’o has excellent form in the voicework department with her Maz Kanata role in Stars Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and as Raksha in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, Red’s sound was actually rather a high-risk endeavor. On the set of Black Panther, Nyong’o had previously damaged her voice. “You’re doing the fight scenes and you’re [yelling], using your voice,” she says. “And I used it irresponsibly and I injured myself and developed a vocal polyp.” Fortunately, surgery wasn’t necessary, but Nyong’o was anxious to avoid a repeat experience on Us. “I worked very closely with a vocal coach because I knew that I was treading on very dangerous ground,” she says.
Voicework has actually long been an interest of Nyong’o’s, and it was what brought her to drama school. “I had a Kenyan accent, and then I thought to myself, ‘Oh dear, I don’t know how many roles I’m going to get if all I can do is a Kenyan accent. It’s going to be a very, very short career.’ I went to expand my vocal abilities, and that’s where I experimented the most, in school. I’ve always been fascinated by accent and vocal register.”
Nyong’o’s passion for story is also clear. Her next role is producing and starring in Americanah, based on the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. With her Black Panther co-star Danai Gurira as writer and showrunner, the project received a straight-to-series order from HBO Max. It follows the story of a couple torn apart by racial prejudice and Nigeria’s political situation, and Nyong’o has, in fact, been the champion of this adaptation from the beginning. “I read this book back in 2013,” she says. “This was before 12 Years a Slave came out, which was my first film. I had just never seen the African contemporary diasporic experience explored and celebrated and analyzed like this book did it. And so, I immediately went after the writer for the rights to adapt it. And I had no clout. I had nothing to my name except, ‘Oh, I’m going to be in this film that’s coming out soon.’ I had no idea what 12 Years was going to do in the world. But I just knew that I really loved this character and I could see the cinematic potential of it.”
Eventually Nyong’o was able to leverage her newfound star power to get the rights and make a deal with Plan B with whom she made 12 Years a Slave. “Finally, five years later, it’s coming to fruition.”
She’s also currently enjoying New York Times bestseller status with her first book, Sulwe, about a young dark-skinned girl facing colorism, while her lighter-skinned sister receives praise—a situation that mirrors Nyong’o’s own experience. She says while it’s “a more magical interpretation” of her life, it feels very close to her, and seeing it being loved by children is a very emotional experience. “It rips my heart out,” she says. “And it was really rewarding to make. I really enjoyed the writing process. I hope that I can find that compulsion to write again.”
And of course, there’s another episode of Star Wars in the offing. This time it’s The Rise of Skywalker. Will we see a lot more of Maz onscreen this time? “I haven’t seen it, I won’t see it,” she says. “They never let you see these things beforehand. Although, maybe, I don’t know. Let’s see how J.J. [Abrams] is feeling this time.” Nyong’o smiles and with a note of polite self-deprecation in her voice, adds, “I don’t know what the final thing’s going to look like, but from what I saw, I am in it.”