[Editor’s note: This post and podcast contain spoilers for “Us.”]
Lupita Nyong’o’s scarily good performance anchors Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us.” Playing dual roles as the seemingly normal wife and mother, Adelaide Wilson, and Adelaide’s nefarious doppelgänger, Red, she had to be judge and advocate for both characters even as they were at odds. On any given day during the production, she was asked to switch from one to the other, and then back again. The daunting challenge amounted to a physical and psychological workout that took an immense toll on her — and now, following a surprise Best Actress win from the New York Film Critics Circle this week, it may score the Oscar-winning actress another nomination.
“When I was done with this film, I felt bent, quite physically, and I felt drained, emotionally,” Nyong’o said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I stretched my muscles and reached into the depth of my training and my being to work on this movie, and I definitely had a moment of rupture.”
That much is evident in the performance. Watching “Us,” one can sense Nyong’o operating on an entirely different plane than her fellow cast members, including Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex.
But a lot about Nyong’o role came from the way she juggled its demands before the shooting started. “Us” found her playing two contrasting characters whose paths are intertwined, and she went to great lengths to create these individual yet interdependent characters, from their manner of speech to their distinct gaits.
For Red, Nyong’o’s way into the character was her voice. To make Red sound distinctive, Nyong’o mimicked a voice condition called spasmodic dysphonia (SD), a neurological disorder that causes involuntary spasms of the larynx, typically brought about by trauma. Researching the disability, which required meeting with people who had it, helped ground her eventual performance. She used Red’s grim backstory as the root of the character’s trauma that led to her voice condition. “Red is queen and cockroach, with a sereneness to her, but also a menace,” Nyong’o said. “She’s full of suppressed rage, and is all id, which I wanted to punctuate with her voice.”
And it was a haunting, effective interpretation of SD — so much so that, after the film’s release, she had to contend with accusations from the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association (NSDA) that she trivialized the disability. She issued a detailed apology to the NSDA. “I didn’t intend to demonize it, so much as I was trying to ground the character in the real world,” she said.
For Adelaide, Nyong’o’s entry into the character was more physical. In the closing moments, the film reveals that Adelaide was originally born as one of the tethered, but Nyong’o used that detail to fuel her performance throughout the story.
“She’s not from this world, and so she’s constantly making a mental effort to seem like she is, in order to keep her secret safe,” Nyong’o said. “But despite her best efforts, she feels like she’s not convincing enough. So I gave her this self-consciousness, which puts her in an almost constant state of anxiety and frustration.”
Both characters learned ballet at an early age, so the actress took ballet lessons to help understand how they would move around in space. “It was very important to me to grasp the rigorous regulation of the body that is necessary to be a ballerina, especially when it came to Red, who is much more precise in her movements,” she said. “It’s a practice that’s very exact, and there’s a relationship with form that requires a great deal of discipline.”
It was that same discipline that she relied on in order to film scenes as both characters, even when they were in the same space, which typically meant reacting to a green screen — and nothing else. “It was unlike anything I had done before,” she said. “I had to be very accurate in terms of my physical and emotional language.”
Peele has said that he wrote both characters with Nyong’o in mind, and together, they worked closely to interpret the script and give Adelaide and Red their personalities and motivations. “Right out of the gate, she was asking questions about the characters that I didn’t know the answer to — and I knew everything about them,” Peele told the New York Times.
“Jordan created this world and so, as an actor, I had to interrogate him, to get as much information out of his mind as I needed to do my job well,” Nyong’o said. “So, yes, we spent a lot of time in conversation, with me asking an exhaustive amount of questions, so I could deliver the best performance possible.”
Then she took the most ambitious step: Staying in character on set, and intentionally isolating herself from the cast and crew, especially when she was filming scenes for Red. “When I’m working, I think about what would be beneficial for me to do my best work, and this one took a certain kind of wielding the darkness, in order to be ready when Jordan called action,” she said. “So in a bid to stay in the zone, I would minimize my interaction with the world, so I wouldn’t lose my vocal posture.”
It was a method that influenced the energy on the set, as cast and crew would often whisper when communicating with each other, so as not to disrupt her process (the actress stressed that she didn’t make this a requirement in her presence). “The character was influencing the energy on the set,” she said. “But in my estimation, I don’t think it was a deterrent to what people needed to do and I actually do think it helped keep everybody on their toes, and just working on another level.”
“Us” was one of the best reviewed and most successful films of 2019, earning over $255 million in global box office, on a budget of just $20 million. That ultimately fueled speculation about a sequel, leading a reticent Peele to admit that he could be convinced to return to tell another story. Nyong’o herself has been ambivalent about the idea. “Never say never,” she said. “Ultimately, I really do love the work we created together, and how imaginative it is. Obviously, I’m in love with Jordan’s mind and the work that comes out of it. And in this case, that includes the role that he bestowed on me.”