Lupita Nyong’o is the new face(s) of horror. As the leading ladies in Jordan Peele’s deeply unsettling new film ‘Us,’ Nyong’o lurches and rasps her way into the company of the genre’s most complex and chilling antagonists.
In conversation with Sam and Jaimee, Academy Award-winner (and generally incredible human) Nyong’o discusses her revolutionary twin roles in this ground- and record-breaking shocker, her research into Spasmodic Dysphonia (the condition that informed Red’s already-infamous voice), her “horror homework”, and playing “the Other.”
For more information about Spasmodic Dysphonia, click here.
*MILD SPOILERS FOR ‘US’*
Lupita Nyong’o: Hello
Sam: Hello Lupita, this is Sam from Frightday. I am here with Jaimee, who you know already.
Jaimee: Hi Lupita.
Lupita: Hi Jaimee! How are you?
Jaimee: I’m good how are you?
Lupita: I am good. Wow, it’s really good to hear your voice.
Jaimee: Aw, it’s good to hear your voice. It’s been a while.
Sam: What we were thinking for this interview and let us know of course if this works for you, we had some general horror-related questions and we wanted to make sure you had plenty of time to touch on all the really important things you need to talk through with Jaimee. Would that be something that works for you?
Lupita: Yeah, let’s go!
Sam: So Jordan Peele assigns you some research before the production started, ten of the all time great horror films which each explore different visions of things that scare us. What were some of the lessons that you learned from these films other than don’t watch Martyrs? I think that’s valuable input for someone who might be on the sensitive side.
Lupita: I know. I think there is something really interesting about the fact that horror films get made and people see them and there’s a lot of interest in that kind of scare tactic that they explore. And I think in watching them, I realized that horror films are a chance for us to deal with the darker things in our lives that we otherwise suppress or ignore, overlook. They’re a way for people to get together, suspend their disbelief, and invite fear that they can manage into their lives. Life can sometimes be more horrific than we care for it to be, and a horror film is a chance for us to project our fears onto something that is a little more in our control. So that was the thing that I took away from watching the horror films and putting myself in those uncomfortable situations.
I also learned for me, the best way to watch horror films was standing up and in the daylight and with a remote control in my hand so that I can control the speed at which it’s coming to me.
Sam: And running shoes on.
Lupita: Yes, of course.
Sam: Where does that kind of construct of why we watch horror and why we can confront these things, where do you think that really fits into Adelaide and Red’s universe?
Lupita: In the film Us, Adelaide is riddled with the fear of a trauma in her past and it holds her hostage in this way and she is convinced that something bad is going to happen. I wonder sometimes that we’re preoccupied with the negative whether we sometimes manifest it. That’s a question that I have. And in a sense, this trauma she’s proven right when her doppelganger shows up and leads her into the worst night of her life.
Sam: I couldn’t put it better myself. That’s a fantastic take on that. You seem to gravitate and this is drawing from Us and your recent past career, you seem to gravitate towards characters who live for better or for worse on the other side whether it’s the Tethered, the Resistance, Wakanda, or Patsy in 12 Years a Slave.
Lupita: Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess I’ve never drawn that conclusion myself in such a neat way, but I think that being an African myself and being black I think it’s often that we occupy the periphery of narratives so it’s a perspective that I’m familiar with, you know the underdog. Perhaps there’s an innate interest in me to kind of bring those peripheral people to the fore into the center .
Sam: We love horror as a genre and when horror is at its best, those are the things that it helps us think about or sometimes kind of forces us to think about.
Lupita: Yeah and I think also in a sense when I think about adolescence and people talking about their history, there’s always a sense of, there are very few number of people that feel like they represent the mainstream. At one point or another and maybe just part of growing up, that you start to recognize yourself as a separate entity from everyone else and you kind of have to contend with that, so there’s the potential for underdog in just about all of us I think.
Sam: As an underdog, I really appreciate that perspective.
Jaimee: Wonderfully said.
Sam: So the voice.
Lupita: Yes, the voice.
Sam: I promise this is not a loaded question at all. It’s been reported that Jordan asked you for “scratchy” in his words, and you brought the voice to work. I know before filming you had a chance to speak with some people with spasmodic dysphonia including Jaimee right here.
Lupita: Yes indeed! That’s how we met.
Jaimee: The beauty of my otolaryngologist, huh.
I was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia five years ago while I was a contestant on MasterChef and my voice is breaking down, I was overworked. But it wasn’t until after the show and all the exposure that I was then diagnosed. I went to an otolaryngologist and he goes, “I know an actress. She needs some help researching for her character development. She knows a lot about spasmodic dysphonia,” and then I started talking to you.
You’ve read the stories are the stories about Robert Kennedy Jr. but where did you first learn about spasmodic dysphonia?
Lupita: First of all, I want to say that the voice is in no way a mimicry of the condition. My research of it and exploration with you and talking to you was always about having a better understanding about the various ways in which the human voice can be affected by disorders, by trauma, by different things. So spasmodic dysphonia is one thing that influenced it and it was the one thing that I chose to speak about because I was so struck when I spoke to you, when I spoke to a few other people. First of all, I didn’t know anything about the condition when this all started and I know how marginal it is. My speaking about it and leading with it as the inspiration for my voice was just in a bit to shed more light on it. That said, way before we started filming, what is written in the script was that she hadn’t used her voice in a long time and for those who’ve seen the film–I’m sorry I have to spoil it by saying we learn that she had been attacked, her throat had been attacked. So those two things have been really interesting to me and I thought how would a throat injury affect your voice.
I was at this fashion event with this question on my mind everyday, and I heard Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speak. I had never heard of spasmodic dysphonia and I had definitely never heard someone speak with it. I was quite struck and he had my full attention. I heard every word he said despite the choppiness in his voice so that really caught my attention. I looked him up and I looked up condition and that’s what led me to speak to Dr. Michael Pitman, and then to you. I was really interested in exploring all sorts of different conditions and this one just enraptured and basically opened a door, a portal in my creative process, and I was so grateful for that because it kind of unlocked it.
So anyway, in the end I built on that. I myself have had vocal injuries and it’s such a debilitating thing, as I’m sure you can appreciate, when your voice no longer sounds like you intend it to sound. It’s a trauma that affects your confidence in such a surprising way and I had it in a small way when I developed a polyp on my vocal folds.
Jaimee: Yeah, and you were treated by Dr. Pitman too, right?
Lupita: Yeah, that’s the history of it and that was the inspiration so in the end. When you meet Red, she’s a composite of influences and in no way is she a representation of one condition or another.
Jaimee: I am floored right now. That was perfectly said and I am so happy you got to tell people this because I feel like there’s been a lot of negative comments coming about it just being spasmodic dysphonia and it was a reference of course, but there are so many other parts. When we saw the movie, it fit Red perfectly. I have just so many words.
Sam: We saw it on opening night here in town. When Red, spoke there’s a whole row of people that just leans up and looks at Jaimee and she just has the biggest smile on her face it was really gratifying.
Lupita: That makes me so happy, Jaimee! That touches my heart.
Jaimee: I’m glad. You and I had such a deep conversation about it, and I remember saying all these references and we were on the phone for at least an hour. By like 30 minutes in, we were both just like, “I feel like we could just be friends.” And the other thing is and a lot of people probably don’t know this like you said, you have suffered from a vocal injury as well. Though it’s not permanent, you do understand how traumatic it can be, how it affects your everyday life. It sucks really. I know a lot of people have been kind of negative and not really seeing the voice of Red as a multifaceted character.
Lupita: Exactly, right. I’ve always said I’m inspired by it and I’ve always wanted to pay homage to the origin, the beginning. Really, the beginning of my creative process. But I think in doing that it’s been reported, it’s so easy for words to be replaced and for things to be built on and then words have been tagged onto Red like “evil” and “creepy” and all that, which were all words that–actually that was one of the challenges for me doing a horror film. I was so intimidated by being scary, what does it mean to be scary? And so as part of my process I had to cancel the pressure to be scary in order to do my work as an actor. I had to be like, what I have to find is the truth of the motivations of this woman because I don’t think scary people are walking around thinking that they’re scary. They’re just going after the thing that they want and they’re going after it definitively. In Red’s mind, she is right. She’s going after justice. For me, I had to completely not judge Red for what she was doing in order to portray her in an empathetic way. I get that you know that it is a horror film and therefore words such as evil and creepy are actually compliments in a certain way, and I get that how they can then riddle people who haven’t seen the film, who are just reading the little blurb or you know the little snip-it on the news, and I can see how they could be offended by that. There’s also a lot of people who have sinister motives who are going to use those things against those people. That wasn’t my intention at all. My intention was always to build a three dimensional actor that felt real, that was grounded in something that wasn’t a caricature. I didn’t want to just be scary. I wanted to be truthful and I wanted to be exacting because I think that’s what the role called for and I wanted her voice to represent the trauma of her history. I think it’s really healthy for people to be able to air their concerns and hopefully some good comes out of this at the end of the day. Red is a character that I love and that I care for very deeply so I would hate for her to be used against a group.
Sam: Red is such a, I hope this isn’t spoiling anything further than we already have, but she’s a sympathetic character that has very, very human motivations and to me, that’s what really sets her apart from a monster. I don’t really want to say monster, but antagonist for lack of a better word in a horror film apart and it goes back to Frankenstein. You have a pathos for that creature where you understand and it’s just wanting what we all want but at a knowledge that they can never have it and that festers. It’s not like Michael Myers where he’s just an evil monster and he kills people. That’s all there is to it. I love Halloween but…
Lupita: Right, that’s so true. That’s exactly the case. The thing about how Jordan wrote this film and why I wanted to do it so enthusiastically is because both my characters have a well-rounded arc. We see a journey in both of them and they’re so intrinsically connected to each other in this way that is fascinating to read and definitely extremely engaging to play. The ways in which these women are against each other, but also also the ways in which they need each other.
Sam: That exactly comes through in your performance and again, the depth with the characters. If you’ve seen the marquee horror movies of the last forty years and that’s what you’re anticipating, which I love this those films, I love them, but when you go in expecting a final girl scenario, Us and Adelaide and Red… fresh air doesn’t even cut it. It’s just a new door is opened.
Lupita: He’s opened to that door and invited so many new people into the genre. I had taken a hiatus from horror films for like 20 years before Get Out came out. I used to watch horror films to prove to my older relatives that I was grown enough. I was a big girl, when I was like eight or nine. When I got to be like 11, I was like “wait a minute, I don’t have to put myself through this, I don’t have to prove anything.” So I hadn’t watch a horror film really until Get Out and I walked into that cinema. First of all, the premise of that movie was so captivating that I put it in my calendar. That’s the first time I put the release of a film in my calendar and I went on opening night. It delivered and then some because he’s making social horror. I went five times in one month. I had other things to do but I was just so captivated by his ability to tell layered stories and to make a monster out of racism in this extremely engaging and entertaining way. Make a story where you watch it once and you get one thing, and you watch it again you get something else, and you watch it the fifth time and you’re still getting things? That’s insane. Of course, I just jumped at the opportunity to work with him and really wanted to do my damnedest to bring that kind of depth to this movie and to make it worthy of repeat viewing.
Sam: Honestly we didn’t say this at the top, but “adore” is not the word… We could not think more of this film that you’ve been a part of. It’s magical, it really is and I don’t think I’ve ever use that in a review of a horror movie.
Jaimee: It was an incredible movie.
Lupita: Oh man, thank you.
Sam: If Jordan has brought you back over to the dark side, which we are just delighted about, did you have any direction that you would like to explore further in horror cinema, or as an actor, director, or as a viewer or a reader of horror?
Lupita: He’s definitely given me a little bit of an appetite for horror. Of course if he ever calls on me again, my answer will be an automatic yes. I would do anything for him. I would pull cable, I would hold a boom, I would do it. I still definitely have a very big appetite to work with Jordan.
At the end of the day, I think for me I’m always just attracted to the story, the opportunity to reach into a new part of myself, and to learn something new about the human experience, to learn something new about storytelling, and the impact it can have. Those would be the things that would attract me again to a horror film. I definitely love psychological horror. That’s the kind of horror that scares me the most. The of the kind of horror that makes you question your sanity and that’s why Martyrs just did me in because there’s that flip in it. You think you understand what’s going on and then you just realize this woman is hurting herself. It’s so traumatic I don’t know what good that does except I was really grateful for the sanity I was able to retain after watching that film.
Sam: I feel the same way. Byron, our producer, is here laughing because it’s one of his favorite films. I was exactly like you; once was plenty and I’m so glad I watched it. It’s probably the one that I think of when I fall asleep at night and not in good ways but yeah.
Lupita: Oh my gosh, yeah. I never need to see that film again I feel like a stronger person having seen it.
Jaimee: It’s sad, I’ve never seen it.
Lupita: Don’t do it Jaimee, don’t do it!
Sam: Lupita, I just want to thank you from all of us at Frightday, both for giving us your body of work, as a huge nerd i’m thinking of Mos here, and Us was phenomenal. We loved it and we just so appreciate taking the time to visit with us.
Jaimee: I also want to thank you for taking the time to research spasmodic dysphonia and talking about it. You know, you’ve shown you shined a big light on something that not a lot of people know about and I’m really happy that in each interview whether it’s a little negative or positive, there is that paragraph there that says what it is. For me that’s so important. I hope that people can look past words of like word “evil,” “villain”… I’m just so thankful for all of the time and effort that you put into this character and I think that you absolutely nailed it and it was an amazing movie.
Lupita: Thank you so much, Jaimee. You know I’m very happy to have been a part of your podcast and last year, when we were talking I would have never known that we would be meeting in this way again but it feels full circle. I remember just how open you were with me about your experience and of course, I am extremely grateful for you doing that so thank you then and thank you now.
Sam: All the best in all of your endeavors, and I also meant to mention I’m really looking forward to Sulwe. I have two little girls and that’ll be on the bookshelf here.
Lupita: Oh wonderful! I’ll send you a copy.
Sam: Thank you so much.
Jaimee: Thank you, Lupita.
Lupita: Thank you! You sound great Jaimee, you sound great!
Transcribed by Maggie Iken