Meet Shahadi Wright Joseph, The Hidden Gem In Jordan Peele's 'Us'
Anyone with eyes and ears will know that the big topic of the tail-end of March was the success of Jordan Peele’s new movie, Us. The horror/thriller flick had an explosive official debut at the box office, bringing in $70.25 million its opening weekend. That figure proved to be historic, establishing Us as the third-best horror movie debut in history and the biggest opening weekend for an original horror film.
Stats aside, within the film are supreme displays of talent all packed into the Wilson family. Twitter timelines set ablaze during the weekend already called for the Oscars to “give Lupita Nyong'o her things” come next awards season, and we already dove into the rising star that is Winston Duke. However, one particular young actress deserves a double take.
Quiet as kept, one of the film’s undeniable scene stealers is 13-year-old Shahadi Wright Joseph, who plays Zora and her sinister doppelgänger, Umbrae. Without spoiling the fun for late movie-goers, just know that Wright Joseph packs in the right amount of spunk to round out the Wilson family amid the turmoil.
Before we catch her again in the live action remake of The Lion King—she will be the voice of young Nala—we caught up with Shahadi about stepping out of her comfort zone with Us, what she learned from her castmates, and roles she looks forward to next.
VIBE: First of all congratulations on Us and the amazing work that you and the cast did.
Shahadi Wright Joseph: Thank you so much. It was so amazing. It was great hearing everybody's reactions, seeing everybody get scared.
What was it like the first time you watched it once it was all done? Did you get scared?
I saw it at a private screening in New York. I kind of just flipped out. It was my first time seeing the finished product and it was kind of amazing. I was getting scared to stuff that I had already seen.
I think that people will really like your character a lot—both of them, technically. They're both really entertaining, but Zora is super strong. What were your first thoughts of her when you read her on the page?
I really saw her as relatable to teenage girls right now. That’s how it was so easy to portray her, because she is kind of like me. But I think Umbrae is definitely a harder role to play. You really had to take a moment and just think about the character. It was really challenging but it was also fun.
Yeah I can imagine. How did you go from switching between those two mindsets—Zora and Umbrae—as you were shooting?
It was great because they didn't try to get us to play the same role on the same day, which would have been really challenging. They really just tried to have us play the same role, just one role on one day, so that we can be consistent, because it is really hard to get into your costume change to another role. And also just the mindset, that takes a little while to get into. That is challenging as well. But I think that in total it was so worth it.
The payoff was definitely there. Are you into horror and thriller movies in general, or was this a newer exploration for you?
Oh, definitely. I love horror movies. I like The Shining, The Babadook. I love Get Out, of course. I think those are my top three.
Nice. On top of nailing the scary aspect, you had a really great family in the film. Was it easy to actually feel that chemistry between you, Lupita, Winston and Evan?
Oh yeah, definitely. I think that we really created such a great relationship when we first met each other. We would have lunch together and go to places together. It was really great because we really learned how to be a real family. You can definitely see all the chemistry on camera.
What were some of the funniest behind the scenes moments that you can remember with you guys?
I think it was when we were filming some of our boat scenes. We would be in the boat and I think it was really late, I think it was close to midnight and Evan and I would be dozing off in the boat and Jordan had to keep calling us on the radio.
Was it actually scary, too? To be in the nighttime setting?
Not really. There were some bats that kept flying over our boat but not really.
Would you say that Lupita and Winston remained in character even when the cameras weren't rolling? Winston plays the light-hearted, goofy person in the film and then Lupita's character has her head on her shoulders and is more stern. Did they carry that off the screen?
Yeah, they did. I think that when we were all together we tried to get into our characters, to really feel each one, feel us out. That was a lot of fun, we really bonded for a pretty long time.
What advice or personal takeaways did you take from Jordan, Lupita and Winston?
This is a hard one. I didn't really take specific advice from them but I definitely saw Lupita and Winston while shooting their Red role. They were using method acting a lot and they were really getting into their characters before they would start shooting. I thought that that was really smart and I might use that in the future. But I don't think there was any specific advice that I took from them.
In just watching Jordan Peele do what he does, how did he help you become a better version of your character? Or how did he help you through whatever process you needed on set to deliver the best character you could?
Jordan really helped me get out of my shell to really become Umbrae, because it's a really difficult role to embody and you kind of just have to not think about anything else and just be her. That was the hardest part, because sometimes I would try to be Shahadi or Zora and put it into to Umbrae but I really just had to stop and say, "That's not who I am right now in this moment."
Did you always want to do acting? What was your first exposure to it?
I've always wanted to act. Lupita is such a big inspiration even before I met her, before Black Panther. My first exposure to acting was when I auditioned for The Lion King on Broadway when I was eight and I booked it. Then I just kept going from there.
That's a big first get, too. Let's talk Lion King because that is down the pipeline for the live action. What is the best part of seeing that come to fruition?
I've always been a fan of the Lion King that was probably one of my favorite movies when I was younger. To just be a part of this is so spectacular. I think that I had a lot of fun working with JD [McCrary] and working with John Fabreau, the director. It was really great. I think that it was a really fun experience.
For people now who are die hard fans of the original, people ready to put their critic hats on, what do you think they can expect from the live action. What would you tell them?
I think that you'll definitely love the new animation. Of course the storyline is still the same, but I think that there's a whole new energy to this new one, just because it looks totally different. So I think that a lot of Lion King fans from 1997 are going to come back and really enjoy this one.
Perfect. And lastly, what kind of roles would you like to play as you get further into your career? What kind of stories would you like to tell?
I definitely want to go through all genres. I love horror already, I might want to go into maybe a drama or a comedy next. I guess we'll just see where it takes me. I think this has been such an amazing experience already, being in a horror movie with such a great cast, and I'll definitely remember this forever.
Photography: Geoff Levy
Hair: Cheryl Bergamy
Make-up: Brenna Drury
Styling: Andrew Gelwicks