Abandoned playgrounds, toothy clowns, haunted amusement parks: each brings to mind the phantasmoric horror associated with childhood. And of course, lurking beyond the corner, there’s always the Creepy Child, the trope that best represents the bone-chilling anxiety that arises when a symbol of innocence morphs into an active nightmare. From the supernaturally attuned victims — Danny in The Shining, Carol Anne in Poltergeist — to figures of abject terror — Chucky in Bride of Chucky — children in horror films are a tried-and-true staple of the genre. Whether they are the source of fear or the undeserving recipients of it, children have become intimately tied to the cinematic scare factory. To play the Creepy Kid is to master the art of cinematic deception, to tickle, taunt, and scratch one’s nails down the collective spine of the audience and its known world. In Us, Jordan Peele’s sophomore horror opus, Shahadi Wright Joseph plays two. In an ambitious dual role, she acts as both Zora, one of the Wilson’s innocent suburban kids, and Umbrae, her scissor-wielding, maniacally grimacing doppelgänger — the youngest of a terrifying family of alter egos that come to haunt the Wilsons at their Santa Cruz beach house. It’s a particularly impressive feat considering not only Joseph’s age (she’s 13), but also that this is her debut on film.
Before she entered the nightmares of thousands of movie-goers, the native New Yorker launched her career on Broadway. Roles in The Lion King and School of Rock led to a turn on the TV feature Hairspray Live!, where she acted alongside Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande. Joseph’s transition out of saccharine stage roles into the realm of horror seems to have been frictionless. One possible explanation for this is her embrace of the supernatural, along with a love for films designed to creep into the deepest layers of the psyche. (She calls The Babadook a favorite.) Joseph also claims a unique connection to the occult; the proud Taurus swears that a bull-shaped apparition appears to her each time she lands a part. Still, the teenager has her sights set beyond Jordan Peele’s house of mirrors. This summer, she will reprise her role as Young Nala in Jon Favreau’s star-studded Lion King adaptation, singing with the likes of Beyoncé and Donald Glover. During the opening weekend of Us, Joseph spoke with her terrifying onscreen mother (and beloved mentor) Lupita Nyong’o, whose Oscar acceptance speech Joseph memorized in the third grade. The pair talked about authenticity, balancing acting and school, and all things spooky — from rats to Santa Claus balloons to hitting the red carpet with two pairs of scissors in tow. — SARAH NECHAMKIN
LUPITA NYONG’O: Shahadi!
SHAHADI WRIGHT JOSEPH: Hi Lupita!
NYONG’O: How are you?
JOSEPH: I’m good. I miss you. I’m in Brooklyn now, chillin’ like a villain.
NYONG’O: How’s opening weekend coming for you?
JOSEPH: Pretty good. My friends and I are gonna go see the movie tomorrow.
NYONG’O: Oh, that’s cool. My mom, who is such a scaredy cat, is gonna see the film again today with some of her friends. My mom has grown a lot in the last few weeks. She was scared of watching The Jungle Book, which is in no way a horror film. So to see her watch Us two times and then she goes for a third time, today. I don’t even know her anymore.
JOSEPH: The Jungle Book!
NYONG’O: She’s such a lightweight, I think Jordan may have recruited his final monster.
JOSEPH: I could see her in the red jumpsuit.
NYONG’O: I might get her one. Did you feel scared at all watching the film?
JOSEPH: A little bit! Just because of you.
NYONG’O: I saw the interview where you outed me about being scary on set. That made me laugh. So what are you scared of, Shahadi?
JOSEPH: I guess I’m scared of rats right now. They are very gross and scary. But when I was young I used to be scared of basically everything, from soda to a Santa Claus balloon to swings even in a park. But I think I’ve overcome my fears since then.
NYONG’O: I remember right before we started shooting in Santa Cruz, we went to that boardwalk, and you refused to go in the Hall of Mirrors, which was so surprising to me.
JOSEPH: Yeah, no. It’s different when I’m watching horror movies because I can control that fear and my adrenaline. But when I’m actually there in the moment, and I don’t know what’s about to happen, I’m not gonna do it. My safety in somebody else’s hands? Yeah, no.
NYONG’O: I see. So in a horror film, you’re removed from it. You know that nothing is actually coming for you. That’s interesting to me. When you said you were scared of me, were you really scared of me? First of all, when did that happen? Did you ever stop being scared of me or were you always scared of me when I was Red? Now, I just want to know how much therapy you will need and how much I need to apologize.
JOSEPH: I was pretty freaked out by you, especially when you were in the makeup chair. You would stare out into space and not talk. That spooked me out. That was one of those moments where I was not in control of my own safety.
NYONG’O: That is so funny to me. Did anything about Umbrae freak you out in performing her? Were you ever freaked out by yourself?
JOSEPH: A little bit. I was worried about her sense of agility the whole time. I’m not really a movement person. I really did try to make her as scary as possible.
NYONG’O: How did you come up with that smile? What was your conversation with Jordan like when coming up with Umbrae?
JOSEPH: I actually talked about all of that with him at the audition. He just explained to me how sleek and agile she was and how she was always ready to fight. Then he gave me the back story that Umbrae was born laughing. I was like, maybe she’s smiling all the time, then. He said, “Oh, okay. We could try that.”
NYONG’O: That was spooky, how quietly menacing you were with that smile. And that laugh at the end! I was definitely spooked out by you watching the film, I have to say. When I was playing Red, I was so focused on playing her and being the scariest one in the room that I didn’t register how scary it was for you to be standing there with that grin on your face. My goodness. Do you remember when we met at the fitting? I was really nervous about meeting you. I was like, “What if she’s one of these kids who is just over it?” And you were just so warm and easy to get along with. I was like, “Whew! This is gonna be fun after all.”
JOSEPH: Oh, Lupita. Did I ever tell you I memorized your Oscar speech in third grade?
NYONG’O: You did?
JOSEPH: Yeah. We had a school audition and they were like, “Choose some of your favorite inspirations, memorize their speech and then if you win by performing it, you can go on TED Talks and perform it.” I didn’t win, but it was amazing learning it.
NYONG’O: Oh, wow, that is so cool! I had no idea. I can’t believe you were in third grade when I made that speech. Oh my goodness. That’s such a compliment.
JOSEPH: We were just watching the Oscars at my grandma’s house, and I was like, “Oh, she’s so pretty!” And when I heard about the speech competition, I was like, “Oh, I know who I’m gonna do.”
NYONG’O: I know you love horror films. You were actually the one who got me to watch The Babadook. What are your other go-tos?
JOSEPH: The Exorcist, Get Out, The Shining, It.
NYONG’O: I haven’t seen It yet. I’m kind of freaked out to see it. When did you start watching horror films, Shahadi? You don’t have very many years on your back.
JOSEPH: Well, I was really scared of the Thriller video when I was younger. I couldn’t even watch it.
NYONG’O: Same here.
JOSEPH: But when I was 10, I finally watched it. I was so proud of myself. I was like, “I can do anything. I can watch a horror movie.” And then, the first horror movie I ever watched was The Exorcist. And surprisingly, I did not get scared. That was when I started getting into more Jordan Peele horror. I loved watching Get Out. I was like, “Wow, I want to work with him one day.” And then it happened the next year.
NYONG’O: I remember you told me this incredible thing about your relationship to your [zodiac] sign.
JOSEPH: Whenever I know I’m about to get an audition, I see a bull somewhere. It first started when I auditioned for Lion King on Broadway. I was on my way to one of my last call backs. We were almost there, and in the street there was a real live bull in a truck. I don’t know where he was going, but he basically just stared at me as he was moving down the street. And I was like, “Mom, the bull’s looking at me. It’s actually looking at me.” That was kind of creepy. And a couple of days later my mom was like, “Maybe that’s a sign because you’re a Taurus.” And I just kept looking for it.
NYONG’O: Please tell me they’re not always real bulls because that would be really spooky.
JOSEPH: When I was auditioning for School of Rock on Broadway, I was on my way to the audition. I think it was the same place too. And then this guy bumped into us and he had a Chicago Bulls hat on. I was so excited.
NYONG’O: That’s so crazy to me. There’s something haunted about you. Did you see a bull when you got Lion King the movie as well?
JOSEPH: I did. I was in LA for an award show, and I saw a Chase Bank. In front of the Chase Bank, there was this statue, and it was a mermaid riding a bull. I was like, “That’s a bull. It must be happening.” I guess that’s just how it comes. The thing is, I don’t look for it, it just comes to me.
NYONG’O: Obviously, you’re still in school. How do you guys do that? I look at you kids working on films, and I just marvel at how you’re able to both do your acting work and go off and learn, like, science on the side. Can you shift your focus easily?
JOSEPH: Sometimes. My school is pretty flexible with my schedule. They’re pretty okay with me doing press events some days. It is a little bit challenging just keeping up with the work when you’re working on the side. But I think that in the end it’s definitely worth it.
NYONG’O: Do you have a favorite subject?
JOSEPH: Earth Science. You basically just learn about natural resources, earthquakes, the atmosphere. It’s kind of complicated, but you get to do experiments in class.
NYONG’O: Do you like Halloween? Do you dress up?
JOSEPH: Yeah, when you dress up, you get extra credit at my school.
NYONG’O: What did you go as last year?
JOSEPH: You probably don’t know who this is, but I was a guy named T-Bo from the kid’s show, iCarly. He would put food on sticks then try to sell them — donuts, bagels, tacos.
NYONG’O: Okay, I definitely do not know that reference. You have schooled me yet again. So who do you think you’ll go as this year? Yourself? Umbrae?
JOSEPH: Maybe Umbrae. That would be fun.
NYONG’O: That would be. And spooky. Everyone will come up to you and say, “Oh my God, you look like that girl from Us.”
JOSEPH: I feel like a bunch of people are going to be wearing red jumpsuits this year for Halloween.
NYONG’O: Yeah, I’m sure. Do you have a pair of scissors?
JOSEPH: Yes, I do. I’ve got two pairs from the movie. I keep them in my display box, and I take them out for press events and wear them on the red carpet.
NYONG’O: Just standing there with scissors. I love it.