Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in Jordan Peele’s Us.
Want to watch a group of wickedly talented actors performing gleefully entertaining parlor tricks? There is no better film than Jordan Peele’s doppelgänger horror-thriller, Us.
Take a moment featuring Elisabeth Moss, who plays the booze-soaked character Kitty and her Tethered double, Dahlia. After brutally murdering her doppelgänger, Dahlia hears commotion down by the docks near their lakefront house. Her face is awash in a red haze as smoke and fire engulf a ship.
An aghast expression flashes over Dahlia as she cries in muted horror. The sound hasn’t cut out; Moss is actively emoting through silence. She’s unbelievably harrowing, conveying the horror of watching her husband burn alive with precision. The outpouring of emotion knocks the audience off their guard. That is until Moss seamlessly transforms her sorrow into a chilling, maniacal laugh that sends ice through our veins.
The parlor trick Moss plays here is essentially the Hollywood version of a classic stage routine we’re all familiar with. It’s when a performer runs their hand across their face, switching from a frown to a smile and back again. It’s an engaging gimmick for audiences because it creates this uncanny duality that is dreadfully fascinating to watch. The fun for Moss as an actor is the permission to embrace the humanistic extremes of her character. Even though the emotions she gets to convey feel practically inhuman in the moment.
As great as Moss is at performing this bit of actorly magic, she has nothing on Lupita Nyong’o. She is able to sustain that same ferocious energy across the entire film in her dual performances as Addy Wilson and her doppelgänger, Red.
When we first meet Nyong’o’s Addy, she is a twisted ball of nerves. She attempts to keep these feelings hidden from her family at the onset of their beach vacation. There’s confusion in Addy’s eyes, uncertain as to why she feels filled with foreboding doom. Nyong’o conveys Addy’s anxiety through quiet restraint as she tries to put her fear into words in an early scene. “Being here, it feels like there’s this black cloud just hanging over me, and I don’t feel like myself.” As she clasps her hands in front of herself, we can sense Nyong’o engaging with Addy’s fight or flight instinct, even if she barely moves in the moment.
For Red, Nyong’o found herself with an unenviable challenge. As she told Entertainment Weekly, “I had double the work to do. The challenge was to hold down both sides of the argument[…]so I had to work with almost a mathematical precision to create these two characters and have them be as distinct as they needed to be, but also have them influence and be connected to each other.”
In order to make a direct contrast to Addy, Nyong’o’s Red has a sharp focus that remains in the present moment throughout her screen time. From the second she orders her family to descend on the Wilsons’ home, Nyong’o is deliberate in surfacing what makes Red an opposing force to Addy. She speaks with intense conviction, commanding the room with her rhapsodic, raspy storytelling. Despite being filled with fury, Red has a sense of ease that Addy does not–a potential clue that speaks to the film’s twisty finale.
Nyong’o had her work cut out for her creating two distinct characters in the same amount of time most actors get to create one, so she had to be intentional about how she used her body to convey their different personalities and physicalities. As she told Deadline,
“I had to prepare and develop a roadmap for myself for their emotional and mental life. 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. 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.”
This sort of geometric way of building a character isn’t all that unusual in acting methodology. Famed teacher Michael Chekhov developed the archetypal concept of psychological gestures. These are unique physical movements that can correlate with emotional states. This technique is typically used in more avant-garde theater. But when refined for film, it can be a compelling tool for an actor to emotionally connect with their character purely through their physicality. She took a similar approach when developing the physical vocabulary of Red,
“[Red] is who she says she is. 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.”
We can see those cockroach qualities plainly in the sharp speed of Red’s movements and vocal tics. As she first enters the Wilsons’ living room, she quite literally skitters across the floor with short steps. She briefly pauses, staring at an object, before zipping to another corner of the room. Later, she offers up a series of clicks in lieu of language as she commands Umbrae (Shahadi Wright Joseph) to chase after her double, Zora.
But Nyong’o is able to be even more creative with how she embodies this insect-like movement. Take one of the film’s most celebrated shots; the close-up of Red’s face staring at Addy. With an acute sense of mania in her eyes, she cocks her head and drums her fingers in rhythm across her cheeks. We can practically see Red salivating at the thought of finally getting her revenge on Addy. Even though the movements are small, those cockroach vibes are still readily apparent in the skin-crawling quality of her physicality. Because she has thoroughly embodied her cockroach queen sensibility, it effortlessly bleeds out of her and onto the screen.
As I revisited Us for this piece, a thought occurred to me. The opposing physicalities that Lupita Nyong’o gives Addy and Red can be seen as a representation of the relationship between The Tethered and their surface-dwelling doubles. Despite keeping herself on guard, Addy has a freedom of movement that Red simply has never been allowed to have. Sure, we see Red’s gracefulness in the final ballet fight, but her primary physicality is filled with rigid structure. Much like the rigid structure of The Tethered’s abuse-riddled lives underground.
In Us, not only did Lupita Nyong’o deliver a carefully crafted performance that was as shocking as it was emotionally devastating. She also used her physicality to say something thematically about her character. That’s an actor’s parlor trick we rarely get to see captured on film, but Nyong’o is a rare kind of performer. With each role she plays, she effortlessly bridges the gap between acting methods, inherent naturalism, and the abject emotional dynamics required to bring grueling characters like Addy and Red to life.