On Jan. 20 at this year’s 35th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), actress Lupita Nyong’o was presented with the festival’s Montecito Award for her standout performance in Jordan Peele’s “Us.”
Nyong’o’s chilling portrayal of the film’s protagonist and antagonist, Adelaiade, and her doppleganger, Red, has received critical acclaim for its well-composed, yet highly volatile and unrestrained quality.
In a discussion about her performance in “Us,” Nyong’o remarked on her collaboration with screenwriter and director Jordan Peele, as well as her creative process in portraying the two characters she plays in the film.
“I met Jordan a little over a year ago and he had mentioned that he was writing something that I may or may not be right for and then I got this script through my agent. Of course, I was gonna say yes because it’s Jordan Peele, but honestly I was quite terrified just reading it,” she said.
In the film’s mythology, all Americans, including Lupita’s character Adelaide, are faced with dopplegangers who have been living in squalor in underground tunnels for decades, waiting for the opportunity to kill their above-ground counterparts.
“He explained that this was a critical look at class dynamics and I was mesmerized by his imagination and his intention,” she added.
In addition to playing the film’s protagonist Adelaide, Nyong’o also played Adelaide’s doppelganger, Red, the film’s antagonist. Nyong’o’s portrayal of Red is arguably the film’s strongest element, due to her sharp, calculated physical acting as well as her gravelly, strained voice acting (which mimicked spasmodic dysphonia) to build a truly terrifying villain.
“The script said that she hadn’t used her voice in a while and I was really intrigued by that, and I knew that Red had experienced a trauma and I was inspired by those two details. I thought what if there was a way to represent her trauma in the way that she spoke and that was how I got the inspiration for the vocal aspect of that performance,” she said.
During the movie’s third act, it is revealed that Adelaide is actually Red’s below-ground doppelganger all along, and that she abducted Red as a child, forcing Red to take her place underground while Adelaide enjoyed the privileges of life above-ground.
Nyong’o knew that playing two characters with such a complex history between them would be a huge challenge for both herself as an actress and for Peele as a filmmaker, and as such the two worked together closely to design the characters.
“It was kind of a mindfuck to be playing these two characters who are revealed to be so different at the end of the end of the movie as they appeared in the beginning and it was so challenging not to let on the deep truth about those two characters before it was appropriate within the script,” she said.
“But Jordan really did welcome me into his process as he was developing the story and he trusted me as an authority on my own character which made it a very give and take relationship,” she elaborated.
Jordan Peele presented Nyong’o with the Montecito Award, but not before commending Nyong’o for her remarkable performance in the film.
“Coming off of ‘Get Out,’ I was very proud but nervous for this next project. And as I outlined it, I had Lupita in mind for the film. So when we sat down, she came in as her poised, regal, charming, witty, warm self and I told her about this story I was developing about these doppelgangers and luckily, she went for it,” he said.
“She brought this Hitchcock-level performance and when she came into the set the day she first played Red she brought such an intensity [that] we all realized that we had to step our game up to match her, and for that I’m so grateful because she really made the film what it was,” he added.
In “Us,” and throughout her filmography, Lupita Nyong’o has proved herself one of the most versatile, innovative actresses working in film today, and she was more than deserving of this year’s Montecito award.