Jordan Peele embraces his latest role with 'Us': 'I'm a truth seeker in my work'
Here’s the thing about making a horror film where evil doppelgangers terrorize the heroes: You start wondering about your own shadow self.
In director Jordan Peele’s case, it’s imagining himself in the sandals of the crimson-clad, scissors-slashing folks known as "The Tethered," who invade the home of a vacationing black family in the horror film “Us” (in theaters Friday).
His new project and his 2017 breakout smash “Get Out” are Peele “putting my darkest thoughts, my nightmares, into my work,” the 40-year-old filmmaker says. “Let's just put it this way: The horror movies are The Tethered version of my comedy career. I am The Tethered at this point.”
After a chuckle, Peele thinks for a moment. “You could argue vice versa, too, depending on how you spin it. But The Tethered version of me has this sense of mischief, putting an audience through bouts of darkness and trying to get them to derive pleasure from it.”
The former star of the popular Comedy Central sketch show “Key & Peele” (with partner Keegan-Michael Key) has added quite a bit to his IMDb page since then. "Get Out" garnered him an original-screenplay Oscar (as well as a best-picture nomination), plus made him a hot commodity in Hollywood. And with 99 percent of critics giving "Us" a thumbs-up on Rotten Tomatoes, it doesn't look as if he's cooling off anytime soon.
His next big move? Peele's the man behind the camera as a producer – and in front playing the Rod Serling narrator role – for the upcoming reboot of “The Twilight Zone,” which premieres April 1 on streaming service CBS All Access.
“Us” is, like much of Peele’s burgeoning resume, a film where the director welcomes audiences “into a world that feels incredibly familiar, until it isn't oh-so-familiar anymore,” says star Winston Duke. “And the things that tie you to the world are the things that are the great conversation pieces of the movie.”
In addition to entertaining audiences, Peele’s knack for interrogating American culture is changing cinema. “Get Out” took aim at racism, privilege and what it’s like to be black in this country, and “Us” explores inequality and the idea that we are our own worst enemy.
“I kind of consider my role as an artist holding a mirror up to the sort of nitty-gritty evils that make us human,” Peele says. “Because I feel like when we ignore these things, then bad things happen. I'm a truth seeker in my work.”
Peele sees “Us” as an example of something expansive, even in its subjective title: “Us” could refer to the U.S. as a country, a family or even the human race as a whole, and “the movie works with any version of that,” he says. “It comes down to something very simple and singular, which is when you have an ‘us,’ you have a ‘them,’ and we are as human beings predisposed to value us more than we value them. The notion of this movie is maybe that's an inherent evil in what we are that we have to combat.”
Peele’s penchant for enjoyable stories with something deeper underneath came organically, after many years of comedy and the success of “Get Out,” and he’s continuing that mindset with his Monkeypaw Productions projects. (Not that he’s forgetting the scares anytime soon: Peele's company logo is a disembodied zombie hand stirring a teacup, a signature “Get Out” image.)
"Us" star Shahadi Wright Joseph found Peele to be both inspirational figure and great boss. "He's really goofy on set. But when we had to get into our bad roles, he knew that he had to give us time to really prepare," says the actress, 13, who was a fan of his before "Get Out." "I'd always wanted to work with him, so my dream is coming true."
While Peele is figuring out what's next in his filmmaking career ("When I'm not doing work, I'm daydreaming"), Monkeypaw's slate is ramping up. Peele's company teamed with J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot for HBO's upcoming adaptation of the Matt Ruff novel "Lovecraft Country," which delves into racism and supernatural dealings during a young black man’s road trip through 1950s Jim Crow America to find his missing father. And Peele himself co-wrote a new take on the 1992 horror film “Candyman,” which introduced a black monster on the heels of scary guy like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees.
“The first goal for me was get the laugh, get the scare, get the tear and get the cheer, and do it by getting at something that feels true,” Peele says. Now the Monkeypaw mission statement has evolved to championing “something with a message about us as human beings,” Peele says. “And that all stems from this idea that if you do genre right, you're aiming at the truth.”