How 'Us' Star Shahadi Wright Joseph Perfected Her Creepy Smile

The actor avoided looking in the mirror and instead judged her performance by filmmaker Jordan Peele's reaction.
Claudette Barius/Universal Studios
The actor avoided looking in the mirror and instead judged her performance by filmmaker Jordan Peele's reaction.

When Shahadi Wright Joseph speaks, it's difficult to imagine her playing either the manically jovial Umbrae or the bratty, exasperated Zora in Jordan Peele's Us.

Performing as Umbrae — the daughter in a doppelganger family who comes terrorize the Wilsons — was particularly challenging for Joseph, 13. To craft her smile, she avoided looking in a mirror, instead opting to judge her effectiveness by seeing it on camera for the first time, and seeing Peele's response. 

"I saw what I was doing and I thought, 'That actually looks kind of creepy,' " Joseph tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Jordan was like, 'Yeah, you're kind of creepy.' Then I thought, 'Okay. I'm doing this right.' "

Us is in its second weekend at the box office, where it has already set an opening weekend record for the top original horror title. The film also stars Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke and Evan Alex, and has been endlessly dissected online, with audiences sharing their own theories about what it all means.

In the midst of it all, Joseph is having a special career moment, poised to voice the young Nala in Disney's upcoming The Lion King.  The rising star sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about working with the new master of horror, and when she hopes to meet Beyoncé.

You've attended so many premieres and special screenings. How has it been, not only seeing the movie but getting the crowd's reaction?

I love all of the reactions of every audience that we've seen so far. I love seeing how they laugh and how they scream. It's hilarious. I've already seen the movie four times, and I don't think I'm done yet.

Do you have a favorite moment in the movie?

Oh yeah, I think that it's when the Wilsons are singing I Got Five on It in the car.

What made filming that scene fun?

I think that it was just us being together, bonding and talking. It really made us feel like a family.

One of the standout things about the movie is the relationship between the brother and sister. There's definitely that angsty back and forth, but also a partnership that was a lot of fun to see played out on screen. Were you repeating a lot of your older sisters' mannerisms in your character?

Oh, definitely. It's really just the way that Jason and Zora would really talk to each other. You know, she really wouldn't care what you have to say, but she'll listen. That's such a brother-sister thing to do. Even though I've never had a little brother, I think that Evan is kind of like my little brother now.

Do you and Evan have a favorite moment between the two of you? Or maybe something you guys came up with while you were trying to get into character?

No, but I think that my favorite moment was when Evan was dozing off on set, I would try and wake him up by yelling at him. It works, and I think Jordan appreciated it.

Was there a specific moment that was challenging for you, and how did you get through that?

It's definitely much harder to be Umbre than it is to play Zora. I really just had to get out of my comfort zone. The cast really helped us all out with that. Even when we were in our bad looks, we were still a family. You can see the connection there. But it was a little bit challenging to play Umbre because I had never done anything like that. So it was different, but I really had a great time just exploring myself.

What made Umbre so much harder to play?

I think that it was just the mindset of it. Because you know, she had to go through so much. Also, she can't talk. You have to put that into your body language. So I think that that was really the hardest part. But it was definitely worth it.

You started crafting Umbre with that creepy smile.  How did you decide on which smile you would use? Was that a lot of time in the mirror? Were you testing it on people?

I didn't really want to look into the mirror that much. I worried that I would get too focused on how I looked, and I don't think that it's about looks at all. It's really just about making people feel uncomfortable. It kind of worked out itself out by not looking in the mirror and just going for it. Jordan seemed to like it. So, I was doing the right thing.

Was there a moment you knew you nailed the smile?

Yeah. I feel like when I first saw the scene that we had done as the bad family, and I saw what I was doing and I thought, "That actually looks kind of creepy." Jordan was like, "Yeah, you're kind of creepy." Then I thought, "Okay. I'm doing this right."

You're playing like a little version of Beyoncé in Disney’s next live-action remake, The Lion King. Are you basing your performance off of her Nala? What is this relationship like?

I have not gotten to meet Beyoncé, yet. But I am looking forward to that moment. I got to work with JD McCrary, who plays young Simba, and that was great. We had such a great connection when we first met. You could really feel the relationship between Nala and Simba. So I thought that was really great. I had so much fun doing this role because young Nala was such an inspiration to me when I was younger.

When did you first become interested in acting? 

Yeah, so funny story: my mom heard an audition call on the radio one day about The Lion King on Broadway. We were like, "OK, let's try it." I booked that position, and then we kind of just kept going from there. Then that turned into doing film. I'm actually really happy doing film now. I want to keep going with that.

Are you a film buff, or is it more of the performance and cameras that draw you in?

I like watching movies. I like performing in films a little bit more because you have more freedom in it to explore yourself as an actor, or change a line. That is something that I want in a job that I'm doing.

Did you find yourself changing lines on set for Us? Were you guys allowed to play with the dialogue at all?

Yeah, we were. I think that it was mostly Winston. He was the one that improvised the most. He was the jokey dad.

What was it like having Winston Duke and the Lupita Nyong’o as parents?

Oh, my God, it's just, it's electric when they're in the same room. They're just the best. I definitely want to work with them again. I was a little bit starstruck when I first met them, but you know, as soon as I spoke to them, all those fears just went away.

Did either them give you any advice? Did you learn anything about your acting craft by watching or working with them?

Yeah, I learned about method acting when I was with them. They would really get into their roles whenever they were on set as the bad family. That was really special. Just seeing them work was mind-blowing.

There's been a lot of conversation discussing who gets to be represented on screen. And I think as a young black woman, you're out here representing black youth. I didn't get to see a lot of that growing up. I was wondering if that's even something you take note of. Is it normal for you to see other black women on screen? Or do you feel any responsibility behind these sorts of representations?

Yeah, I think I just realized how big this really is for African-American film culture. I think that it's exciting. But there's also a little bit of pressure. As you said, there haven't been these healthy, happy, black family roles in film. So I think that it's really important to show representation for young black girls in America.

What are you looking to conquer next?  

I definitely want to try to get to all the genres. I love horror, and I love comedy. I love drama. I want to touch base on all of them.

Are there any stars or directors you'd like to work with?

Yeah, I would say maybe Regina King. Taraji P. Henson. Those are kind of just like my inspiration. They're really awesome.

  • Joelle Monique