Meet Shahadi Wright Joseph, the breakout horror warrior in Jordan Peele's 'Us'

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Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke star in Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us,” about a family facing invaders during a summer getaway.
USA TODAY

Shahadi Wright Joseph is usually seen singing, but in director Jordan Peele’s new horror film “Us” (in theaters now), it’s her silence that’s golden – and freaky, too.

The teenage actress, singer and dancer plays Zora Wilson, part of the family whose vacation is ruined by the appearance of their evil jumpsuit-wearing doppelgangers. But she also plays Umbrae, the resident daughter of the malevolent clan called “The Tethered,” whose murderous goal is for the Wilsons to meet the business end of their golden scissors. And while the eerie Umbrae doesn’t say anything, her frightening grin is all the talking she needs to do.

It’s a breakthrough performance for Wright Joseph, who turns 14 next month and played little dance machine Inez Stubbs opposite Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande in NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” in 2016. Here’s what else you need to know about the on-the-rise youngster:

She’s wicked with a putter.

Her Zora is a girl who’s more interested in her iPhone than family time until the Tethered show up, and then she turns into a warrior, first taking on a pursuing Umbrae and later picking up a golf club to attack lookalike versions of the Wilsons’ close friends. “Both Jordan and I were so excited for that,” Wright Joseph says. “There was a lot of pressure because I had to make sure not to hurt anybody.”

Her director inspired the scary smile.

Since there needed to be slight differences between Zora and Umbrae, Wright Joseph worked with Peele to vary aspects like their postures and running styles. But it’s Umbrae’s haunting smile that defines her, Wright Joseph says. “During the audition, he told me she was born laughing, and I was like, ‘That’s really creepy.’ I just tried to embody her as best as I could. It was a fun journey learning about her.”

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The trailer starts with the quintessential shot Rafiki presenting Simba to the animals of the Pride Lands. The remake of this Disney classic is scheduled to hit theaters on July 19th, 2019.
USA TODAY

She’s getting animated for ‘The Lion King.’

Wright Joseph spent a year on Broadway playing young Nala in “The Lion King” when she was 9, and will reprise the role in director Jon Favreau’s upcoming redo of the Disney classic (in theaters July 19), starring Donald Glover as Simba and Beyonce as grown Nala. “And before you ask, no, I did not meet Beyonce,” Wright Joseph says with a laugh. “I’ll probably definitely meet her soon, so I’m looking forward to that moment.” In voicing a young lioness for the big screen, Wright Joseph says she “added my own flair to her: more sassiness, a little bit more playfulness, and that really pulled the character together.”

She’s a musical-theater kid at heart.

Dancing since age 2, Wright Joseph went from Broadway’s “Lion King” in 2014 to being an original cast member of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “School of the Rock: The Musical” when it bowed a year later to her “Hairspray” gig. (She also teaches bimonthly musical-theater workshops for the acting studio A Class Act NY.) Being on Broadway “was good training for what I’m doing right now,” Wright Joseph says. “Eight shows a week every week, it really built up my stamina.”

She adores crafting.

You’re more likely to find a needle in her hands than the Tethered’s frightening shears. “I love to knit. In my free time, that’s a good hobby that I like to do,” Wright Joseph says. She would often knit on the set of “Us,” though being bad took a little more time out of her schedule than being good. “For Zora, I didn’t have to prepare that much,” she says. “But with Umbrae, that was probably the hardest role that I’ve ever had to do. I’ve never had to really go into my evil side before.”

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