There are no shortage of haunting images in “Us,” the new horror film from Jordan Peele. But many of the movie’s most effective jolts are heard rather than seen, from the chilling score (including a macabre riff on Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It”) on down.
No sound in the film is more likely to induce nightmares than the voice of its main villain, Red. Played by Lupita Nyong’o in a dual performance (she is also Adelaide, Red’s non-villainous doppelgänger), Red becomes the movie’s most unsettling enigma the moment she first opens her mouth.
(Warning: If you haven’t seen “Us,” moderate spoilers about the character follow).
In a showstopping monologue at the top of the second act, Red’s speaking voice — a dyspeptic rasp, as if her vocal cords have been gnawed through by rats — suggests someone who has seen the unspeakable, and takes an already eerie performance by Nyong’o to a darker, unearthly realm.
The sound has provoked strong reactions in audiences and critics. In his review, New York magazine’s David Edelstein described it as “the whistle of someone whose throat has been cut” and “a rush of acrid air from a tomb.”
Here’s where the voice actually came from, according to our interviews with both Nyong’o and Peele.
A Cryptic Script
Even in his script, Peele kept details about who Red was close to the vest. One of the few clues he did include pertained to the voice. He described it simply as “scratchy” and hinted at a mysterious back story.
“I described it as a voice that hadn’t been used in years,” Peele said.
An Unlikely Influence
Those scarce details gave Nyong’o — who worked closely with Peele in developing the character — plenty of latitude. At a fashion event before preproduction, she found unlikely inspiration when she heard a speaker who reminded her of Peele’s description. It was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who had spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary spasms of the larynx. Learning about the disorder helped ground her eventual performance.
“I was fascinated, and I started doing research,” Nyong’o said. “I met with people who have the condition and built it from there.”
Does Red have spasmodic dysphonia, or just sound like she does? We may never know. But Nyong’o’s research convinced her that the disorder was a plausible consequence of the grim back story Peele’s script had implied.
“It’s not really understood why it happens, or how it happens,” she said. “It could be a trauma in your life — someone dying, or a physical assault. It varies. For me, it felt very organic as an inspiration for Red, who’s had this kind of strangled past.”
[Read about Lupita Nyong’o and her work on the movie.]
Working with the vocal coach Beth McGuire, who also worked with Nyong’o on “Black Panther” and the 2016 Broadway play “Eclipsed,” the actress took her real-world inspiration and suffused it with ghostly malevolence.
“Red’s character is very id-driven, so one of the things that we were looking for was for that to come across in the quality of her voice — just the raw emotion, the raw rage,” Nyong’o said.
A Stamp of (Creepy) Approval
Peele first heard what Nyong’o had come up with during preproduction, when the actress pulled him aside for an informal audition of the voice and her vision for the big monologue.
“She sat me down and said ‘Are you ready?’” the director recalled. He wasn’t.
“It was like nothing I had ever heard,” Peele said. “So creepy.”