The Us star says she based her character's scary voice on a real-life speech condition

By Kara Warner
March 23, 2019 10:00 AM
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Credit: Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

Lupita Nyong’o went above and beyond to add scare-factors to her evil character in the new horror movie Us.

In the film, written and directed by Jordan Peele (Get Out), the Oscar winner plays two characters — a traumatized mother Adelaide Wilson and her deadly doppelgänger Red who terrorizes Wilson’s family. Nyong’o’s character Red has a particularly spooky way of speaking — a raspy, choppy-like sound as if her voice was stolen from her — which the Black Panther star says she developed after studying a real-life speech condition.

“The voice for Red was inspired by a condition known as spasmodic dysphonia, and it’s a condition that comes about from trauma,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s sometimes emotional, sometimes physical, sometimes inexplicable, where your vocal chords involuntarily spasm and create this irregular flow of air. I built off of that and experienced someone with the condition, and I did more research and met up with people with the condition to talk about their personal experiences with it.”

Nyong’o also worked closely with a vocal therapist and dialect coach “to make sure I could do it safely,” she says. “Those were the risks I was taking, were the risks that Red had not spoken for a long time was the inspiration for wanting to explore something a little more stylistic.”

For more on Lupita Nyong’o and her new movie Us, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.

Lupita Nyong’o in Us with costars Shahadi Wright Joseph (right) and Evan Alex
| Credit: Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

Nyong’o later presented her voice for Red to Peele, who was pleasantly surprised by its eerie-ness.

“About a week before we started filming, I called Jordan into the room and auditioned the voice for him,” she recalls. “I was very relieved when he was feeling it and encouraged me to go further with it.”

Nyong’o continues: “Jordan is very collaborative, and he really invited me into the whole creative process of making these women who they were. He trusted me to be the expert, that was my job.”

Another person on whom the Red voice had the desired scary effect is Nyongo’s mother Dorothy.

“My mom just came to the premiere of Us and Little Monsters the next day. She [had not seen] Us so she sat in the audience,” says Nyongo’o. “She hates scary movies, so she shut her eyes the whole time and blocked her ears.”

“I’m happy she was there, I can assure you that’s not her favorite film of mine,” she adds with a laugh. “But, she is supportive until the day she dies. She will sit through despite the fact that she doesn’t have the spine for it. That kind of thing warms my heart because I know she’s my number one fan whether she can handle my madness or not.”

Us is now playing in theaters.