Danny Feld/Comedy Central
At first glance, Jordan Peele‘s transformation from comedic sketch actor to Hollywood’s freshest horror auteur seems like an odd development.
After all, just four years ago Peele was most known for his wacky characters, such as a competitive acapella enthusiast or Liam Neeson-obsessed valet, and his Barack Obama impression on Comedy Central’s sketch television series Key and Peele. To think the same man donning dozens of wigs a season would just a few years later pen Us, a movie where murderous dopplegängers descend on Santa Cruz’s vacation-goers would seem like a wild prediction. The film is also nominated at the E! People’s Choice Awards for both The Movie of 2019 and The Drama Movie of 2019.
However, comedy and horror are much more similar than they seem. Both rely on taking a familiar situation and adding an element of unease to build tension for the audience before delivering a joke or scare to release the viewer. It’s just that with one release you get laughs, and with the other you’ll hear screams.
As Peele told CinemaBlend, “They’re two sides of the same coin…in order to achieve both of them, you need to have a certain grounded-ness.”
So when Peele transitioned into horror, it wasn’t that far of a jump from the laughs. His Key and Peele sketches frequently poked fun at society, such as the experiences of being black in America. Now, his work was done being funny about it.
But before the star would end up in the director’s chair on a horror set, he’d first become a superstar on the other side of that coin with his comedy chops.
Peele’s breakout role role was joining the cast of MADtv in 2003, where he would go on to be in 94 episodes of the show as various characters. The show launched his Hollywood career but also came at a price. Peele revealed that near the end of his contract, he was offered a spot to join Saturday Night Live‘s cast, an opportunity that was a lifelong dream of his.
Unfortunately, MADtv wouldn’t allow the performer to take the role due to his contract. The Hollywood Reporter reported that at the iconic Upright Citizen’s Brigade improv theater, Peele told an audience of aspiring creatives that he was angry with the show for, “Using my fate as a chess pieces.”
It was after being blocked from doing SNL that he realized he wanted to hold the reigns of his own career, stating, “I wanted to be a producer. These producers are making these decisions about art and comedy, and they didn’t know anything about art and comedy. I want to be a producer and bring my artistry to that and they’ll all be sorry.”
Danny Feld/Comedy Central
For five years after his tenure on the Fox variety series, Peele had a role on Children’s Hospital and booked bit parts on shows like Reno 911! and on the movie Little Fockers before getting to realize that control of producing his own show.
While his departure from MADtv was somewhat bitter, a silver lining of being on the program was that it had also elevated Keegan-Michael Key‘s profile, Peele’s co-star on the series and friend from back when the two were in the Chicago improv scene. The duo partnered up and landed their very own show on Comedy Central with Key and Peele.
Over a five season run, the two pumped out 22-minute long episodes that were filled with short sketches and interludes of their riffing. Unlike Saturday Night Live‘s live filming style with a live studio audience, Key and Peele was cinematic in quality, creating a program whose scripted bits lended themselves to larger stunts and costuming.
A year after the program’s debut, Comedy Central ushered in two more variety programs that took on a similar style, The Kroll Show and Inside Amy Schumer, kicking off the network’s golden era of sketch comedy.
The show proved itself with millions of viewers tuning into the show or on watching clips on YouTube. The series was nominated for a People’s Choice Award in 2015 and twice for the Primetime Emmy Award in the Oustanding Variety Sketch Series category. The second time it was nominated for the Emmy, in 2016 for the show’s final season, it won, beating out heavyweight SNL and Amy Schumer‘s sister program.
Prior to the show’s fifth season, it was announced that it would also be its final. As told to The Wrap by Key, “This is our final season and it’s not because of Comedy Central, it’s us. It was just time for us to explore other things, together and apart. I compare it to Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. We might make a movie and then do our own thing for three years and then come back and do another movie.”
The two delivered on that promise with 2016’s Keanu, a comedic romp produced by and starring the duo as characters who infiltrate a gang to recapture their kidnapped kitten.
The film was produced under Peele’s production company MonkeyPaw Productions, its name both a reference to the 1902 supernatural short story “The Monkey’s Paw” and hint toward Peele’s deeper interests in horror.
While filmmaking had always been in Peele’s heart, a setback had initially derailed him from that pursuit. Peele recounted to Deadline that, “I think I forgot about directing the day I didn’t get into NYU. Maybe it wasn’t for me.”
Instead, the actor went to Sarah Lawrence College, where he first started performing in the improv scene that would lead him to Chicago and eventually circle him back his original goals. While he had been cracking up audiences for over a decade now, Peele’s wanted to explore his true passion of the horror genres that were formative to his interest in storytelling.
A movie idea had been tumbling in his head for years, with the soon-to-be director finally finishing a draft to send out. This was, of course, for the star’s eventual debut feature, Get Out.
The bare bones idea started out as a boyfriend feeling like the outsider at his girlfriend’s family and friends gathering and the form it ended up taking was inspired by what Peele described to Vanity Fair as, “The post-racial lie.” That some saw Obama’s historic presidential win as the death knell of racism was concerning to the director, who pointed out the racism that still permeated culture.
“We were in this era where the calling out of racism was almost viewed as a step back,” the director lamented.
In an exclusive interview with E! News at the Get Out press junket, Peele admitted even he wasn’t planning on the film to actually get made. “I came up with the whole idea, the whole pitch, pitched it to a guy. I said, ‘I know you’re not going to make this but maybe we can work on something and this will show off how weird and effed up my head is,'” he explained.
Except, as we know, it did get made. The script struck a chord with Hollywood super-producer Jason Blum and Peele said that once, “Blumhouse [Productions] found us, that just put all the momentum into the script.”
Blum’s production company is a powerhouse responsible for eerie franchises like Paranormal Activity and The Purge and is known for its model of producing mostly low-budget, high-concept horror films.
Peele’s film fit the bill, with its plot surrounding the character Chris, a black photographer, who visits his white girlfriend’s family only to discover (spoilers!) that they kidnap black people and transfer brains into their bodies.
Trusting Peele’s vision, and perhaps knowing the movie’s $5 million dollar budget kept it as a small risk as the actor’s directorial debut, the project was greenlit.
Ahead of its February 2017 theatrical release, fans were perplexed by the news that Peele was associated with a thriller, yet once that year’s Sundance Film Festival came and went, there were no more questions that this was a genre he was meant to be in.
Critics lauded Get Out‘s layers and nuance, praising its ability to both operate on the surface as a straight horror while also having a subtextual layer of social commentary. The movie held a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score leading into its opening weekend and soared to a $33 million debut in the box office, crushing expectations.
Over the course of its run, the film garnered a total worldwide box office of $255 million, an outstanding return from its modest budget. That, combined with critical and audience acclaim, solidified Peele’s pivot to horror was where he was meant to go. Despite the fact that the film was released outside of the typical window for Oscar bait, Academy members remembered its impact and Get Out received a slew of Oscars nominations in 2018, including Best Motion Picture of The Year and Best Original Screenplay.
Disappointingly, Peele was snubbed from the directorial category (as was Greta Gerwig, upsetting many that were hoping to see more diverse talent recognized behind the camera), but the film’s other two nominations still cracked a bit of the glass ceiling of an award show that has often failed to recognize black and diverse talent. That feat was especially impressive for a horror film, as the genre falls quite outside of the Academy’s traditional taste for dramas and historical epics.
The response from Hollywood stars to Peele’s nominations was overwhelming. An at-the-time newcomer Daniel Kaluuya, who stars as Chris in the film, told E! News that he called up the director and told him, “You deserve it. You worked hard and you deserve it.”
Bradley Whitford, who plays the patriarch behind the family’s horrifying business, gushed to E! News in an interview that, “What Jordan did is a miracle. This is a four million dollar movie, it’s his first movie, genre-busting, cultural bomb that changes the way we think of each other.”
The Academy agreed. Peele went on to win the award for Best Original Screenplay, making history as the first black screenwriter to do so in the show’s 90-year history.
In his acceptance speech, the director expressed, “This means so much to me. I stopped writing this movie about 20 times because I thought it was impossible…but I kept coming back to it because I knew if someone would let me make this movie, that people would hear it and people would see it.”
In a touching moment caught off-stage, Keegan-Michael Key was caught jumping in joy over his former comedy partner’s win, bringing a full-circle moment to the occasion.
Even before the groundbreaking win, Peele’s Get Out success had every studio chasing him down. The director signed a two-year overall deal with Universal Pictures and also reunited with Blum for his next project.
While Peele was enjoying the success of his first film, he had remarked in an interview with Rolling Stone that there was some “heartbreak” around Get Out telling the publication, “I’m such a horror nut that the genre confusion of Get Out broke my heart a little. I set out to make a horror movie, and it’s kind of not a horror movie.”
Peele may have been referring to something like how the film being classified as a “comedy” for its Golden Globes nomination. He continued that, “As a horror fan, I really wanted to contribute something to that world.”
The anticipation was high around the director’s sophomore film and only grew when it was announced that Academy-award winner Lupita Nyong’o had been attached to the project.
On Christmas day in 2018, the official trailer dropped and made it clear that where Get Out could be classified as a thriller, Us was solely here to scare you. A slowed-down iteration of Luniz‘s “I Got Five On It” eerily set the atmosphere under scenes of dopplegängers descending on Nyong’o’s family.
“I think this is a scarier movie than Get Out,” the director confirmed to E! News in an interview. He continued on in a different interview with E! about the genesis of the idea, saying, “I’m a fan of Hitchcock and he has several movies, Vertigo and The Birds, that take place in this Bay Area setting…I wanted to tell a story about a black family in that area and feel the freshness of that. Really, the dopplegängers have always scared me ever since I was a kid.”
The film, which surrounds a family whose dopplegängers, or The Tethered as they are known in the film, come to kill them and take their place in the world, required actors to take on the difficult role of playing opposite of themselves.
Peele praised that, “[Nyong’o and Winston Duke are] two performers at the top of their game. They’re Yale grads, they know how to dig and find levels to the characters that you didn’t even know were there. It was a magical collaboration.”
When E! News caught up with Nyong’o at the Us junket, the actress gushed in an interview about how amazing the experience was working with the director and revealed that, “It was at first, very intimidating, when I realized I was going to be in his sophomore film. It was a dream of mine to work with him. I didn’t expect it to come true so soon.”
“He listens, he’s collaborative, he’s compassionate, he’s empathetic, he’s gentle,” she continued. “You’d never know that watching a film like [Us] but he’s actually very gentle and I loved working with him.”
Us debuted in March 2019 and went on to claim $255 million at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing film so far this year that is not a sequel or remake. The lack of any sophomore slump made it clear Peele wasn’t just a directorial one-hit wonder. As far as how it will fare in the upcoming award season remains to be fully seen, but is already promising.
After all, the movie scored PCAs nominations for both The Movie of 2019 and The Drama Movie of 2019, with Nyong’o also receiving two nominations—The Female Movie Star and Drama Movie Star of 2019—for her role in the film.
Peele’s next venture onto the silver screen will come in 2020, when his take of the 1992 slasher Candyman. Details are sparse, but the IMDb summary notes that Peele’s iteration will return to a “now-gentrified Chicago”, implying that there will be some of his signature commentary on society infused into the horror.
During the interim, Peele hasn’t slowed his productions down, either. He created YouTube Premium’s Weird City, a science fiction anthology series, and is serving as the executive producer and narrator for the remake of The Twilight Zone on CBS.
In an interview with E! News at The Twilight Zone‘s red carpet, Peele said that when it came to producing the series, “The key for us was really focusing on the stories that couldn’t have been told 50 years ago. The details about 2019 and quintessentially “now” stories that we like to think that if Rod [Serling] were here, he’d approve of us focusing on.”
The director will have an exciting October this year as he’s slated to be recognized by BAFTA LA with the John Schlessinger Britannia Award for excellence in directing. BAFTA Los Angeles CEO Chantal Rickards said it will be an honor to give the director the award for “Work that pushes boundaries and shines a light on stories of important social relevance.”
From his initial foothold in comedy to finding international success in horror, there’s no doubt that Peele has transformed into one of the biggest directors of cinema in front of our eyes.
Whatever stories Peele tells next, it’s clear that the world is ready to listen.
Watch the 2019 People’s Choice Awards Sunday, Nov. 10 at 9 p.m., only on E!