The truth is, many of our fave actors and actresses tend to have a narrow range.
We all love Will Smith and have for decades. But sometimes, it can feel like we’re watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in a myriad of situations.
What if Will Smith had to fight aliens? What if Will Smith had to fight robots? What if Will Smith had to fight himself?
He does it all well. But how often do you truly lose yourself in a Will Smith role?
(The same thing can be said for the always-stoic Denzel Washington and even the always-regal Angela Bassett but you won’t see me getting on their bad side)
This year’s ‘Reelest’ Woman also pulls you into every role she plays--and you promptly forget who she is in real life. Which is meant in the best way.
Lupita Nyong'o legitimately disappears in the opening scene of every film she stars in. Whether she’s in science fiction, action adventure or drama--she commands the screen and brings the director’s vision to life--not her own image.
In Us, Jordan Peele’s directorial follow up to Get Out, Nyong'o (Adelaide) is paired with last year’s Reelest winner Winston Duke (Gabe) as the parents of two children on a summer vacation in Santa Cruz, California.
Adelaide returns to the place where, as a child, she encountered her Tether, Red, a doppelganger we will learn was created as a means of control over her life from afar as an experiment by some unknown entity.
We also discover that everyone in town has a Tether of their own. During the family’s vacation, the town is invaded by a mass of Tethers looking to take over the entire country.
The family, led by Adelaide, works to escape the town and make their way to Mexico. Along the way they battle and elude their individual Tethers and the Tethers of other residents on a journey that ends with Adelaide battling her own Tether, ominously named Red, who turns out to be the leader of them all. The entire film is a snowball of action and suspense with a classic twist ending that absolutely hinges on Nyong'o and her ability to deliver on multiple roles.
And deliver she does.
Let’s talk for a bit about actors who face a version of themselves on screen. It’s usually done to comedic or surreal effect, (think Michael J. Fox in Back To The Future or John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich.) It’s rarely done by a woman and even more rare in a drama, thriller or horror film. There’s just too much to risk to have one person facing themselves in what needs to be a battle of wits, not just weaponry or time travel or heavy makeup.
Nyong’o nails it--progressing Adelaide from vanilla mother navigating family life and her own trauma to a viscerally protective matriarch willing to fight and kill anything that poses a threat to her or her family. All the while she creates an ever more imposing figure with her Tether by delivering a character that is as sympathetic as she is evil.
Nyong’o as her Tether is absolutely terrifying, from the bulbous eyes, staccato movement, and labored speech. The flipping back and forth from mom to monster, often within the same scene, makes this a role few actors could have pulled off at all.
Sidebar: As I watched Lupita pull this off effortlessly, it made me think of character actor Jeffrey Wright. This is a man who can play a Dominican drug lord (Shaft) and then flip and play Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (Boycott) --earning critical acclaim for both. He can play anyone--period. Nyong’o is gearing up to become known for doing the same.
It is in these hard pivots that we see what acting really is. The brilliance of these turns lies not in your favorite actor being dropped into a new timeline. It is instead in the finer points. The voice, the diction, the movement, the creation of an entirely new being separate from the actor and their previous roles is where the great actors separate themselves from the merely entertaining.
There are some artists who win all The Things whenever they drop. You know if there’s a period piece + Denzel Washington + Spike Lee = Awards. And everyone else has to wait their turn.
I’m calling it right now. Nyong’o will continue to make folks wait their turn when awards season hits.
Photo Credit: Universal Studios