New Faces: Shahadi Wright Joseph Is Jordan Peele’s 13-Year-Old Us Star and Young Beyoncé in The Lion King

Shahadi Wright Joseph is the breakout star of 'Us', and a young Beyoncé in 'The Lion King'.

Photography by Geoff Levy; Hairy by Cheryl Bergamy, Make-up by Brenna Drury, Styling by Andrew Gelwicks

Shahadi Wright Joseph is just as excited as you are that Us is finally in theaters, though maybe not for the same reasons. For one, she can finally be done worrying about giving away spoilers. “I was really worried,” she admitted, days before the premiere. “I had to make sure that I wasn’t giving too much away and that I was just sticking to the trailer. That was the hardest part of it all.”

If that was a test for her first film, she’s passed with flying colors. Just 13 years old, Us marks the teen’s entrance into Hollywood after a few years in musical theater—and what an entrance it is. In the film, Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated follow up to 2017’s Get Out, Wright Joseph plays the daughter of Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong’o, all of whom embark on a family vacation that goes awry when they are attacked by what appears to be their own doppelgängers (also played by the same cast). It’s a wild movie, and one Wright Joseph didn’t originally know that she was auditioning for. “I got an audition for an untitled horror movie. That’s it,” she recalled. “The sides were so weird and gory. It was very challenging to try and send in that audition. There was so much of a physical challenge, that we didn’t know how to shoot it. A couple of weeks later, we got the call that Jordan Peele wanted to meet me in L.A.”

Soon, she was cast as Zora Wilson, the family’s tech-obsessed daughter, as well as Umbrae, Zora’s doppelgänger, which was certainly interesting for the young actress. “Jordan really helped me with the look of [Umbrae],” she said. “He said that she was ready to fight all the time, and in the script, it said she was ‘born laughing,’ and that really triggered the smile for me. It was a lot of fun. It was the best experience ever.” Among the highlights was getting the chance to bond with her onscreen family. “You can definitely see the chemistry that we have there,” she said. “We actually were like a real family.”

Of course, this is a horror movie, so there were still some spooks here and there—especially when Nyong’o unleashed her doppelgänger half, Red. “She kind of creeped me out a little,” she admitted, adding, “Her process is so inspiring.” Luckily, all the scares weren’t exactly as they seem: “All the blood was edible and it tasted like cherry mint. It was pretty nice.”

Wright Joseph’s next role will be decidedly less creepy, albeit no less buzzy; come July, she’ll voice young Nala in the upcoming live action The Lion King, having already played the role on Broadway. “I was really familiar with the role already, and it was great because Jon Favreau gave us a lot of freedom to make it as realistic as possible. JD McCrary, who plays young Simba, and I have such a great connection—it really was like young Simba and young Nala, best friends forever, when we met.” The pair taped many of their lines together in a studio in Los Angeles, where they could move around while recording, unlike a traditional voice-over booth. “It did feel really different from [Broadway]; you’re not in front of thousands of people,” she said. “It was a little bit easier because I could go back and switch something if I didn’t like it. With Broadway, you have to make it look like it wasn’t a mistake.”

In the film, Wright Joseph is part of a large ensemble cast that makes the film on of the year’s biggest, including voices from Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Alfre Woodard, James Earl Jones, Amy Sedaris, and, oh yeah, Beyoncé—who is playing the grown-up Nala. “I kind of freaked out [when I heard about Beyoncé],” Wright Joseph admitted. “Like, no pressure or anything.”