Horror's newest breakout star also reveals to ET which set was scarier to be on: 'Them' on Amazon or Jordan Peele's 'Us'.
Horror’s newest rising star is Shahadi Wright Joseph, who first broke out in Jordan Peele’s 2019 film, Us, and is now the star of creator Little Marvin and executive producer Lena Waithe’s terror anthology series, Them, which is now streaming on Amazon. Speaking with ET, the 15-year-old actress opened up about her love of horror movies, becoming a scream queen and the challenges of playing Ruby in the series.
Set in the 1950s, during the Great Migration, season 1 follows the Emory family as they move from North Carolina to Compton, a previously all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles, California, to escape ongoing racial segregation and discrimination where Jim Crow laws are still upheld as well as put a family tragedy behind them.
Not long after settling into the sunny California suburb, however, the family’s idyllic new home -- a literal embodiment of the “American Dream” -- soon becomes the center of both real-life and otherworldly forces that threaten to destroy parents Henry (Ashley Thomas) and Liva (Deborah Ayorinde), and their two daughters, Ruby (Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd).
While the whole family experiences terror and trauma in their own ways, Joseph really feels for Ruby. “She goes through a lot of stuff,” she says, explaining that after the move across the nation, the 14-year-old sibling suddenly becomes the only Black girl in her high school while her whole family is being taunted and threatened by their white neighbors, who are led by the particularly hateful Betty Wendell (Alison Pill).
“So you can obviously understand how that’s going for her,” Joseph continues. “She also goes through a lot of stress and generational trauma from her parents. And I feel like she most definitely deserved better.”
One example of the real-life terrors faced by Ruby is when students in her class start making monkey sounds when she’s called upon by the teacher. “That was most definitely a hard scene for me,” Joseph says. “I've never really experienced that type of blatant racism before.”
That said, it was also “a challenge for me to grow as an actor,” she adds. “So I would say that it’s one of those experiences that you take with you to the next project.” Another important thing she learned, especially shooting a scene like that, is to find “different routines to help you unwind at the end of the day, which really does help.”
While the stylized series is rooted in era-specific horror and noir films, Joseph is no stranger to the genre. Her favorites include classics, The Exorcist and The Shining, and more contemporary hits like The Babadook and Hereditary.
She’s also aware of how the genre has increasingly centered Black people and other marginalized voices, especially in the wake of Peele’s Oscar-winning film, Get Out. What followed was Us, Lovecraft Country, Bad Hair and the delayed Candyman sequel, among other projects. “I love it,” the young star says, noting how she “especially loves how Little Marvin used this genre of horror as a way to use it for educational purposes, not just for entertainment, but also a way to use our platforms to spread awareness as well.”
She adds, “So using the media to shift the narrative, I feel like is probably the smartest thing that someone can do. And I feel very lucky and blessed to be able to be a part of this.”
Joseph is also excited about not only joining the ranks of scream queens, but another woman of color following the likes of Jurnee Smollett, Betty Gabriel and others who have expanded what the archetype can be. “I love that. I really do,” she says excitedly. “I don’t know why, but I love acting scared. It’s just, it’s something great that I love. I mean, I think that’s part of the reason why I like watching horror movies as well.”
Noting that being on the set of Them was scarier than Us, she adds, “I don't think that I’ve ever experienced something as truly terrifying as what we had to portray in this series. But I sure did try my hardest to make that feel as accurate as possible.”
To her credit, “Shahadi was just the best actress possible [for the role]. There was no question,” Little Marvin notes. “She just killed me with her audition.”
As for what audiences get out of watching Them, Joseph “hopes that people take away a different perspective of themselves and others from this. Lena and Little Marvin really wanted to drastically change the narrative about the Black experience in America. And I feel like they really got the job done with this one. And it’s one of those shows that’s very psychological and it makes you really think.”