Lost in the overwhelming praise for Us, Jordan Peele’s followup to Get Out – which stars Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as parents on a beach vacation with their family who are confronted and attacked by doppelgangers – is that it starts with a commercial for Hands Across America. (Hands Across America plays a recurring theme throughout Us.) For those who don’t know, Hands Across America was basically the epitome of “dumb 80s’ thing,” with the idea being that millions of people would join hands to form a human chain from one coast to the other for 15 minutes. Of course, there were huge gaps and, in the end, the whole event raised a grand total of $15 million. It’s an odd thing in which to start a horror movie, but Jordan Peele is not making your average horror movies. And, as Peele told us, when he randomly saw that commercial on YouTube, “It scared me.”
When you talk to Jordan Peele, it’s probably not entirely what you’re expecting. First known for comedy, it’s not that he’s “more serious than you’re expecting,” but it’s more that you can see his brain working a thousand miles a second, quickly jumping from something hilarious to something deadly serious. (It’s no wonder why he’s perfect for a revival of The Twilight Zone.) Talking to Peele is like talking to an encyclopedia of pop culture knowledge. And he can flip that page very quickly. And Peele isn’t against putting his interviewer on the spot. At one point I caught a reference to The Goonies, so Peele quizzed me on the other two Corey Feldman references in Us. (And, yes, there are three references to Corey Feldman in Us. We’ll just let Peele explain.)
I’ve been waiting for a Hands Across America movie. I’m kind of am obsessed with it.
I was around ten when it happened. I’m a bit obsessed because it’s so ridiculous.
We’re going to hold hands across America, but we’re not actually…
There are going to be huge gaps. But let’s not talk about that.
And let’s not talk about the fact it raised hardly any money.
Right, but it made us feel like we had accomplished something. And we could go on about our 80s lives.
A lot of people don’t realize this was ever “a thing.”
I didn’t set out to address that when I first started writing.
Who would? Well, it would have to be you.
I wasn’t even in touch with some of the deeper meanings of what this movie is about until I stumbled upon a Hands Across America commercial for MTV.
How did you stumble across that?
I was on YouTube…
Well, that’s how it happens.
That’s how it happened. And I can’t remember if I just had a eureka moment, but when I saw it, it scared me.
It scared you?
The tone of this commercial just had that sort of ’80s “Everything’s Great!” quality.
Oh yeah, it’s like this utopian, “Reagan’s the president and we’re going to hold hands,” tone.
It like “happy days again,” except it’s in the ’80s and we are going to send teachers up into outer space and everything is going to be fine. And that pit in the stomach, that I’m sure you have, too, just virtue of being that time – I was seven you were ten – vulnerable as children.
And you sort of pick up on these things and the duality of these things. I was kind of left watching this commercial, “Why does that disturb me?” Oh my God, can you imagine? My favorite horror movie starts with that commercial. And so, from there, it took me down this path to really think about this movie in terms of this country and the idea of demonstration or protest, or even performance art, and to imagine what the evil doubleganger version of what Hands Across America would be.
And then characters in this movie have waited their whole life to perform Hands Across America, which is fascinating.
Right. Which is kind of the central monster led by, of course, Adelaide, played by Lupita Nyong’o’s doppelganger. The tethered red, the idea was to kind of create this mythology for this family that is scary and dark. But then when you look at it in the context of the other side, the side we live in. It sort of reveals how weird our side of it is.