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.
You’ve spoken about your dislike of rabbits, which also play a role in this movie. When I was 10 I also had a pet rabbit.
His name was Mark.
You know, I had one, too. His name was Casey.
You make it sound like you hate rabbits, but I didn’t know you had a pet rabbit.
You learned to hate rabbits through having a pet rabbit?
I don’t hate them. I didn’t hate it. I did love it, but it couldn’t cuddle it.
It’s not like a dog or a cat that’s going to hang out with you.
Rabbits are skittish.
Yeah, and maybe a source of guilt right? I had this thing trapped in a New York City apartment in a cage and that was its life and so I think that’s part of it.
We lived in Missouri and had it in a cage, I think that’s the normal part.
Right, that’s the normal part. No, I fear their weird glazed-over dumbness.
It would make you feel good if it would just come up to you even a little bit. What a great pet, it came up to me and then ran away.
It’ll bite you! It’s not Thumper.
And sometimes you’ll pick it up and it’ll use its hind legs and attack you.
Yeah, attack with long nails. It’s a very scary animal for me, and also like I said, one that I probably feel guilty about.
While the Hand Across America commercial is playing, there’s a VHS sitting there of The Man With Two Brains.
Directed by Carl Reiner. I saw an interview where you said, “I’ve always wanted to see a black family on the beach.” So there are parts of this movie that remind me of another Carl Reiner movie, Summer Rental, with John Candy.
Which is a beach movie.
Which I’ve not seen.
John Candy even gets a leg injury and he also gets a bad boat, just like Winston Duke does in Us.
Amazing. It sounds good, by the way. These synchronistic things happen and it’s one of the central motifs of this movie. The idea of coincidence and where does serendipity end off and sort of fated connection begin? And this idea of synchronicity, in that our collective subconscious will organically present these things that are too connected to be accidental.
Right, but this sounds like an accident. You didn’t mean to do that. You haven’t seen the movie.
I didn’t mean to do that, but it is amazing when you build these checkpoints and you kind of create a landscape in a film where the themes balance. And that it creates this breeding ground for all of these, like you, you come in and you are eager to find all the nuggets and connect the dots.
I think I was just thinking that, before the horror starts, I could just watch a whole movie of this cast having comedic adventures on the beach. And you planted The man With Two Brains, so I spun it into something else.
I mean, The Man with Two Brains, for me, was that other thematic connection. The idea of two intelligences sharing a soul in a way. [Laughs] And was probably a little reference to Get Out in there, too.
You also had a Goonies VHS up there.
Did you draw anything from that?
Well, I’m guessing now I should have. I missed something.
There’s some Goonies stuff in there. I have an iconic line from Goonies in the movie. Yeah, you missed it
What is it?
Ah, yeah, okay.
This thing that you’re doing is something I do in this movie. There are three different connections to Corey Feldman in this movie and they all feed off of each other.
How are there three connections to Corey Feldman?
Well, that was definitely one. I’d give you the other two but you’ll just hate your nerd failure.
I’m assuming The Lost Boys.
The Lost Boys, yeah! We shot in Santa Cruz and the first scene of our movie is there.
Oh, it’s the same beach?
It’s the same beach, it’s the same amusement park. And it’s even 1986.
The Lost Boys came out in 1987, right?
But there is a reference to The Lost Boys shooting by the carousel. They’re walking down the Santa Monica boardwalk and the mother says, “You know they’re shooting a movie over there by the carousel.” The third one is not a movie but a Corey Feldman adjacent Easter egg.
Who was he hanging out with?
Is it the “Thriller” reference?
Yes. That works.
Does that really count? Alright, that one I don’t blame myself.
No one is picking these up, so you have a very special article in your hands with three explained Easter eggs here.
The Corey Feldman trilogy. I have to say, people are not going to be expecting that.
Corey Feldman, as you well know, I mean, a very important figure for our generation.
And Corey Haim. I would say Haim, too.
And Haim, too. These guys are the epitome of cool. They were kids who were as cool as it got. And stories of great duality, sagas of the highest highs and the lowest lows and great tragedies.
Corey Haim was legit great in Lucas.
Yeah he was, he was. Look, Feldman in Goonies, as Mouth, is one of the great scene-stealing performances. He had no reason he should have been the breakout of that movie, but he was.
Right, because Sean Astin is the lead.
Sean Astin’s the lead, you have Brolin up in there. Feldman in Goonies and Stand by Me, I mean those are like, yeah.
You tweeted that you think The Social Network needs a sequel. Now people want you to make it.
It’s so funny everyone says that. I made one comment about a film and everyone says, “Direct it! You gotta do it!” No, that’s not what I’m saying.
I know. But…
Talk about a social thriller!
But, I think people are saying you should direct it because your version of a movie like that would be very interesting.
I feel it is well within my tone of darkness, but there’s satire. Facebook and social media really reveal the monster of humanity in a way that only a technological advancement can do.
You also have The Twilight Zone coming. If you had to pick one classic episode that sums up what The Twilight Zone is, what would it be?
With the original series?
Is there like a classic Twilight Zone you think is perfect?
Obviously, the real power of The Twilight Zone came when you didn’t know what to expect. It went through these spectrums of tones. Do you know ��The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”?
Yes, where they all start accusing each other…
Right. Yes, some boy has seen a UFO land on a hill and the towns’ society breaks down in accusation. And, at the end, the aliens are standing on the hill going, “Funny things, these humans.” All you need to do is, whatever, fiddle with their lights and they’ll do the rest, on to the next planet. And it’s just one of these ways that Serling and his team would make really important commentary with the guise of entertainment. We visit a spectrum of styles in The Twilight Zone that we’re putting forward this season. I think we’re trying to catch up in some ways, too. Some very societal dynamics that are deserving of being explored now that didn’t exist back in the day.
A member of your cast asked me to ask you to do Tales From The Crypt next. Because he’d also do that one with you.
I love Tales From The Crypt! But that would be like J.J. doing Star Wars and Star Trek.
‘Us’ opens in theaters nationwide this week. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.