Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Them (Photo: Amazon Studios); Shahadi Wright Joesph (Photo: Brendan Wixted)

Shahadi Wright Joseph on how Them carves out its own space in horror

Them (Photo: Amazon Studios); Shahadi Wright Joesph (Photo: Brendan Wixted)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

What’s more terrifying: mysterious supernatural entities or strangers who can’t stop staring at you for no good reason? The new Amazon Prime Video horror anthology Them navigates this question through the lens of racial bias in America. The 10-episode drama centers on a Black family of four, the Emorys, who move to an all-white area in Compton, California from North Carolina during the The Great Migration, in 1953. The price of their new home is overtly racist neighbors, co-workers, and some scary creatures in the basement. Them explores the first 10 days of their move as they deal with their past traumas and the plotting of nefarious neighbors.

Premiering April 9, Them is created by Little Marvin and executive-produced by Lena Waithe. The series stars Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas, Melody Hurd, Alison Pill, and Us breakout Shahadi Wright Joseph. The 15-year-old actor proved her mettle in Jordan Peele’s subversive 2019 horror movie with a double role. Her credits also include Hairspray Live! and the voice of young Nala in 2019’s The Lion King. In Them, she gets to untangle horrors that aren’t just occult but also very, very real as her character, Ruby Emory, struggles to find her place in her new town and school—a feeling Joseph says she identifies with. The A.V. Club spoke to the actor about her love of high-concept dramas and why she thinks Them’s themes stand out.

The A.V. Club: What drew you to Them and your character, Ruby Emory?

Shahadi Wright Joseph: I remember when I first got the audition for Them, I didn’t have much of a description of it. I just heard it’s going to be a horror anthology that’s taking place in the Jim Crow era. That itself was exciting to me because I had never seen anything like it before. That’s usually when I appreciate my projects the most, when I would want to watch it even if I wasn’t in it. When I started reading the sides for Them, it was like reading a good book.

AVC: Ruby is trying to navigate a new world that she’s stepped into as the only Black girl in her high school. Do you feel like a lot of people might relate to some aspects of her experiences?

SWJ: It was one of the first things I thought about when I read the first three episodes. I saw how Ruby is as a character and her dynamics with the other characters. What I could also relate to the most was just being a teenager in high school. Of course my experiences were way less horrific than hers, but I do feel like a lot of people will relate to that. I’m not the only Black girl in my school and everyone doesn’t hate me for just being myself, but I fully understand the feeling of trying to fit in no matter what.

AVC: In one scene of episode two, Ruby is really being harassed in class. What emotions do you go through when acting out these particularly difficult scenes?

SWJ: For those hard scenes, you have to try to take yourself out of the character as much as possible, which can be quite difficult. You really have to do it just so you’re not enduring any of the stress your character is taking on. What helps me the most is having that good routine during and even after filming those scenes. It’s crucial for my mental health.

Deborah Ayorinde, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Melody Hurd, and Ashley Thomas in Them
Deborah Ayorinde, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Melody Hurd, and Ashley Thomas in Them
Photo: Amazon Studios

AVC: Do you have memories of your time on set that you really enjoyed or a challenge you overcame while filming some of these scenes?

SWJ: My favorite time on set was actually during the breaks in filming because Melody [Hurd], who plays my younger sister, Gracie, and I would always do funny TikTok dances in between takes. That was also a great way to have a lighter energy during these deeper scenes you have to do all the time.

AVC: Them is not only horror, but it’s also a period piece set several decades ago. What kind of research did you do to step into that? Did you read any books or watch movies to glean some influences?

SWJ: For preparing for being in the ’50s, I was taking a lot of references and things that I had learned from my parents besides the general education I have of what life was for us as a people and how we were treated. I would also watch a lot of ’50s videos and try to figure out dialect, posture, characteristics that are accurate.

AVC: Is horror a genre you’re naturally attracted to? Not just because of Them but also because of your breakout performance in Us?

SWJ: Most definitely. I remember how much I loved watching my first movie, which was The Exorcist, and just appreciating the art of horror. I would say it’s my favorite genre to watch.

AVC: What experiences from your time in Us helped during your time working on Them?

SWJ: Both productions had similar ways of working, which really helped and I loved that. Little Marvin and Jordan Peele both give so much freedom when it comes to these characters and we got to take personal experiences and transfer them into our roles. My favorite part was how that helped me adapt to these characters.

AVC: How do you think Them will stand out in this genre, since it is already being compared to last year’s Lovecraft Country as well as movies like Us and Get Out?

SWJ: Them really does stand out when we are talking about some of the things happening today. A lot of people might think that because this story takes place so long ago, it is not relevant today, when the fact is Little Marvin was taking his experiences and Black people experiences from today and he turned it into this art piece and drama. I love the way he created it.

AVC: Them actually gets pretty brutal about these experiences. It’s been getting some criticism because it’s adding to pop culture that focuses only on Black trauma. Why do you think audiences need to see this particular project?

SWJ: I know exactly what people mean when they talk about how they don’t want to see or hear much about Black trauma because we do hear about it in real life a lot today. I agree with that. But I’ve also never seen it tackled like this before and it’s something that I would actually enjoy seeing. People relate it to Lovecraft Country or other anthologies but it’s going to be its own thing. It’s also important for us to be part of these projects. It’s a form of education not just entertainment. People can use this form of creativity to broaden their mindset and change their minds about how they think about other people.

AVC: Now that you’ve dipped your toes in the horror genre and some dark projects, what kind of roles do you want to explore next?

SWJ: I think a proper drama would be something I’d love to be a part of. Specifically, a coming-of-age story like Moonlight or something that’s set in the ’90s I think would be fun for me to explore.