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No joking around: Jordan Peele gets scary in ‘Get Out’

Best known as one-half of comic duo Key and Peele, the writer-director turns to horror with his debut film

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

First as a castmember on “MADtv” and later as one-half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele, Jordan Peele has been making audiences laugh for more than a decade.

Jordan Peele

But comedy isn’t Peele’s first love. “My truest passion is horror films,” he says.

He’s not joking. Peele’s directorial debut, “Get Out,” is a straight-up horror film that uses race in America as its jumping-off point.

It’s about a young mixed-race couple, Chris (“Sicario’s” Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams of HBO’s “Girls”), who visit her parents (played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) in the country for a weekend.

Some lightly embarrassing exchanges ensue early on, highlighting the subtle awkwardness that can unfold when blacks and whites get together (Rose’s father greets Chris with a hearty “my man!”) before the film plunges into a body-snatching scenario rooted in race, neglect and marginalization.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, the boyfriend of Rose (Allison Williams), who’s caught in a nightmare at her parents’ estate.

“Get Out” began with Peele asking himself the question, “If I were to write a horror classic, where would I start?” he says during a phone interview with The Detroit News last week from Los Angeles.

“Pretty quickly I realized that the horror of race is so rarely portrayed in horror movies,” says the 37-year-old. “All the greats have some sort of allegory going on that helps us deal with a real human demon. So this was something I felt that if I can’t do, nobody can.”

Peele’s passion for horror goes back to when he was a child growing up in New York, when he was crippled with fear of the dark, demons and his own nightmares. He recalls being particularly frightened by the pages of Fangoria magazine and the poster for “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and he counts “The Shining” as the scariest film he’s ever seen.

“At some point I realized that anything that could affect me that much, I had to respect,” Peele says.

He attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York with the intention of studying puppeteering before dropping out two years into his studies. Comedy became his path, and he landed “MADtv” in 2003 after his work with a New York improv troupe led to a stint with the Second City in Chicago.

After five seasons, he left the show and hooked up with his “MADtv” castmate Detroiter Keegan-Michael Key, and they spent five seasons sending up sports, politics and popular culture on Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele.”

Race was always a key topic on “Key & Peele,” just as it is in “Get Out.”

“We’re in a period where discussion of race is undeniable,” says Peele, the child of a mixed-race couple who is in a mixed-race marriage with comedian Chelsea Peretti (their first child is due later this year). “When Obama was president, it seemed to be taboo to discuss, like we could all get past it if we don’t talk about it. Now we see proof as to why that’s not true. I think people are engaged in the subject, intellectually, but it’s a very difficult subject to have a conversation about, and I think many conversations end poorly.”

Peele wants “Get Out” to address the intellectual need to figure out how to get past race, “but also make an inclusive experience that an entire audience of all races and religions can have a collective experience of yelling at the screen, having fun and cheering for Chris.”

“Get Out” is the first of four social thrillers Peele began mapping out eight years ago. The next one, he says, will not be about race, but it will tackle a different human demon, the specifics of which he’s not ready to share.

“I know, but you can’t know,” Peele says. He then lets out a ghoulish laugh — a horror junkie through and through.

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‘Get Out’

Rated R: for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references

Running time:

104 minutes

Opens Friday