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Jordan Peele relies on Chicago lessons in directing horror film

Jordan Peele on the set of "Get Out," making his feature film directorial debut. | Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

LOS ANGELES — Long known for his strong comedy talents, Jordan Peele of “Key and Peele” fame may surprise fans by making his feature film directorial debut with a horror film, “Get Out” (opening Friday). However, the actor and filmmaker points to his Chicago professional roots as influencing his ability to be both funny and scary.

“I worked at Second City. I did shows at the ImprovOlympic [now iO Theatre], which is an amazing theater. The Annoyance is also amazing. I dedicated my life at that point to figuring comedy out. It was such an inspiring time for me, and it was such an inspiring time to be doing comedy in Chicago.

“It was time where I felt I was taking it all in, and I thought anything was possible. I could put anything on stage that I wanted and it would be at least viewed. Chicago is such an important piece of my personal history.”

Some of the people he encountered in Chicago later inspired characters for his “Key and Peele” series with Keegan-Michael Key. “For example, the character of Meegan is like a girl you’d see on Clark Street at 2 a.m. getting out of a bar with her boyfriend.”

While living and working in Chicago, Peele discovered the link between comedy and horror. The entertainer explained that he has “a very dark imagination. I was terrified of horror movies as a kid. I was afraid of the dark. At some point something clicked. I thought something that could affect me that much is something I must have respect for. From that moment forward, I’ve been an avid horror movie fan.

“However, it was during my time in Chicago that I realized that to be successful, both horror and comedy have to be all about good timing. You need to time the scary parts properly, just as you need to time your comedic moments the right way.”

In “Get Out,” Allison Williams plays Rose Armitage, who brings her college boyfriend Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) home for the weekend to meet her parents (played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). Over the course of that weekend, things begin to turn very strange — especially after Chris learns that a number of blacks have mysteriously disappeared in the Armitages’ community.

Cast in a key supporting role is comedian Lil Rel Howery — “a true Chicago native,” Peele said. “I think he does add a touch of that black Chicagoan persona to his character of a TSA agent who first suspects all is NOT right with the community where Chris is visiting for the weekend.”

For the biracial director, infusing aspects of race and racism into the film was important. “It’s definitely very personal, but not in the way you would think. It’s not about my wife [white comedian Chelsea Peretti]. It’s not about my wife’s family. I wrote it before I met her. But it is about being black in America — especially when you’re in situations where you feel like the outsider. It did come from a very dark place in the back of my mind.”

When work on the movie began, America was in a far different place than it is now.

“Even when we got into filming it, we were living in this post-racial lie,” Peele said. “Obama had the presidency and we were living in this fallacy: If you don’t talk about race it won’t exist anymore! Now we’re in this place where there’s overt racial tension. There’s no mistaking the fact racism is something we have to deal with. The connecting factor for the past 10 years is, in fact, racism. It’s something that’s here. It’s not necessarily a thing that can be gotten rid of easily, but through conversation and the way we talk about it, we can make progress. I think it’s something every single individual in this country has to deal with — within themselves.”

Peele is particularly interested in the more subtle forms of racism, as exemplified in a party scene early in the film. “People are giving these olive branches out to Chris with comments like, ‘I know Tiger Woods.‘ It’s something that is a sort of innocent form of prejudice, really. These people aren’t KKK, but I think it’s important to see that if you are the outsider in a situation and you see you are viewed only from the perspective of your skin color, even if it’s in a positive way — that’s still dehumanizing.”