Thuso Mbedu has no words when asked to describe what it felt like to be cast by Barry Jenkins: over Zoom, she makes the kind of indecipherable gestures and exclamations that register as an implosion. Sporting a braid-out in two bunches and a black ‘MLK’ basketball t-shirt, the South African actress’s Martin Luther King Day is just kicking off in LA while mine is drawing to a close half a world away. She made the move Stateside last year, after wrapping on the Moonlight director’s forthcoming adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad – an American-lead debut that feels as urgent as it does reflective.
The story of Cora Randall is one of stark contrast to Mbedu’s own sunny demeanour. It’s at once a heart-wrenchingly thorough account of slavery and an allegorical sci-fi voyage through time, with Whitehead – and subsequently Jenkins – reimagining the secret network of safe houses and routes establishedto help enslaved people flee to free states in America. In this tale, it’s a literal subterranean railroad as well as a metaphorical one.
Though Cora’s story is framed by ahistorical fictions, it’s telling that the most chilling aspects are still those firmly rooted in fact. From the cruelty of the plantations to the sterilising and brutalising of men and women, Whitehead drew upon oral history and first-person accounts of slavery archived by organisations such as the Federal Writers’ Project to craft his Pulitzer-winning novel, which took 16 years to complete, from idea to execution. By suspending reality, it uses the life of young escapee Cora to showcase a whole spectrum of history without the constraints of factual timekeeping; as we’ll soon see on our screens, she journeys through the many hidden worlds that sprouted under slavery.
For the limited television series, some of the usual Jenkins suspects have reunited: the director has teamed up again with Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B, while Nicholas Britell, who also scored Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, supplies the show’s moving orchestral soundtrack. But while the cast is vast and equally stellar – Joel Edgerton, William Jackson Harper, and Chase W Dillon all appear – the show is centred by Mbedu’s performance, which brings an unshakeable resilience and stinging vulnerability to Cora that grounds the darkly intimate atmosphere Jenkins is known for conjuring.
Although the role serves as a western introduction to Mbedu, the 29-year-old is already something of a household name in South Africa, thanks to her star turn as headstrong Winnie in the popular teen drama series Is’thunzi (2016–2017), for which she received two International Emmy nominations. This, plus the fact you’ll find more than a million followers onher infectiously joy-filled Instagram feed, makes describing the actress as ‘emerging’ a gross – and hopelessly Hollywood-centric – understatement. Better to see Mbedu’s next chapter as the rightful expansion of, not an introduction to, one of 2021’s most thrilling talents.
You grew up in South Africa, right?
Thuso Mbedu: Born and bred! I’m from the land of the Zulus, a province called KwaZulu-Natal.
Growing up, did you always know you wanted to perform?
Thuso Mbedu: I actually thought I was going to be a dermatologist, because when I was younger I had all these allergies. So I did biology, mathematics and all that, and then chose drama as the ‘relaxing’ subject. And I just fell in love with it. We were writing, creating, acting, and I remember having to perform this poem I’d written for one of my exams, but the performance was also open for public viewing. Afterwards, there were these grown people coming up to me,just in tears, crying and thanking me.
I think the title was ‘The Girl with the Smile’ and it was about myself as this person who people perceived that way, but I had so much inner turmoil that nobody knew about. I think that was one of the reasons Cora resonated with me – the story itself reflected something of me that I didn’t know was inside.
What was the casting process like?
Thuso Mbedu: I auditioned at the end of 2018. I was in New York for the International Emmy Awards and my manager had sent me the brief. I’d only done one dialect session for the accent and it was my first American audition. So I was fully aware of the fact thatI probably wouldn’t get the role. I was like, ‘It’s OK, it’s gonna take time and practice.’ So I let it go.
Then, at the beginning of 2019, I was in LA for a few months for meetings. I ended up meeting with a studio executive who knew the casting director, Francine Maisler. Next thing, my manager gets a call from Francine’s office saying she’d like to meet with me and I’m just like, ‘I can’t do any worse than last year, so let’s see!’ We had the meeting, played around with the material. That evening, my manager calls me and she’s like, ‘So that meeting was a call-back, they love you and Barry would like to meet you.’ I’m like, ‘Wait, what?!’ So I met Barry the next day, he was on his way to an Oscars dinner…
Thuso Mbedu: (laughs) Busy Barry! And it wasn’t anything formal, just (us) talking about everything and anything. And at the end, he’s like, ‘OK, so you are this character. I’m not saying you’ve got the role, but your life story makes sense with her.’ And he’d been asking me if I’d read the book because of how I played the layers of the character, and I didn’t even know (then) that it was based on a book! So I read the book and, oh my gosh, it was so powerful. Later, I remember in one of the last emotional scenes (during the test shoot), my contact actually flipped itself inside out in my eye and I had to run out and fix it. (laughs)
And so you get the news that you’ve got the role and then it turns out you might be the first South African to lead an American TV series. Was that an intimidating prospect – to be a ‘first’?
Thuso Mbedu: You know, I wasn’t even thinking about that at all. It’s something that was only highlighted back home when the news broke. For me, it’s always about serving the role and then, whatever comes afterwards, that’s a bonus. But also, for the longest time, the idea of coming to Hollywood from South Africa was a nice dream to have, but it wasn’t something attainable. So now, with this, people are thanking me for showing them that if they work hard enough and push and keep faith, then it’s something they can actually do. I’m really glad I could do that.
“It’s this collective win for all of us (in South Africa), and that’s something I never could have scripted, even if someone gave me the pen and paper” – Thuso Mbedu
It feels like the whole country is behind you, which is so beautiful to see.
Thuso Mbedu: The best! I think that’s what makes me the most happy, to be able to unite the country in that way. Because it’s always been me and my sister, raised by my grandma – us against the world – and me pursuing my own purpose, you know? But now it’s this collective win for all of us, and that’s something I never could have scripted, even if someone gave me the pen and paper.
Were you a fan of Barry’s world?
Thuso Mbedu: Absolutely. I’d seen Moonlight and he was just campaigning for Beale Street when I was auditioning. Barry is just so respectful – that’s the one thing I noticed from the jump. He’s not a dictator as a director. Something he does is he lets you make an offer first before he directs you. To the point where we would make offers and he would say, ‘I didn’t imagine it like that but I love it,’ and hewould tweak the script according to how you played it.
When we had hectic scenes and sometimes people were freaking out a little bit, I’d say, ‘Let’s just play, have fun and see where it takes us.’ He makes you feel safe enough to do that. Plus, it’s just hard to be in the same space with Barry and leave without taking something good away with you, from him and the way he is. People just love him, cast and crew. It was such an amazing environment to be in, knowing that we’re all working to serve this project, no egos involved, no one trying to show anyone up.
Speaking of the different worlds Cora moves through, how would you summarise the journey your character experiences?
Thuso Mbedu: I actually had this exercise of trying to describe each place in a single word. So for the first episode, which is Georgia,it’s ‘escape’. South Carolina is ‘disillusionment’, because what you see is not really true. Then, for North Carolina, my word was ‘prison’, because she was a slave on the Randall plantation, but she was physically free to move about – to be outside,to breathe in the air, but of course still under slavery. And now she’s free but she’s bound to this box in which she’s hidden, and her whole life is only in her mind. Then Tennessee was basically just ‘hell on earth’. For Indiana I said, ‘freedom?’, with the question mark. Because this entire time she’s been chasing freedom and now she’s in Indiana, which is reminiscent of Tulsa, Oklahoma, back in the day, where the Black body was finally able to live and create this haven for themselves, but they were still under the watchful eye of the white man who wasn’t happy that they were free. And so they were always threatened by this force that they’re constantly aware of as much as they were ‘free’.
That last part reminded me of this incredible line when your character is adjusting to this freedom-with-a-question-mark and says she’s unsure whether there are actually any places to flee to, or only places to run away from. It kind of blew my mind.
Thuso Mbedu: Right? And Cora’s a cynic, so you have to take her with a pinch of salt but, yeah, that’s a beautiful line that stuck with me too.
We’re seeing how the same white supremacy and violent misogyny that Cora faces continues to shape the world we live in today. How important is it to revisit our past in order to understand our present and our future?
Thuso Mbedu: I think it’s definitely important to firstly know the true history, especially in the context of Blackness. Because we didn’t have the opportunity to write our own history, it was written for us. We have tried to pass it down through generations by word of mouth, but what’s in books has been written by someone else who is serving their own agenda.
In the context of this story, it’s hard not to hark back to history – it’s still very evident today. For example, the Tuskegee experiments that are touched on, where they were poisoning the Black body, and (the carrying out of) forced sterilisations without people knowing. These are the same reasons it’s so hard for Black people to accept this vaccine for Covid-19, because we were never given a reason to trust in these governments. And not even just in America. In apartheid South Africa, they put Black bodies under forced sterilisation too. Or (look at) what happened on Capitol Hill – it’s evidence of the white supremacy that ruled back then still happening in 2021. So there’s a lot that we’re seeing the remnants of.
Saying this, what do you hope that people will gain anew from The Underground Railroad?
Thuso Mbedu: Apart from people being well informed, I want them to take away that this is a story of hope and love. We see Cora go towards that freedom and, as much as it might feel like there hasn’t been a lot of progress, there is hope. Hope that we can do something about it, that we can talk, learn and put things in place to ensure these things don’t continue. Personally, I want people to heal when they watch the story, just as I was able to heal from performing it – parts of me that I didn’t even know were in need of healing. I want people to feel seen and like their voice is being heard. For me, this story says, ‘We see you. And as much as the system has pretended you are not there, there are eyes that have seen you, and this is your story.’
And who would you like to tell stories with next?
Thuso Mbedu: I would definitely love to work with Gina Prince-Bythewood, I’ve always loved Love & Basketball and I love what she did with The Old Guard. Then obviously Viola Davis – I’ve always been so inspired by her. I’d also love to work with Regina King, as an actress and a director, especially after watching One Night in Miami…
Have you seen Watchmen?
Thuso Mbedu: Yes!
It feels like there’s this new lane forming of Black sci-fi television and it’s so special to witness.
Thuso Mbedu: One hundred per cent, and with Lovecraft Country, too. As the years go by, there are so many opportunities coming to tell our story, and not just as the typical narrative. Our stories are bigger than our past, they hark towards the future. We haven’t seen ourselves looking towards a particular future, it’s always been shaped by the white gaze before, so I’m excited to see what’s to come.
The Underground Railroad is out on Amazon Prime in May
Hair Nikki Nelms, make-up Samuel Paul atForward Artists using Fenty Beauty, photographic assistant Sandra Rivera, styling assistantsMirko Pedone, Megan King, hair assistant AlikyTheana, production Kalena Yiaueki at North Six, production assistant Nico Robledo