If social media is any indication, the fact that Thuso Mbedu had 1.3 million Instagram followers even before her U.S. breakthrough role in The Underground Railroad was even released should point to the arrival of a fully formed star.
Mbedu’s following comes from her native South Africa, where she made a name on television in the soap opera Scandal in 2015, before receiving an International Emmy Award nomination in 2017 for her role in the drama series Is’Thunzi. In fact, it was while she was in the U.S. to attend the ceremony that she first heard that Barry Jenkins was casting for a lead in The Underground Railroad. It’d be a while before she’d meet Francine Maisler, who cast the show, and ultimately Jenkins himself, and before she did, she pored over Colson Whitehead’s novel on which the movie is based.
“Mr. Whitehead is able to paint this picture,” Mbedu says now, of what she found in the pages of The Underground Railroad. “In the moment, I wasn’t able to articulate what it was that drew me to the story or to the character of Cora.”
She thought about it. Cora’s journey struck her deeply. She empathized with the idea of this slave woman, ostracized even by her own community, and how she comes to know and understand herself through the long journey she goes on. And there was something about the open-ended conclusion to the story that was deeply profound.
“My manager called and said, ‘It feels like there’s no resolution,’” says Mbedu. “For me, it was a commentary on today. You can see the parallels that run through it. There is never a place for a resolution. I knew I wanted to be a part of this project, no matter how small the role might be. It was such an important message.”
We see the bulk of The Underground Railroad’s story through Cora’s eyes. And through Mbedu, the complicated emotion of a desperate fight that so frequently seems unwinnable runs the gamut in every episode. It required a lot from her, and part of the audition process, she says, was about finding out whether she would have the stamina to author a role like this over a 10-month shoot.
“Barry told me that he doesn’t direct the first take,” Mbedu says. “You make an offer based on what you’ve come up with from the character and then he guides you from there. It was amazing working like that, because it felt that the conversation could flow easily. He forced me, in a way, to step up, not just to sit back and wait for him to tell me what to do, but to make those offers.”
To get herself ready, Mbedu dove headfirst into prep work, learning as much as she could about American slavery, which had not been taught to her at school in South Africa, as her country was still processing the deep hurt of its own apartheid era. “There were moments I had to separate myself from the research because it was so heavy,” she says. “It was a lot to take in, emotionally, but I kept telling myself that everything I was reading or listening to paled in comparison to the actual lived experience.”
She listened to recordings of former slaves and read testimonials. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a 1861 autobiography by Harriet Jacobs, helped inform a lot about her approach to Cora. And while she was heartbroken by the accounts she read, she saw, too, the potential for The Underground Railroad to bring this history to new generations. “It excited me, because I thought when people back home, and other people, watch this show, they’ll come to know of the truth,” Mbedu explains. “One thing we know the system does well, because that’s what really worked for apartheid, is divide and conquer. Even now, in different parts of Africa, there’s this division of the Black body so that, as long as we’re apart, we can’t fight the system that oppresses us all. As we learn, I think a series like this can be a shift in a positive direction.”
Mbedu’s star continues to rise. Even before The Underground Railroad premiered, she had landed a role alongside Viola Davis in The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Davis describes being “mesmerized” by Mbedu, and it’s a refrain repeated in reviews for The Underground Railroad, though Prince-Bythewood had not seen any of her performance in Jenkins’ show when she was cast, and she describes Mbedu as a “generational talent”. The film tells the story of the woman warriors of Dahomey, a Western African kingdom in the 18th and 19th Centuries. “I carry a machete, because my character kicks ass,” Mbedu laughs.
She is excited for what the future holds, and keen not to follow the simple narrative of sacrificing her roots for a career in America. “I still have my roots in South Africa, and we’ll be shooting The Woman King there, even in my home province [of KwaZulu-Natal], which is a big deal for me.”
Indeed, Mbedu’s ambitions are to translate her international success into meaningful growth for the South African film industry. “I’m not fighting for myself; I’m fighting for everybody else,” she insists. “The resources are there [in South Africa]. The talent is there. It’s just the misuse of everything. Exploitation of people. Projects are nothing without the crew, and so I want you to be paying them correctly and treating them correctly. It’s a collaboration.”
Jenkins told her, “Network across, don’t network up,” and she has taken it to heart. “I’ve done projects where I’ve made friends with crew members and we’ve talked about, let’s come together to make something. These are the opportunities we have to create for ourselves, because we might be the very answer we’re seeking.”
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