The Underground Railroad's Thuso Mbedu on the 'Present Day' Impact of Slavery

CUL_PS_Thuso Mbedu
Brian Bowen Smith/AUGUST

"This history they think is so far removed is a reality for people in the present day. The pain and the trauma that has gone on for generations is still very much alive."

For most actors, getting the lead in a highly anticipated project like Amazon Prime's The Underground Railroad (May 14) from Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins would be intimidating, but not for Thuso Mbedu, who plays Cora, the series lead. "Stuff like that doesn't actually register. I hear it, I get it, but when I'm at work, I'm here to be my best." Just to add to the project's weightiness, the limited series is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Colson Whitehead novel of the same name and is Mbedu's first American project after getting her start in South Africa. Even though it's a historical project, Mbedu says it's still very relevant, particularly for Black Americans. "It's closer to home than people realize." In many ways, Mbedu was able to see parts of herself in the character. "Cora healed parts of me that I didn't know were wounded." Even when she had doubts, all she had to do was look to Jenkins. "Barry saw in me something that I don't quite see in myself. And for me, all I can tell myself is to be my best at every given moment. The rest will handle itself."

What's it like to be part of a project that's so highly anticipated?

I don't think it has really sunken in. I hear people talk and it feels like they know something that I don't know. I'm just excited for people to see the story because it's an important story that needs to be told but also the way in which it was told, the choices Barry made, the videographers, sound, lighting, editing, it feels like a masterpiece. After watching it I messaged him and was like, "When I was in film school we studied films that changed film discourse, and I feel like the Underground Railroad is one of those things that will be added to those discussions." What they did with it is on another level for me. That's what I'm excited for people to see.

How did the part come your way?

This was my first American audition, so I didn't expect anything would come from it. I had a meeting with Barry. I think he was trying to get to know me as a person. He asked me if I'd read the book, and I didn't even know that it was based on a book at the time. He was fully trying to understand how I made the decisions I made in the audition, and I told him, I got all the information from the four scenes that were sent. He told me "I just want to test your range and see if you can sustain this type of energy for 10 months," because we would be shooting for 10 months. I was like, "Whatever you need, I got you. I would love the opportunity to tell the story, but if I'm not the best person for the job, then I want whoever is the best person to get the job." I had moments where I was like, I don't even know, maybe I should tell them that I'm going to pull out because I don't know if I'm good enough to tell the story. But I have to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to do it. I was grateful to get that opportunity to play this amazing part.

How do you think your experiences in South Africa, with the history of apartheid still very much present, influenced how you approach a role like Cora?

Barry had sent me a lot of reading material and he also sent me links to audio tapes of formerly enslaved people. In hearing their voices, when they spoke the English, it wasn't the English that we hear nowadays, or the English we hear in movies, it was a very broken English because the English that they were being taught was English for instruction, not English to communicate. And the English that I heard in those tapes is an English that if I were to go to South Africa today and go to a township or rural area, that's how people speak. So in that moment, I realized that the story is closer to home than I thought it was. Because then it removed the element of it being an African American story. It became a Black American story. It became a story of an African who was taken from Africa and brought into America to serve someone else's interests. That shifted the way I understood the character. It wasn't just a slave story, it became the lived experience that could have been anyone that I have known. It's closer to home than people realize. There are many parallels that one can draw from.

There's such a powerhouse team behind the series: Barry Jenkins, Jihan Crowther, and Colson Whitehead. What was it like working with them?

For me, stuff like that doesn't actually register. I hear it, I get it and I respect everybody, but when I'm at work, I'm here to be my best. My biggest thing was, I needed to perform at my very best because Amazon paid for me to leave South Africa. I can't be wasting people's money [laughs]. And Barry is such a generous and kindhearted person. He will literally be walking past and then he'll stop and say, "I trust you. You're here for a reason. It's not by chance that you're here. Whatever doubts you might have, whatever pressures you might feel, you're here for a reason." Barry saw in me something that I don't quite see in myself yet. And for me, all I can tell myself is to be my best at every given moment. The rest will handle itself.

How did you balance self-care and mental wellness while finding the rawness of Cora?

I have different tricks and ways of detaching from the moment when I need to. Some people who do method will be fully in character from beginning to end, even when they call cut, they choose to stay in character. For me, the character was too heavy to even attempt that, I wouldn't have been okay to sustain that over 10 months. When I get on set, depending on what we're dealing with that day, I choose to walk through the set with my eyes down not taking in the environment, because taking in the environment is too heavy, it's too painful to witness. So I'll only lift my eyes when I want to see the world through Cora's eyes and experience it as Cora.

Are you prepared for fame?

I'm such a homebody. So in terms of me personally, I will do what I need to do workwise. But in terms of lifestyle, I don't see a lot of things changing. I'm not trying to be famous. I'm not here because of all the glitz and the glam. I'm excited for the opportunities. Acting is what I love to do. I'm in my element when I'm performing. In terms of opportunities, like my reps will tell me I'll be in a position where I have to choose, and I'm just like, I don't want to choose, I want to do it all.

What's one thing you hope people take away from the series?

I hope it's the realization that this history they think is so far removed, is a reality for people in the present day. The pain and the trauma that has gone on for generations is still very much alive. And realizing that, I hope there's an empathy and understanding that will drive people to connect with each other on a different level. Because now that they understand that when a person is speaking from this place of brokenness, they still live with a sense of hope for a better future, that systems will change and that the Black body will feel like their voice is being heard, instead of being told to, "Get over it. This was 400 years ago," because that's not the case. Also, I just really want people to experience the healing that I experienced while telling this story. Cora healed parts of me that I didn't know were wounded until I found myself going through the story.