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Growing up in South Africa, Thuso Mbedu struggled with severe skin allergies so much that she decided to dedicate her studies toward becoming a dermatologist. With a high school class schedule that mainly consisted of mathematics, biology, and physical sciences, she signed up for drama as a break from her day-to-day routine. Little did she know, this decision would lead her down a completely different path to stardom. Theater became a vehicle to help her break out of her shell, and over 10 years later, led her to landing a starring role in Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’s new Amazon Studios series, The Underground Railroad. In the gripping show, based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, Mbedu powerfully plays the role of Cora, an enslaved young woman who escapes from a plantation in the Antebellum South and embarks on a journey for her freedom and self-discovery.
Shortly after the show's highly anticipated release, BAZAAR.com spoke with Mbedu to discuss her early upbringing in South Africa, working with Jenkins, and how the series’ core messages and themes still apply to today’s social and political climate.
Can you tell me a little bit about your time growing up in South Africa and as a creative? What was the moment when you knew you wanted to officially pursue acting?
I was raised by my grandmother because [my siblings and I] lost our mother to a brain tumor when I was four years old. In South Africa, there's this proverb which means "I am because you are,” so it's that communal way of living. That’s what it was like just growing up in South Africa—support happens naturally. … Once I got to 10th grade, I chose drama as a second subject to study, which was going to be the relaxing subject from all of the maths and the sciences I signed up for. In drama, we were encouraged to devise work. We directed, we wrote, we were producing stuff, and we were performing, which for me was a completely different way of experiencing life. I'd grown up as a very introverted child, always with my head in books. My sister was two years older than me, but I would do her homework because I was very inquisitive, and I always wanted to learn more.
In drama, you're thinking completely differently. You’re experiencing the world physically, emotionally, mentally—you're not just using your brain. At the end of the year, we had to perform our exams and they were always open for the public to view. I performed a poem that I had written for myself, and at the end of it, I had these grownups come to me and they were just in tears, crying saying, "Thank you for your performance. Thank you for seeing me and hearing me and just articulating how I'm feeling." It was at that moment where I was like, "Okay, this drama thing is bigger than what I understand." I love what it does. It's acting as a tool for healing and a tool for positive social change. And that's when I was like, "This is what I feel like I was created to do, and this is what I want to do with the rest of my life."
To play a part like this in a series that is rooted in so much pain and history for our community, what was it like for you mentally to take on this role and prepare?
I did a lot of research going into the project. I arrived in Savannah [where it was filmed] in June 2019. We started shooting in August. So, I had that time to take in as much information as I possibly could, or as much as my brain would allow me. I got to places or moments where my brain would say, "That's enough, you need to take a step back." It's just harrowing and heartbreaking. Everything was a lot just to take it in emotionally and mentally. We are retelling a story that is set in the 1800s, however, there are direct parallels to what is happening now in 2021. It was important for me, not only to get the context of the story in the 1800s, but to understand what has happened up until this point where we are now.
Underground Railroad has so many crucial themes, like fighting for freedom against a corrupt system. How do you think some of them still manifest today, socially and politically?
If we had to go from episode to episode, we can draw direct parallels. In Episode 1 we’re coming from a place where we are aware of a slave catcher or what would have been slave patrollers, which are what cops are today, who kill on an instinct. In Episode 2, we're seeing Black bodies being poisoned, and we're seeing women being forced to be sterilized. Today, we know we have women who are scared of going to hospitals to deliver their babies because the mortality rate is so low. In Episode 3, we see what is called a "Trail of Tears" [as it's called in the series], which is like this endless trail that has no beginning, no end, of Black bodies and their allies having been lynched. And in 2020, we had a little boy, Bobby Charles, who was lynched in New Orleans. So we can literally go from episode to episode and draw the direct correlations [between the show and today].
The story is set in the 1800s and has themes that point to the then and now. The book has elements of fantastical realism that make you go, "Oh, this is a historical novel, but it's not a factual novel in a sense, it's not an autobiography of someone's life." You're going, "Oh, I can enjoy it—but there was a truth from it that I can't escape.”
What was it like working with Barry and bringing his vision to life?
It was amazing working with Barry. Barry is a highly intelligent individual. I could watch or listen to Barry talk the whole day because of the way his mind works. He's a person who will stop to hear what you have to say, because to him, your opinion matters. Even in the project it was a collaborative process. He lets you make an offer and then he guides you and builds from that, which was very encouraging, very empowering for the cast. It was like, "Oh, my voice matters. I'm not here to be dictated to. This person actually trusts me." And he would literally say randomly, "I trust you," which then built up a confidence in you to go and play, make the offer and feel like, "You know what, there is no wrong answer in this space."
Barry can always shape and mold and build from what I've done. We had moments where he would come to us and say, "You know what? I did not think of it in that way. I didn't see it that way, but I love it." And he would go to different parts of the script and change and tweak them to suit the offer that we had made. So, it was absolutely amazing working with Barry. He's a kind person. He's very respectful and because it comes from the top, every single person in the crew and the cast was the same.
You have such an amazing career ahead of you. Do you have any dream collaborations and goals for the year ahead?
With my next project [The Woman King], I'm going to be working with Viola Davis and Gina Prince-Bythewood, which for me is just like, "Yes, oh, my gosh." I've always wanted to work with Viola Davis. So that makes me happy. I would love to work with Denzel Washington.I would like to work with Angela Bassett. I would like to work with Ryan Coogler, Steven Caple Jr., Ava DuVernay. The list is endless, but now, because everything is happening, it feels like nothing is impossible. My goal is to be my best version at all times, and challenge myself to grow.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographs courtesy of HBO and Thuso Mbedu.
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