Thuso Mbedu | Oprah Daily
OPRAH WINFREY: This is what you really look like. Oh my goodness. And we can see you smiling here. First of all, let me just say I have never, ever, in this lifetime seen a consistent performance as you have given in "The Underground Railroad". And I have to ask you, how are you? Because psychologically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, how did you do that?
THUSO MBEDU: I'm good now. I'm good. After we wrapped the shoot, I went to see a therapist because I felt I really needed to debrief from the character. Because the character and I have a lot of similarities in terms of our foundation. So I had to differentiate between the two. So I'm good now. Yeah.
OPRAH WINFREY: First of all, I said this to Barry, that after episode one-- I mean I read the book. I chose the book as a book club. So I know the story. I know what's going to happen. And during episode one, I didn't know if I was going to make it through. I was sitting in my screening room watching and I looked down at my Apple Watch, and my heart rate was 101. And then by episode three, it was 110 when I'm just sitting in the chair. And literally, [INAUDIBLE] I go, I got to go out. I got to take a walk. I got to do this in a measured way.
But you weren't doing it in a measured way. Every day in almost every scene, you are there. So how did you prepare yourself?
THUSO MBEDU: I honestly had to do a lot of research. I told myself that whatever I thought I knew about the enslaved people in the 1800s, I must forget about and just take everything anew basically. And so I read a lot, I consumed a lot of material, Barry sent me stuff to read. He sent me stuff to listen to like audio testimonials of former enslaved people. And I remember hearing them for the first time. And something really shifted in me because when they spoke, they spoke of very, very broken English because they were taught English for instruction and not for conversation.
And what struck me is that the English that they spoke is an English that if you are to go to South Africa today or different parts of Africa, you hear people speak like that. And so it stopped being this African-American story but became a story about Africans in America. And so then I had to go for myself and sit with my dialect coach and said, yes, we're working on the accent. But I want to and need to track Cora's vocal journey.
Because again, I did physical theater as a course as a major in university. But we also did something called voice movement therapy, which tracks your own vocal journey and how you store away your traumas and experiences through your voice. So I had to prepare her emotional, mental, physical, and vocal journey from episode one to episode 10, but shooting out of sequence.
So I had to keep careful note of what was happening. But then Barry was also there supporting and guiding me along the way.
OPRAH WINFREY: What did you learn about yourself in this journey? I mean, I as a viewer-- first of all, as a reader, when I first chose this as a book club, this is before it became a Pulitzer Prize, and everybody was giving it all the attention that it deserved, I mean I was measured in my reading. And I learned so much about our history. And I've been in a slave movie myself, "Beloved", Toni Morrison's "Beloved", and thought I learned a lot then. But you cannot, I know this for sure, go through a process like this and not come out changed. So what changed in you?
THUSO MBEDU: I think a lot changed within me because again, and this is something that Barry after having met him for the first time and having had a casual conversation with him, he had looked at me and said, you are the character. And I didn't get it. I didn't see what it is that he saw. But going through the journey with Cora, Cora is one who is isolated within her own community. She's had her own great share of traumas, having been gang raped within the community, and then those same men going out spreading rumors about the fact that she sleeps with animals, and she howls at the moon.
So she's ostracized even within that community. And she's built a world in her head where she is safest there. And then her mother had left her at a young age. So she has this foundation of great loss, rejection, and abandonment.
On my end, I lost my mother at the age of four to a brain tumor. At the time, I didn't understand what was happening. I remember even being told that-- at the funeral when you walk through and people see the body for the last time, apparently I was talking to my mother telling her to wake up because I really didn't understand what was happening.
So I carried that loss, abandonment, and rejection for a majority of my life, becoming very hard, keeping people at a distance, not forming relationships in any way, shape, or form. And I had to face that in playing Cora. I had to heal from that in playing Cora. And again, there was another instance where having arrived in Savannah, Georgia during my preparation process, I was 28 years old at the time in 2019. And that was the very first time that I dreamt of my mother in my entire existence.
And in it, I'd walked into the apartment that I was living in and she looked at me and she said, everything's going to be OK. There happened to be a scene that we shot with Barry in the show that wasn't initially scripted in a particular way. It's a scene between Cora and Caesar that we only see in episode eight. And it was exactly what had happened in my dream of my mother. And again, with that, performing in the scene gave me a closure that I did not realize I needed for myself.
I remember even watching it, I wrote Barry a long, which was something that was supposed to be a short note just saying thank you, a very long note of just reflecting and saying, thank you, Barry, for allowing me to go through this journey. Because this character has healed parts of me I didn't even know were wounded. Cora challenged me in many different ways. And I am a different person because of her.
OPRAH WINFREY: One of the things I always say is that everything that's happened to you also happened for you if you are open to receive what the for was. And I can see for sure in my own life how that has happened. I see in the life of my South African daughters how that has happened. And I now as you're telling the story, it's like, wow, one of the reasons all of the pain, and sense of abandonment that you suffered, you are now able to pull up the energy of that for this role.
And that is why you feel-- that is why as we the viewers are watching, it feels like you are Cora, honey. I don't know who else is Cora, or could have been Cora. You are Cora, honey.
THUSO MBEDU: Yeah.
OPRAH WINFREY: Yes. How did you protect your own mental health through this? Because from episode one, you endure whippings, and you watch a man get burned alive, and you survive a mass shooting. And one hardship after another, after another, after another, just trauma, trauma, trauma, building on trauma. What did you do to protect your own mental health?
THUSO MBEDU: So I had-- at the beginning, I had little tricks that I put in place. Walking into set, I remember the first time I walked into set and seeing people in wardrobe was very hard for me to take in. So I developed this thing where if I walked onto set, I literally kept my eyes on the ground until I could look up through the eyes of Cora. Because taking the environment in as Thuso was too much. I would only allow myself to live in that environment when action was called.
And then when I got the chance to step away, I would consciously step away because it would be too much to carry outside this world. And then on weekends, we as a cast and crew we'd go bowling, we'd have games night, we'd have karaoke night. We'd completely, completely detach from what it is that we were doing on set. I'm also fortunate enough to have friends that I really trust and who really understand me as a person that when I'm acting out of character, they would go, Thuso, you're not being yourself. What is the root of your reaction or how you're acting in the moment?
And then that forces me to introspect and to go, OK. You're not speaking from Thuso, but it's the residue of the character bleeding into your everyday life. Now how do you separate? And then even just that moment of being conscious that this is not me was a difference maker.
But then we also had a guidance counselor on set who would consistently check in with me, whether I asked for her or not. She'd be like, are you good? Are you here? She'd physically touch me just to ground me. Barry was always there as well checking in. Are you OK? Let me know if you're not OK. I was surrounded by a cast and crew that I really felt that I could lean on in any point in time. I never felt like I was alone throughout this journey. And I think that really helped me in the process.
OPRAH WINFREY: Well, I'm wondering what were your reactions? You were saying that the cast and crew really let go of themselves on the weekend. Is this also with the villain? I mean, are you kicking it with Ridgeway on the weekends? I mean, how did you interact with actors like Joel Edgerton who did also an incredible job here? And I'm sure that he has his own psychological stuff [INAUDIBLE] do this. [INAUDIBLE] with Ridgeway? Yeah.
THUSO MBEDU: Yeah. So yes we were. We were hanging out. It's funny because it's something that Barry spoke about in an interview we did a couple of days ago because Joel and I really, really got on very well. He was very clear from before we started that as someone who's been in this industry much longer, I could call on him for anything, life on set, life out of set. If I felt like I was uncomfortable with something but couldn't voice it out, he could be that voice for me.
So we had a great relationship, to the point where sometimes depending obviously on the scenes or on the day, because you want to respect everyone at all times, it would be action, we're 100% in character, bickering, butting heads, fighting, cut, Thuso and Joel are joking and having a grand old time. But yeah. We hung out with Joel.
OPRAH WINFREY: Wow, that's good to know. That's at least good to know that you took care of yourself. How do you recommend viewers take care of their own mental health while watching and after watching? I mean, I am a person who knows that I have a very sensitive countenance. And so I'm very much aware all the time of what I let in and what I don't let in. And so I have to take it in measured ways, literally. Leave, take a walk, come back.
I mean, after the first episode, literally, I was sharing this with Barry. Literally, I had to go outside, I was watching it with one of my daughter girls from South Africa. We both were like, whoo. And Sedman came out and said, what are y'all doing, trying to remind yourself that you're not on a slave plantation? Exactly. We're trying to remind ourselves we have a life here.
THUSO MBEDU: Yeah. Yeah. So I really do recommend that people pace themselves. When I got the footage as well, Barry told me to pace myself. He said, Thuso, it's not easy to take in. Pace yourself. But I made the mistake of allowing myself to go with it. I watched it over three days. But it was a lot to take in in a very short space of time. I remember I had this big migraine afterwards. And I couldn't fully process my thoughts and feelings afterwards.
So I do recommend that people pace themselves. Like Barry says, you're watching it at the comfort of your own home. You can pause. You're not forced to watch everything all in one go. Take a walk. Get some fresh air. But also verbally process what is happening with someone that you trust if you can do that. Because having it just be in your head as well and trying to deal with what is happening internally can mess you up. So if you have someone that you can talk to, talk about your feelings, that really goes a long way.
OPRAH WINFREY: I really think I advise people to actually watch it with other people if they can because I think it makes a big difference if you can watch it with somebody or have somebody to talk to or some way to integrate all of the things that you are receiving. There's been a lot of conversation in recent years in Hollywood about doing more movies about Black joy instead of stories that retell our painful history.
I remember when I was doing "Beloved", this was 21 years ago. And the first thing particularly the Black journalists would ask is, why do we need another story like this? And I was like, do we have a lot? I mean, I only know of "Roots". So what's your response to that? And why did you want to sign on for this?
THUSO MBEDU: So for me, when I read the book, again, at the time I couldn't put my finger on it. But I felt heard or seen because of the character and Cora's journey. And then having shot it, again, we're shooting it in 2019. And a whole lot was happening you to the Black body even in 2019. And I realized how relevant it is that we cannot run away from what the story is telling and what is still actually happening. There are direct parallels that you can pull from the story to what is happening in 2021.
You can literally go from episode to episode and draw parallels. Because again, people like to say, it happened such a long time ago. You should get over it. But it's like that is not true. And because we have 10 episodes as we follow this character and we're seeing different parts of the nation experiencing people in different ways, which is longer than a movie and what a movie allows, it affirms something that for me it was like all the pain, the hurt, the anger, the resentment that one feels, that one has actually inherited over generations.
And so you don't actually have the words to articulate--
OPRAH WINFREY: Generational trauma. Generational trauma.
THUSO MBEDU: Exactly. It's like, you aren't crazy for feeling that way. Everything that you see in the story is what happened then, but you're still experiencing now because not much has changed.
OPRAH WINFREY: That's right. You're also hearing that ancestrally. You're carrying that from generations.
THUSO MBEDU: Exactly.
OPRAH WINFREY: One of the things that I felt when I did "Beloved" 21 years ago, and that I also feel every time I read a slave narrative or come across a story as powerful as this one is that amazing grace, how absolutely amazing. I feel like, look at what I've come from. Look at what [INAUDIBLE] are. Look at how I am able to stand. Look at how they were able to endure the most impossible circumstances. And now look at me now.
I mean, I think that for me, there is a rejoicing and a kind of privileged understanding of where I've come from. Did you get a sense of that?
THUSO MBEDU: Yes. 100%. And also in the way that Barry treated the project in terms of shooting it, for me, it's unlike what we're used to seeing when it comes to telling these types of stories. I can confidently say that never at any point did I feel like within the brutal scenes or the traumatic scenes, that Barry was showing it to sensationalize, or romanticize it, or he's putting it out there on display to get a reaction. It just so happened that this is what the body endured in that space and time. But there is a lot more to it.
We have moments where we can celebrate the Black body for enduring, for fighting, and pushing hard under those circumstances. And that's something that I really appreciated.
OPRAH WINFREY: It's so interesting because everybody is aware of the whippings. And even if you not really an informed person, you know about the whippings and beatings. But one of the reasons I felt episode two was so striking is because the moment she walks into that doctor's office because of what has been done over the years, you know no good can come from that moment. So I wonder was that-- what were you thinking about when you were lying there in the stirrups? When we first saw and he pulls out and we see the stirrups. Yeah. Everybody in my house went, whoa. Whoa. What were you thinking?
THUSO MBEDU: So in that exact moment, it really was-- it's just for me a great discomfort to have someone that close. Yes, when you're shooting, you're 100% protected. You're not being exposed in any way. But the reality is this is a man, it's a white man, who has some sort of power over me. And it's just greatly uncomfortable. And it takes a trust, a vulnerability, to be able to sit in that position on your back open in many different--
OPRAH WINFREY: Every woman who's done it in her doctor's office feels something. That's why I'm asking. So now you're doing it with a crew in the room. Yes.
THUSO MBEDU: Exactly. Exactly. But then that internal conversation for Cora of the first time that anything came at her in that direction was forced. It was an act of violation. But then it's Cora again who doesn't show how she feels, or doesn't speak about how she feels. We're lucky that her face allows us to see her feelings. But it's a whole lot happening at all times.
OPRAH WINFREY: Can I just say about the face, first of all, you are already a phenomenal actress. And this is the first time I've seen you in anything. I know you were doing some great work in South Africa. But you are one of those great actresses like Viola Davis who expresses through your eyes. One of the great things about Barry Jenkins is is that so much is told in silence. So much is told in between the sentences, as you know. And you allow the world of pain just to come through your eyes. And what it takes to do that, girl.
THUSO MBEDU: I don't know. I don't know. I really-- because for me, it's just mentally going, be 100% in the moment. Allow every single thought that the character is having to be had. Don't dictate what she's supposed to be showing. Just allow the thought to happen because that changes you as a person as you go from one thought to one thought. Because then your thoughts take detours. And they remind you of something. They bring up memories. So instead of saying, I need to be thinking about this, allow that journey to happen. And I guess then the face--
OPRAH WINFREY: [INAUDIBLE] You have the gift, may I say. So was there any particular scene, or several scenes, that were harder to do than others? After a while, did you find your rhythm?
THUSO MBEDU: So I remember there was one scene where everything is happening. Cora has lost a number of people on her journey. And I don't know if-- I'm not allowed to give spoilers, right? So I'm trying--
OPRAH WINFREY: You don't have to give spoilers. Don't give spoilers.
THUSO MBEDU: Yeah. So--
OPRAH WINFREY: It was episode nine.
THUSO MBEDU: This is episode nine. It's a scene between Cora and Ridgeway. And then it, Ridgeway was holding her in a particular way. And physically, I couldn't breathe. And emotionally and spiritually, I was still in the chaos of what was happening in that sequence. And so coming back to my body after that moment was really, really hard to the point where I actually went and I sought the guidance counselor out and I said, I need you to help me find me. I don't know where I am right now. Because I'd surrendered to the moment. And it was actually a very, very traumatic moment. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
OPRAH WINFREY: OK.
THUSO MBEDU: Yeah.
OPRAH WINFREY: Wow. OK.
THUSO MBEDU: Yeah.
OPRAH WINFREY: I don't want to give away the ending. We will not give away the ending. But what do you think Cora is thinking in the final moments of the show.
THUSO MBEDU: I think in that moment, she is holding on to hope with everything that she has, with everything that she has because of everything that she's been through in that journey. It's like she has had to fight to get to where she is. And she sees the light. She sees the possibility of actually getting to where she is, however her experience has taught her nothing is guaranteed. And so it's like, she's tired. She's exhausted.
And it's like, I see it. But if I have to fight again to get there, I will do exactly that. I cannot surrender to this moment. Because again, now, she has someone of the younger generation. So it's like harking towards the future that she has to protect and ensure that they have that hope.
OPRAH WINFREY: Well, listen. We didn't know your name before this. But everybody's going to be going, Thuso, Thuso. [INAUDIBLE] Thuso, Thuso. So the next thing we'll see you in after this incredible, incredible performance in "Underground Railroad", I mean it's like watching a movie every time. It's like 10 movies you've done. Now we're going to see you and Woman Kings with Viola Davis.
THUSO MBEDU: With Viola.
OPRAH WINFREY: It is my great honor, pleasure, privilege to be able to talk to you. Thank you for joining us here. Really.
THUSO MBEDU: Thank you. Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo.
THUSO MBEDU: Thank you. Thank you, thank you. Appreciate it.
OPRAH WINFREY: All the best to you. All the best. All the best. Great things are coming. Go well. Go well.