‘The Woman King’s Thuso Mbedu Trained 2-3 Hours Per Day For Her Role

·7 min read
Photo credit: Getty / Taia Leituala
Photo credit: Getty / Taia Leituala

Thuso Mbedu is a warrior woman on screen and off. Consider this: She recently did indoor skydiving precisely because she's petrified of heights.

"That's why I challenged myself to do it," Thuso says. "As I came down, I was giggling the whole time. I want to do it again simply because it was terrifying. I refuse to continue being scared of heights." She literally laughs in the face of her fears.

Thuso channels that same determination in her work. Watch a few scenes of The Woman King, and you won't doubt it.

She needed it to develop the physical strength required for The Woman King, and for good reason. The film is inspired by the largely forgotten history of African female warriors in the Kingdom of Dahomey. The Agoji (a real-life, all-women army) defended the West African nation throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Naturally, Thuso would be required to fight alongside co-stars Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o, or at least hit all the stunts (no doubles) that make the battles feel true to life. So, she had to pass a fitness test to land the role of Nawi.

To her own surprise, she showed enough physical potential to land the role. "I was freaking out afterward going home," Thuso says. "I was huffing and puffing and confused. Fortunately, [the stunt coordinator] Danny thought I could be brought to a place where I would be able to execute my own stunts."

Here's exactly how Thuso prepared for battle and trained to become a woman warrior:

Thuso started with mixed martial arts.

Thuso started training on her own as soon as she got the part. "I put myself in Muay Thai classes, because I didn't want to start from scratch." She filled her schedule with workouts of all varieties leading up to filming.

Those Muay Thai classes were just the beginning for her. She spent the two months leading up to pre-production building a strong fitness foundation.

That included military classes at House of Champions every day. She added on private sessions two times a week during May and June 2021.

She added weapon workouts and choreography.

Once pre-production started in July 2021, Thuso and her castmates upped their training. "We worked with the machete, the bo staff, and then just doing kicks and punches and jumps," she says. "It wasn't just about learning the choreo which was top of my list, but looking the part." The pros leading training included Peter Iacangelo for bo staff, Kensi Emory for combat fighting, and Noah Fleder for punch and kick drills.

Those months of practice paid off for her. "I'm much more confident in terms of wielding a weapon or just strength, I can see the difference," she adds.

Upon her request for extra practice, Thuso accidentally upped the training volume for everyone. "We were supposed to do martial arts for two hours every day," she says. "Then me being me, I asked for an extra hour because choreography is a bit tricky for me. They just made it for everyone... my bad, guys."

"There was a time when we were training every day for two to three hours," Thuso adds.

She focused on building strength with a personal trainer.

Legs and lower body were her primary targets. "It was about making everything tighter," Thuso says. Thuso trained with Gabriela Mclain, who is behind Viola's strong arms, for four or five days a week during the three months of pre-production.

At minimum, they trained for 90 minutes each day. "Every session started with the lower body to build the base for at least 30 to 40 minutes to prepare her for all the fight scenes," says Mclain. "We then moved to the upper body in which we usually worked on three different muscle groups, for example, biceps, shoulders and back. The last 15-20 minutes of our session would focus on abs and core."

The intervals were in-tense. "I usually set the timer for 40 seconds work, 12 seconds rest, and 3 sets for each movement," says Mclain. The lower-body exercises might include jump squats with barbells or kettlebells, deadlifts, explosive jumping lunges and step-ups with or without weights. For upper body, shoulder presses, lateral raises, upright rows, biceps curls, lat rows, and pull downs were likely on the schedule.

Those core burners (mountain climbers, sit-ups, and crunches, with or without weights) wrapped up the work, before a light stretch "to avoid soreness," says Mclain.

She lifted weights, used balls and kettlebells, and did aerobic work to up agility and speed. That added up to real results for Thuso. "I finally had some definition within my arms, my legs, and my abs," Thuso says. "I was also able to do the stunts and not get tired quickly, to be able to to keep going and push harder than what was required."

"She shows up to every session, never a minute late, no excuses, ready to train, even though I know she may be exhausted," adds Mclain.

That attitude paid off. "At the very beginning, I struggled to lift two and a half pounds, it was like, everything burns, everything hurts," Thuso says. "Now we're lifting like 10, 20 pounds, or 30 pounds."

"In strengthening our bodies, they were making them injury-proof in a way," Thuso added.

Thuso added sprints to improve her form.

Fighting scenes required full speed sprints, which was unfamiliar territory for Thuso. "I'm more of a long distance runner and not an explosive runner," she says. "So I had to learn how to do that and look like I know what I'm doing."

On days she didn't have strength training sessions, she worked with running coach Jerome Davis for an hour.

Thuso prioritized recovery to stay healthy.

All those sweat sessions took a toll on her bod. Thuso didn't skip the massage therapist provided for the cast during pre-production. "They had a therapist for us who would come to us a minimum of once a week," she says. "I also went to a physical therapist in Van Nuys, just for myself."

Thuso played her recovery time hot and cold. "I also did cryotherapy and then when I could, the infrared sauna, too."

She still maintains her martial arts and strength training.

While Thuso's not logging those marathon three-hour workouts on the reg, she is keeping up a similar routine. "100 percent, I absolutely fell in love with everything we're doing on set," Thuso says. She took a couple months to rest and recuperate before resuming sessions with Mclain.

Lately, Thuso works out three days a week at 7 a.m. "We're supposed to do an hour, but it can easily be one and a half hours or more because she's so passionate about it," Thuso says. "[Mclain] absolutely loves it, and she's always challenging me."

Thuso has become her abs workout guinea pig. Mclain brings new moves (like sword crunches and oblique kayak crunches) to her for test sweats. "Thuso gained such good core strength, which allows me to get more creative with the workouts," Mclain says. "I also always try to make it more fun and incorporate visual warrior movements."

Sword Crunches
1. Lie down on the mat, with knees bent, back flat, and feet flexed. Hold a weight like a sword over your head.
2. Lift your shoulders, squeeze your abdominal muscles and swing your arms like you want to split something in half right between your knees.
3. Make sure to go only halfway up. It's not a full sit up.

She has some very real dislikes at the gym that make her more relatable. "I hate battle ropes with everything in me," Thuso says. "I've always hated them. I still hate them. I'll probably die hating them." Not far behind on that list? Lunges, squats, and jumping. "Everything that I need to be doing. I actually hate," she admits.

That doesn't mean she skips them, though. "Thuso's role is to pretend to not enjoy the session, even though I know she secretly likes it," Mclain says laughing.

"All jokes aside, Thuso is a goal-driven, disciplined person," Mclain continues. "If Thuso meets any obstacles, she practices the specific movements until she executes with perfection. That's just who she is, and I love that about her. I'm so extremely proud of her and the progress she made. She is a true warrior."

Thuso says. "Any and all stunts? I'm ready to go."

You Might Also Like