When Aaron Pierre opened Twitter to see a direct message from Barry Jenkins, he assumed someone was catfishing him. “Initially, I thought someone was just messing with my heart, because I’d made it really clear in conversations before how much I wanted to collaborate with this man, how inspired I am by him and how much I respect his work,” he says. “I thought someone was just playing a joke on me, ‘very funny…’ And then I opened the message, I saw the blue tick and everything checked out.”
The director and screenwriter behind Oscar winner Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk had got in touch after travelling to the UK in 2018 to watch André Holland (who played Kevin, the childhood friend of protagonist Chiron in Moonlight) in the Globe’s production of Othello, in which Pierre starred as Cassio. The actor, now 26, had “an idea that [Jenkins] would be present” in the audience “at some point” over the course of the play’s 10-week run, but “that was about the extent of my knowledge.”
In his message, Jenkins “showed his appreciation and support, and said we need to connect and make something happen. Next thing you know, I was auditioning for The Underground Railroad.” When Pierre, who grew up in Croydon and has previously appeared in Sky drama Britannia and superhero series Krypton, eventually got the call telling him he’d landed a role in Jenkins’ first foray into television, he was stressing out over some DIY.
“I’d not long moved into my new place and I was in the middle of putting up a curtain rail,” he laughs. “And I was getting really frustrated because it just wasn’t happening… and I got the call mid-that, I think, and that just put everything into perspective for me.”
The Underground Railroad, a 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed novel, is a passion project for Jenkins, who first optioned the book back in 2016, just before Moonlight was released. A magical realist spin on history, it tells the story of Cora (played by South African star Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Pierre), two slaves who escape a hellish cotton plantation by travelling on a subterranean railway, the fantastical embodiment of the real network of safe houses and secret routes that helped convey runaways to safety in the north.
Each episode, or ‘chapter,’ travels through a new state, where the characters encounter new, often illusory freedoms and new, all too real horrors. It’s a staggering achievement, one which really pushes the boundaries of TV. “What was amazing working on this project is that two masters of their craft, Colson Whitehead and Barry, came together and put their genius in one space,” Pierre says. “Everyone had a common objective... which was to tell this story as authentically and as truthfully as we possibly could.”
Caesar is the show’s catalyst, the one to persuade Cora to leave the plantation behind; Whitehead’s book and Jenkins’ script was rich with character detail. “He was born in Virginia, and was promised manumission, but that never came to fruition,” Pierre explains. “He had the opportunity to not necessarily experience, but witness, people who had true liberty and freedom - I can only imagine that would never leave somebody.”
We often see Caesar reading from a well-thumbed copy of Gulliver’s Travels. “I think he uses it to transcend his physical reality, which is horror,” Pierre says, adding that since filming, he’s often been asked whether he noted any parallels between himself and his character. “And I will never say that I have any similarities, because you can’t even imagine what it’s like to experience that. All I can feel is an incredible admiration and respect for this character and all those that experienced this.”
The Underground Railroad does not shy away from depicting the horrors of slavery, and though Jenkins’ carefully-handled treatment of traumatic subject matter never veers towards the gratuitous or exploitative, there are many scenes which must have been deeply painful to perform. Pierre praises the “safe and supportive environment” that Jenkins fostered on location in Georgia, where there was “a guidance counsellor on set at all times. Irrespective of whether you utilise that service or not, it’s just the knowing that it’s available which can sometimes be enough - knowing that if and when you ever find yourself in a space which is very dark, it’s nice to know that there is someone there who can talk you through,” he says.
“For that reason, for me Barry is just the epitome of a leader and director. That’s how it should be - you should feel that you are supported.” He’s hopeful that the show will spark important conversations when it debuts later this week. “I feel like as a global community, as a human race, we have a very, very long way to go in regards to empathy, understanding and unity,” he says. “And my hope is that this [series] will contribute to that conversation and hopefully encourage people to reflect and ask what they can do that is conducive to progress.”
Up next is a role in Old, the new thriller from M. Night Shyamalan. Working with the “master storyteller” behind The Sixth Sense was “a tick off the bucket list” for him, and he’s excited that this “terrifying, unsettling film” will finally debut on the big screen in July. Pierre, who “started out at a theatre [group] that was based in a warehouse” in Croydon and later trained at Lamda, is also raring to get back on stage. “I love theatre with all my heart - it’s where it began for me, and it has created opportunities in my career that I didn’t even think were possible,” he says, adding that he’s keen to further explore works by August Wilson (he starred in King Hedley II, part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, alongside Lenny Henry in 2019), Roy Williams and debbie tucker green.
“It’s such an enormous learning experience every time - I will always love it. Hopefully the opportunity presents itself... That would be a real honour.”
The Underground Railroad is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from May 14. Photos by David Reiss, styling by Emily Tighe, grooming by Charlotte Yeomans using Tom Ford beauty