For the entirety of our talk, I keep wondering if Thuso Mbedu is aware that in probably less than a weeks’ time her entire life is about to change. Although already an established (and award-winning) star in her native South Africa, her leading role as runaway slave Cora in the eagerly-awaited The Underground Railroad is about to explode her internationally.
She sits in her LA apartment, a self-effacing grin visible between her bucket hat, and seems relaxed and unfazed. It seems entirely fitting for a woman who effectively accidentally auditioned for the role of a lifetime.
“I didn’t realise it was an audition at all,” she laughs, remembering the first time she read for Cora. It was also the first time that she met the Oscar-winning Barry Jenkins – of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk fame – who is at the helm of the adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. “I thought it was a work session with the material and then only afterwards found out it was an official audition.”
She believes it was her unfamiliarity with the fame of the book that relaxed her nerves. “I only found out it based on a book when I met Barry,” she explains. “Once I read the book twice over I was like, oh, my goodness, this is bigger than me, bigger than anything that I could understand. I went through the emotions of wondering if I was good enough to serve the character in the way that she needs to be served. It needed to be played by someone who could be authentic and understood the layers of her journey, which is such an intense journey.”
Mbedu’s Cora is the beating heart of the series, one which takes you across pre-Civil War America, from the horrors of slave plantations to the knotty and dark secrets of a racially divided nation. Any doubts she may have had will be readily assuaged once the show drops. Hers is a searing, career-making performance. Yet her concerns about the work it would take to depict a character like Cora were not unfounded. The material is clearly emotionally ravaging and the narrative uncomfortably relevant.
“I did intense research trying to get into her psychology. Barry sent me tapes of former slaves speaking in their 70s' and 90s' and that was fascinating. I really developed Cora’s voice from them because they still sounded so young. Their voices were trapped in a place of trauma, which they first experienced when they were very young,” she says. “I would work so hard on getting into her head and completely understanding the context in which the story was told that my brain would literally tell me, 'OK, that's enough step back, do something else it's too heart-breaking.'”
Indeed, Jenkins installed an on-set therapy team to deal with the traumatic scenes enacted on their 116 day shoot in Georgia, many of these viscerally violent. For Mbedu, she found this team a vital part of the process describing one day on set when she literally broke down.
“The counsellor would come to me and take me aside on days like that," she explains. "She would always call me Thuso to take me out of Cora and create that distance needed, so that I didn’t feel like I was living in this awful world constantly. But I tapped into a lot of my own trauma for the role. I lost my mother at the age of four from a brain tumour and also suffered from a feeling of abandonment and huge loss. That's something that I could really use to empathise with Cora.”
The show was filmed in 2019 and is being released into an entirely unprecedented climate in 2021 - emerging from a global pandemic. Yet it also falls in amidst a global racial reckoning, following the death of George Floyd, the trial of Derek Chauvin and a sharper focus on police brutality in the states and beyond. Mbedu believes it is the perfect context in which to truly understand The Underground Railroad.
“It's a story that affirms the voice of the Black man who has been saying, this is my lived reality for so long and speaking against a society that consistently tells us that it happened so long ago, you should get over it. Now, after everything that has happened this year, you realise it's not as far off as you think,” she says. “I think it is an affirmation of that trauma, that the hurt, the resentment, or whatever you might be feeling is not just in your mind. For the first time we can say, we hear you. I found it healing to play Cora, I hope people feel that sense of healing when they watch this.”
As for Mbedu, she has already been snapped up for her next project, starring opposite Viola Davis in the upcoming film The Woman King, a historical epic based on the true story of an all-female military unit fighting for the African kingdom of Dahomey.
“Coming from South Africa, having a career like this felt like a nice dream to have, but one you'll joke about in years to come because it won't work out. But now it's literally unfolding for me,” she smiles incredulously. “I feel like now I need to dream bigger because all things are possible!”
All ten episodes of The Underground Railroad are available to stream on Amazon from 14 May.
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