Thuso Mbedu’s eyes speak their own language in the opening shot of Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad.” She stands still, silent at the lip of a lake, and flicks her head over her shoulder. Her gaze peers deep into the camera, aiming a million heartbreaks and an endless well of sadness like daggers directly at the viewer. “The first and last thing my momma gave me was apologies,” her character, Cora, says in a voiceover. If eyes are the windows to the soul, hers is a tortured one.
Just a few days before her 30th birthday, Mbedu’s demeanor on our video call is nothing like Cora’s. She recalls that scene as a spur-of-the-moment shot from director and showrunner Barry Jenkins. “That wasn’t even planned,” she says. “Barry came there on the day, and he was like, ‘Oh, steal this moment!’ It became the opening of the show. He’s brilliant.” She sits comfortably, giant framed images from “The Underground Railroad” hanging on the wall behind her.
Jenkins, whose previous work includes “If Beale Street Could Talk” and 2017 best picture Oscar winner “Moonlight,” is known for capturing Black faces with startling tenderness, an all-too-rare phenomenon in Hollywood. Mbedu, a trained theater actor, fit perfectly into his world.
Mbedu began acting on a whim. At 16 years old, she had to choose an elective for school, and drama felt like the “more relaxing subject” compared with her other options in accounting and fine arts. She didn’t expect to fall in love with it. “Getting the opportunity to devise work—you know, create work from scratch—to write, to direct, to produce, helped me escape the reality of my everyday life.”
Mbedu grew up in the borough of Pelham in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa. Both her parents died when she was young, and she was raised by her grandmother. “It was me and my sister,” she says. “Sometimes, you wouldn’t have food. My best friend from school would bring food for me. It wasn’t the best of upbringings.”
Acting was her refuge. “Having grown up as an introverted child who really enjoyed reading books, drama took it a step further, where I could perform these realities that I used to see in books.”
In 10th grade, Mbedu performed an original poem onstage, and it moved some audience members to tears. “After performing that, I had grown-ups come up to me just, like, crying and bawling and saying, ‘Thank you for hearing me; thank you for being my voice. You have articulated something in me that I didn’t know how to articulate.’ It was in that moment where I was like: This drama thing is bigger than me. It’s bigger than anything I understand.”
Despite her grandmother’s wish for her to devote her inherited smarts to the medical world, Mbedu knew acting was the path for her. “I told my grandmother that I would be paying for my tuition in university, so I’m going to pay to do what I want to do, not something I’m not even going to enjoy.”
Initially, she wanted to direct, but in her years at the University of the Witwatersrand, she was “exposed to a whole different world. There was this thing called physical theater, which is almost like contemporary dance, that was completely foreign to me. I’d never danced in my life before that, but our lecturer saw something in me, and he was like, ‘You have to continue on with this.’ ” Through that program, she was “able to get a scholarship for an equity exchange program that my university used to have with NYU. Through NYU, I went to [the] Stella Adler [Studio of Acting] for their summer acting program, which was specifically for physical theater. If I hadn’t done physical theater at all, I never would have qualified for that scholarship.”
Through its incorporation of musical, dance, and fine arts elements, physical theater taught Mbedu to pay attention to the smallest of details regarding her face and body. When she’s performing, she’ll ask herself, “What is your toe doing at this moment? Is it your toe, or is it the character’s toe?”
“These are things that I apply even today. And they are things that I picked up at Stella Adler,” she says. “I can confidently say that the lessons that I learned there, I still apply in my performances now.”
It’s a technique seen in her breakout screen performances from 2015–2017 as Kitso on South African soap opera “Scandal!” and in her leading role as Winnie on “Is’Thunzi”; for the latter, she received two nominations for best performance by an actress at the International Emmy Awards.
Her “Underground Railroad” audition came in 2018, and Mbedu didn’t think she had a chance. “I don’t have the accent,” she told herself at the time. “But perform, give it your all, and just hope that you will be in the archives, or you will be in the back of the minds of the casting director for other productions that they have coming up.”
After weeks of acting preparation, a deep dive into Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning source material and her own research, and two callbacks, she was in the room with Jenkins. “I pride myself [on] being directable,” Mbedu says of the experience. “You do the preparation, but be open to being directed. So with Barry and the test shoot, he was in the room, and we had four scenes, but we did them over and over in different ways. He’d give notes here, notes there. And at some point, he looked at me, and he’s like, ‘I’m not giving you notes and making you do it over again because you’re not giving me what I want; I just want to see your range.’ ”
Cora was hers. To prepare for the limited series (which recently garnered seven Emmy nominations), Mbedu overprepared. She remembers reading the book five times by the end of filming, and she listened to hours of testimonials to hear the unvarnished stories they were bringing to the screen for the first time. “What I knew of the enslaved body in America is the little that they tell us in schools, and which they quickly glaze past,” she says. “And then it’s what Hollywood has produced and shown us.”
The world of “The Underground Railroad” was something new. Language was the biggest piece, which she connected to some folks back in her home of South Africa. “Whenever we watch stories of the enslaved people, they speak a very fluent English; it just flows. Listening to the audio and reading the testimonials, it was really, really broken English that sometimes did not make sense to me.” Eventually, it “got to a point where I said to Barry, ‘How do we stay true to the characters and the essence of who they are without completely going all the way to the point where we would need subtitles to tell the story?’ ”
“Cora and I were orphaned at a young age…. With me and [my character], going through what she went through, I kind of held those parts in me as well, where it’s like: You don’t have to live like this. You don’t have to keep people at arm’s length. You don’t have to die inside alone.”
She incorporated that history into her acting through voice movement therapy. “It helps you track trauma and tell the story of who you are through your vocal journey. There are certain things, as you’re growing up, that affect your voice because of life experiences. With Cora, that became really, really important to me. She’s someone who was abandoned by her mother. She was also gang raped on the plantation. The same people who gang raped her then spread rumors and lies about her, saying that she sleeps with animals, she howls at the moon, she’s a strange person. She was ostracized within her own community. We see that whatever chaos, whatever trauma, whatever it is that she has experienced is entirely within her. She is isolated—constantly within herself. Whatever world she imagines, she has to keep within herself. And so, for me, it became important to highlight and track what she sounds like when she does eventually open her mouth. What does that chaos and trauma and that life experience sound like for someone who is constantly quiet? She is not one who sounds like the rest of her community, because she does not interact with her community as often as everybody else interacts and connects with each other.”
As a Black woman, Mbedu says just existing in her own body connects her to Cora. The series dedicated itself to exploring the “direct parallels between what happened in the 1800s and life today,” but there’s still an even deeper history that connects the actor to this character.
“Cora and I were orphaned at a young age,” she reflects. “I lost my mother at the age of 4. When it happened, I didn’t understand what was happening. One day, my mother was here. The next, she was in a casket, and I was telling her to wake up, but she didn’t wake up. Whereas with Cora, she woke up one day, and her mother was just gone. There were no goodbyes. And, you know, life changed after that. I then went on to lose a number of people in my life. Mentally, I resolved to keep people at a distance because I was like: People leave.”
It was originally Jenkins who opened Mbedu’s eyes to these parallels. Through conversations with him, she was able to harness that power in her performance, which she ultimately found to be healing. “With me and Cora, going through what she went through, I kind of held those parts in me as well, where it’s like: You don’t have to live like this. You don’t have to keep people at arm’s length. You don’t have to die inside alone.”
It was one of many components of the project that took her by surprise. Preparation is always key prior to filming, but on set, like in the audition room, Mbedu is “just throwing all of it away. I don’t come into the moment with preconceived notions; I allow the character to just breathe, and [I also trust] fully in Barry, who showed me at the test shoot that he can get what he needs from me in any way; there’s no need for me to resist him. He told me at the very beginning that he doesn’t direct the first take; he lets you make an offer, and then he guides you from there. There was a freedom in that where I can play; I can let the character fully realize itself without me having to have the right answers, because Barry will guide me from that.”
As Mbedu noted in regards to her own limited education of “the enslaved body in America,” slave stories have circulated around Hollywood for decades. And many people, Black folks included, have expressed exhaustion with rehashings of this deep trauma for what appears to be white audiences and awards shows. However, “The Underground Railroad” hits differently from that very first frame. It doesn’t feel like the stories that came before it, perhaps because the gaze behind the camera is one of understanding—it’s Black, and it chooses to focus on the humanity of its characters rather than just the horrific acts inflicted upon them. It’s a brutal depiction and a heartbreaking story, but in the end, one Mbedu believes is necessary to share today.
“[By] daring to tell people to stop telling [these] stories, we’re essentially erasing the past, and we are giving those who have the confidence and the boldness to tell us to get over it because it happened such a long time ago ammunition,” she says.
“We cannot stop telling these stories, because not enough people know.”
This story originally appeared in the July 29 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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Photographed by Gari Askew II on 06/29 in L.A.