Thuso Mbedu went to a dark place in ‘The Underground Railroad’ and emerged a star

“The first and last thing my momma gave me was apologies,” we hear in voiceover, as a young woman stares into the camera. No, through the camera. It’s a look that contains multitudes: fragility and strength, defeat and defiance. It’s conscious of its rebellion; fierce in its interrogation. It’s a look that can change fortunes — and it will.

Thuso Mbedu can work miracles without opening her mouth. The South African actor and lead of Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” a 10-part television adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, has a talent for economy. Where some actors would throw whole limbs into action, she employs a muscle. And it is through her eyes that Cora, the runaway slave at the heart of Jenkins’ series, comes alive.

Getting to that place took a life’s experience. Not that Mbedu understood when she signed on to play the part. Jenkins, she recalls, “was the one that said, ‘you are the character.’ I didn’t get it at the time.”

“The Underground Railroad” is many things. It’s a slave narrative, but also a work of magical realism and retrofuturism. It’s a world in which the metaphorical underground railroad — the secret network that helped runaways escape the tyranny of slavery in the US — is made literal, as a trainline spiriting slaves north. It’s also a ghost story for Cora, a daughter abandoned by her runaway mother.

Jenkins and Mbedu on set. “He was the one that said, ‘you are the character.’ I didn’t get it at the time,” says the actor. Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Prime

Cora’s loss ripples out. Fleeing from a Georgia plantation, through South and North Carolina, Tennessee to Indiana, she finds companionship — namely in Caesar (Aaron Pierre), her fellow runaway, and Royal (William Jackson Harper), a freedman — but puts checks on her relationships and her own happiness.

“The only person that she would have opened her heart up to was her mother, and she left. That’s the foundation of what love is (for her),” explains Mbedu. “If I opened up my heart anything could go wrong.”

“Honestly speaking, that’s how I was for most of my life,” she adds.

Mbedu’s mother died when she was very young, and she did not have a relationship with her father. She then lost an uncle at 16, and never had a chance to say goodbye. “It was that thing of people coming into your life and then they just go, and there’s no warning. So, what made sense for me was just to shut people out altogether,” she says.

The two-time International Emmy nominee and star of TV series “Is’Thunzi” and “Shuga” says that in her previous roles, she would “reject” and “put a distance between” any parallels between her characters’ traumas and her own life. “The Underground Railroad” tested that.

“Being 100% true to the character meant I had to confront the issues that she’s going through,” she says. “It so happened that the same blockages that she had, with the same issues she had — the things she resisted — were the same things that I was resisting. By confronting them through Cora, I, as Thuso, had to also confront them. That’s where the healing began.”

Aaron Pierre as Caesar and Mbedu as Cora in episode two of "The Underground Railroad."

Aaron Pierre as Caesar and Mbedu as Cora in episode two of “The Underground Railroad.” Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios

“Our thoughts, our opinions, our feelings are being invalidated”

Whitehead’s novel, faithfully adapted by Jenkins, is an odyssey of hope and horror, as Cora moves from state to state, never shaking the many-headed monster of racism.

Historical injustices against Black people are frequently glossed over, says Mbedu. “We are being told to ‘get over it’ because it happened such a long time ago. Our thoughts, our opinions, our feelings are being invalidated as a result of this.”

The subtext of “The Underground Railroad” is that the past is never dead — it’s not even past. Though the events may be two centuries apart, one cannot watch a shooting in a fictional Black church and not think of the 2015 massacre in Charleston. In Jenkins’ South Carolina, the Black body becomes a disposable plaything for medical science, with allusions to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment of the 1930s and 19th century trials by gynecologist James Marion Sims.
These echoes resonate beyond the US; during her press duties for the series, Mbedu has spoken of the state-sponsored medical experiments, known as “Project Coast,” that targeted Black people in apartheid-era South Africa.
Filming of the series took place in Georgia, which also stood in for four other states.

Filming of the series took place in Georgia, which also stood in for four other states. Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

Mbedu says the series’ melding of fact and fantasy prompts questions about the truth in what we’re watching, and in turn forces the viewer to question, “what of history that we’ve been taught is actually true and what is not?” This is a good thing, she says: “With most people, when you question something, you want to research the reality of it. And when you research you find out the truth — that’s growth.”

Cora (“an observer by nature,” says the actor) compels the viewer to see as she sees; the Black gaze — moreover, a Black female gaze — dictating the narrative, even if it can’t always dictate events. There is no glossing over of slavery’s barbary, but nor is what we see trauma porn. It’s a perspective that offers validation to subsequent generations.

“Everything I thought I knew about the enslaved body in America … pales in comparison to what actually happened,” says Mbedu.

“I need to go back to the drawing board”

Mbedu’s breakout international performance will be followed by a return to South Africa, where she will star alongside Viola Davis in her first film “The Woman King.”

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the historical feature is reportedly based on the true story of an all-female military unit from The Kingdom of Dahomey, in present-day Benin. “It will force me to step out of my comfort zone,” Mbedu says, detailing the workout regimen, nutritionist and weapons training she will receive in preparation for the action-filled role.
"Being 100% true to the character meant I had to confront the issues that she's going through," says Mbedu.

“Being 100% true to the character meant I had to confront the issues that she’s going through,” says Mbedu. Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios

The actor has previously criticized international productions filming in South Africa for “telling our stories, or telling their own stories but never using us.” She says casting “The Woman King” partly from within the continent “adds that detail, that character, that flavor that we might otherwise miss.”

Even if her star was already ascending, the past few weeks have given Mbedu pause for thought. What she has achieved, and what she is about to embark on, “felt like very unattainable dreams,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, snap, I need to go back to the drawing board and redefine my goals.'”

And what shape might they take? “I jokingly said to my team, ‘Okay, after this let’s find an Oscar-winning film,'” she says.

Why joke? You wouldn’t bet against her.