As you’re reading this, watching Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad on Amazon Prime, just know everyone in Mzansi (South Africa) and specifically in KwaZulu-Natal, had probably celebrated and proclaimed May 14th as “Thuso Mbedu Day.” The iconic Joburg Theatre had probably run through the first three episodes of the highly talked about show during its own exclusive watch party, while here in the U.S., plenty of us cine- and telephiles were engaging in diatribes and discussions about the journey of Cora Randall, a young escapee who uses an underground railroad to avoid recapture.
At the center of it all remains Thuso Mbedu.
Adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, the South African-born actress auditioned so tough for the role that one of her contacts flipped inside-out. The passion and prowess within the two-time Emmy nominated performer is put on serious display in The Underground Railroad for all to see. And with a host of current traumas happening across the country and on front pages everywhere, Thuso Mbedu has really cemented herself as future acting royalty, pulling from her own personal dark spots and finding a way to express it as light in the role of Cora Randall.
In celebration of The Underground Railroad’s premiere, EBONY chopped it up with the 29-year-old phenom about making TV history, how she maintained her mental health while on set, and the possibilities of a future project with Taraji P. Henson.
What does it feel like to become the first South African actress to lead an American television show?
Thuso Mbedu: I have never actually thought about that at all until people began to talk about it. I still don’t understand or grasp the full weight of what that actually means. But for me, mentally, it was all about being there [in the moment] and showing up to serve the character as best as I could. At the end of the day, if Barry’s happy, if Amazon is happy, then I am happy. What it means beyond that is really above me. But it is exciting because people have been really supportive, especially those in South Africa.
It has shown others back home that nothing is impossible. For the longest time it was like, working in Hollywood is a nice dream [for us] to have, but it didn’t feel like an obtainable dream. Now it can actually happen and so when people ask me, “How did you get here? What did you do?” I say that I always kept my head down, focusing on what matters—which was working. I also say that being consistent, working hard at it and, for me, just prayer were my things. My advice to them now is, “Stay prepared.” You don’t want to only start getting ready when the opportunity arises. The spotlight is going to shine on the country and there’s only so much that I can do to support them. They have to show up and be their best versions when the time comes.
Without going into any spoilers for those who haven’t yet watched The Underground Railroad’s premiere, I wanted to connect your personal challenges that resulted in a “dark period of your life” with how you balance the weightiness of your character and the challenges placed in front to overcome?
TM: Having gone through the things I’ve gone through, I think that what really helped me was coming to a place of great self-awareness. So, when I joined The Underground Railroad, I was constantly checking in with myself to make sure that I kept a separation from Cora Randall and my soul. I could not afford to have the character bleed into my everyday life. Within her context on the show, Cora is a very heavy character to carry. But then the truth is there are parallels between what happened in the story, which is set in the 1800s, to what is happening today.
I was very purposeful in mind, constantly checking in with my group of friends who, when I act out of character, will ask me, “Are you okay?” They will help me find the root of where this hurt and pain is coming from so that I am not projecting upon them. On set, we also had a guidance counselor on set who, whether I asked for her or not, consistently checked in on me.
I wanted to ask you about the future of Thuso Mbedu. Aside from your next role, which is alongside Viola Davis in the highly anticipated film, The Woman King, you’ve mentioned that you wanted to work with Taraji P. Henson in the near future. What sort of project would you want to work on with her if you got the chance?
TM: [Laughs] Oh, snap. I haven’t thought about that. I know [whatever it is] will be fire! [For The Woman King], there is nothing that I can share yet, apart from the fact that we are shooting it in South Africa, which makes me really excited. But a project with me and Taraji would be intense because this is something [that] I haven’t done before. Whether it is like comedic moments or something like that, I have not done that but I think Taraji has great timing for that. [Working with her] will be nice to do, but I believe you could give us anything, in any genre, and we’d be able to do it.
As audiences get a chance to dive into The Underground Railroad, what sort of impact do you feel the audience is going to take away from the first few episodes?
TM: For me, what I saw while reading the book, then reading the script and actually shooting it, is that the Black body finds itself in a place where you are not enabled or you’re not encouraged to share your true feelings as a result of your experiences. You find yourself carrying this weight of generational trauma, resentment, and hurt, but you’re unable to do anything about it because everyone is telling you, “It happened so long ago—you should get over it.”
The reality is you’re still experiencing it on a day-to-day basis. And so, with the story of The Underground Railroad being told, there is a validation where people are going to feel like their voices are being heard. I know my voice matters and other people will come to realize the same—we have no right to tell them to “get over it,” because this [show] is a reflection of their lived experiences.
The Underground Railroad is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.