Over the past decade, South African native Thuso Mbedu has starred in numerous television shows earning two International Emmy Award nominations in the process. When she was cast as Cora Randall in Barry Jenkins’ episodic adaptation of “The Underground Railroad,” she was startled by how little she knew of the conditions African American slaves endured from her education overseas. In fact, the experience of just researching the role often gave her pause.
READ MORE: Barry Jenkins hasn’t let go of “Underground Railroad” yet [Interview]
“Hearing the testimonies of formerly enslaved people tell their stories, consuming the material was absolutely heartbreaking because what I thought I knew actually pales in comparison to what the reality was,” Mbedu says. “What I thought I knew is nothing compared to what actually happened. And so I had moments where, in doing my research, I had to tell myself to step back because it was getting too much. And you’re two months away from shooting; you can’t afford to be now stuck in a depressed ball under the table, rocking back and forth. You’re not going to serve the character in any way. So step back from the material, separate yourself, where you can, but still understand what it is that you’re actually entering into.
Like the series itself, the now 29-year-old actress has earned massive critical acclaim for her performance and is on the cusp of landing her first Primetime Emmy Award nomination. During our conversation last month, she discussed how surreal it is to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, the response to “Underground” in South Africa , where she thinks Cora might have ended up following the series, and much more.
The Playlist: What is it like having Oprah praise you for 25 minutes about your performance?
Thuso Mbedu: That’s the funny thing. I think everything still feels very surreal to me. I had my team listening in on the conversation while it was happening. And I was just having a conversation with Oprah. One of the biggest things that I realized at the moment is that she’s so good at what she does. I didn’t even realize that the interview had started. I thought at some moment going, “Has the interview started?” But it’s like a conversation like this. It didn’t feel like, “Ooh, I’m with Oprah’s, this is this.” And my team was completely fawning over her, and they’re taking it in. And I’m just like, “Yeah. I’m here. Thank you.” And then I was listening to a conversation between her and Joel Edgerton, who’s Ridgeway in the show, and my name kept coming up as well. And I joked with my friend afterward that I was listening to this interview, and I’m hearing them speak of this Thuso girl, and I’m thinking, “Oh, she sounds like a nice person.” And then my brain would go, “But that’s you.” So, really, it feels surreal.
To clarify, you spent close to a year of your life shooting this project, correct?
So we started in August 2019. We had to stop in March 2020 because of COVID and then we finished in September 2020. But I’d been in Savannah from June  preparing.
So over a year of your life committed to playing this role, what has it been like to read the reviews, the critical love for the project?
With the reviews, I told my manager very early to keep it minimal. It’s hard not to see stuff on social media because everybody’s tagging you on it, but I’m not actively looking for any reviews because that, for me, could mess me up a little just mentally. Even on social media now, it’s like, “O.K., I’m putting in time for this week or two to be actively engaging with people, but at some point, I’m going to take time to step back.” The support has been amazing. It’s been overwhelming. Yes, everything feels surreal, because I’m still Thuso in my mind. The little homebody who’s trying to keep her head down and focus on the craft, but it’s hard to ignore because people are actively engaging and celebrating and taking everything and sharing their experiences. And I’m grateful for it, but I’m also very happy that one, people are learning. They’re taking lessons away from the show. And again, with Barry, I told him that you need to do a master class on how you created “The “Underground Railroad” because there is a lot to learn from it. Not just from the story, but performance-wise, how he treats it. His actors, then creating the story, its production, design, art department, lighting, sound, all of that in its entirety. It’s just a complete masterpiece and people are seeing that. They are saying that Barry has been able to take it to take storytelling to another level. And that is what really excites me.
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I recently saw an interview where you talked about how you had to, I want to get the quote right, “unlearn in order to learn.” Was that the toughest part of the role for you?
I think in learning anew, letting go of what I thought I knew was completely easy because I’m one who was open to learning. I know that what I think I know could possibly be wrong, and I’m willing to be corrected. But in learning anew, taking the material, and hearing the testimonies of formerly enslaved people tell their stories, consuming the material was absolutely heartbreaking because what I thought I knew actually pales in comparison to what the reality was. What I thought I knew is nothing compared to what actually happened. And so I had moments where, in doing my research, I had to tell myself to step back because it was getting too much. And you’re two months away from shooting, you can’t afford to be now stuck in a depressed ball under the table, rocking back and forth. You’re not going to serve the character in any way. So step back from the material, separate yourself, where you can, but still understand what it is that you’re actually entering into.
Mbedu continues: Barry understood the nature and the weight of the project. And so he was careful in how he treated us at all times and who he is as a person, just respectful, generous, kind, constantly checking in, filtered into the rest of the cast and the crew, with people with great support for each other. I think it became tricky after a few months of shooting. We had to evacuate Savannah at some point because a hurricane was on its way. We were fighting bugs and weather conditions that were crazy. And so at some point physically, the body was tired, and I remember shooting a scene with Joel and was after the massacre, which was on episode nine, and just physically, mentally, emotionally, I was not in control of myself at that moment. And that moment became really traumatic and scary and whatnot. It’s served the character greatly at the moment, but I had to then go out and seek the guidance counselor that was on set to kind of just help me find myself again because of everything that was happening at the time.
Was there one episode or storyline that you felt spoke to you the most?
If I had to choose, it would have to be the Caesar [Aaron Pierre] storyline because again, we feel Caesar throughout. He is the one who kind of urges Cora to go on this journey with him. And we lose him along the way, but not really because he is in her subconscious. We see him again in episode eight he is the one that kind of allows Cora to be O.K. with being with Royal [William Jackson Harper] It’s the first time that she is seeing him since episode two and she asks him, “How long will this last for?” And he says, “As long as you need it.” And what is significant for me is that initially in the script, Cora had only heard Caesar’s voice. There wasn’t a meeting of the two. But it was something that I guess Aaron and I had done in our performance that prompted Barry to go and tweak the scene because Barry was always working on changing things according to what he’s seeing in real-time. I think he wrote it days prior to shooting the actual scene. And I remember reading that scene and I cried. I was an absolute mess because what happens in that scene is something that had happened to me in real life. Very early on in my preparation process in Georgia, I’d had a similar dream sequence, but regarding my own mother who had passed away when I was four years old. And so here I was at age 28, it’s 24 years later and I’m experiencing exactly what it is that Cora experiences with Caesar at that moment and Barry had no clue. And so for me, there was no running away from that storyline and what it actually meant for me as Thuso.
Is the series available in South Africa? Have your friends and family seen it?
Yes, it is available in South Africa and yes, they have watched it. The support, in general, has been immense, but I think a really significant thing happened on day one. I had friends who are from Seattle but originally from South Africa who had been in America for 10 years. They flew in so that we could watch it together. And one of my friends after episode one was completely taken aback and frozen on the spot. And all she said was, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know that this is what the enslaved body went through in America.” Which for me was a “yes” moment because going into this, I wanted people to learn, especially the Africans, especially the South Africans, because as a people we’re so opinionated and there’s this great chasm between African Americans and Africans. And it’s caused because of a lack of knowledge which results in a lack of empathy. And so it’s been that, as people have been watching the story and as much as I had to unlearn to relearn, people are going through the exact same thing. They’re appreciating the show for what it is just technically and performance-wise, but they’re being educated as they go along.
In your eyes, at the end of the series, where do you think Cora ends up?
Cora? I think she does eventually make it up North with Molly. In my mind, don’t tell anybody, I think Cora is pregnant because she did the deed with Royal. And that comes as a shock to her obviously, but a welcome surprise. I don’t know what Barry thinks, but I think because she’s allowed herself to care for others. We saw her protect Chester [ in episode one, we see her with grace in episode three, and then now with Molly. So she does have that mothering nature within her, but she still has to unlearn the trauma that she has experienced. And that means facing and accepting that this is what happened, but now finally her journey wasn’t in vain. All the people that she lost along the way, she didn’t lose in vain because she has found her freedom. But then actively doing what she can to help others get to freedom because like she says to Royal, “What good is a railroad if only special folks can take it? What good is a farm full of freedom if only special folks can till it?” So I think she actively tries to help people where she can.
“The Underground Railroad” is available worldwide on Amazon Prime Video.