Thuso Mbedu’s turn as Cora in The Underground Railroad is the performance of the season.
As the lead of the Barry Jenkins-directed mini-series, the South African actress had to carry the series with her portrayal of the young enslaved girl escaping to freedom. The 29-year-old more than rose to the occasion delivering a performance that rivals even the best work of some of her much older cohorts.
The Underground Railroad is Cora’s story and Mbedu embodies her completely. It is only when you see Mbedu shine in interviews that you realize the full scope of the transformation. To play the shy, introverted runaway, Mbedu sought to understand the psychology of the character, weaving Cora’s trauma into every acting choice she made. From her manner of speech to her posture, Mbedu continuously and subtly evolves each element as Cora adapts to her changing circumstances. With virtually no dialogue, every devastating emotion left unsaid plays across Mbedu’s face and in her big, brown eyes. She delivers a powerhouse, star-making performance
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki, Mbedu details how she emotionally, mentally, and physically prepared for the role and shares how she feels as she leaves Cora behind, and enters the next phase of her career.
Awards Daily: You had a very long audition process, and then the filming process for The Underground Railroad was ten months and quite extensive. And now you’re promoting the project. I’m very interested in how all of those extended periods have allowed you to evolve your relationship with the project, with your character Cora, and the series.
Thuso Mbedu: The audition process itself was, I wouldn’t say that lengthy in the sense of the number of auditions. I had the initial audition, had a call-back, and then had a test shoot with Barry. And within that test shoot, Barry had me do the four scenes repeatedly because he had said in the moment that he was just trying to test my range so that he could see if I would be able to sustain the performance over a period of ten months. I arrived in Georgia in June of 2019. I spent about two and a half months preparing, reading material, watching stuff, listening to audio testimonials, having conversations and rehearsals with Barry. And then we started shooting in August of 2019. That itself was a journey. Cora, Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), and Homer (Chase Dillon) are the only characters that you see from beginning to end.
We had many people coming in and out and wanted to be in an environment where [the actors] feel welcomed. That was great. The people that I met along the way were awesome. I’m friends with most of them, and we still keep in touch even today. And that was very needed because of the weight of the project. The crew was the most constant, they were there from day one until wrapping up the shoot. They were the support that was needed. Barry was a great support as well. He was there guiding me in terms of where Cora was emotionally, mentally, and physically because we were shooting out of sequence and then having to stop days before the shoot because of COVID.
Trying to sustain and not officially say goodbye to Cora for those months was tricky. I had to do a lot of introspection just to keep myself mentally stable. And wrapping up the shoot in September last year was a completely different world. Because now we have to observe COVID protocol, we could not hug people goodbye after spending so much time together.
And now we’re in a place where the show has finally come out. I’ve been excited for people to see it because obviously, while you’re in the chaos of creating this, you’re witnessing the genius of all the departments. I’ve been saying this time and time again that I feel like Barry needs to do some sort of masterclass on the making of and the thinking behind The Underground Railroad because it really was like a mind-blowing experience to see the genius at work. But now people have experienced it. People are taking it in. They are learning lessons that I hadn’t thought about. They are experiencing a range of emotions. And for me, it still feels quite surreal, sitting where I am, just because of the magnitude of the story. I have to consciously tell myself that, ‘Yes, you are a part of this story,’ time and time again, because it’s unlike anything that I would have imagined I would be a part of so early in my career, if ever.
AD: Thuso, you’re South African, and I’m curious how your perspective and background might have contributed to your performance? What things did you have to learn and unlearn?
TM: What I realized very early on is that this, I think, is history globally. That things that concern the oppression of the black body are very much glazed over in all schooling systems. So, when it came to the story of the enslaved body in America, all I knew was that there were slaves in America taken from Africa. And then everything else was informed by what I had seen in media, which is definitely controlled by a white gaze. So even in telling that story, it serves a particular agenda. It’s not necessarily telling the story for what it really was. So I had to let go of any judgment I might have had regarding the story, or any preconceived notions; any stereotypes that I might have going into telling the story and completely be open to learning everything from scratch, as if I didn’t know anything at all.
Then with the material Barry sent me, the most important for me was the audiotapes that I listened to because I heard people who actually lived the experiences. So it wasn’t about me imagining a type of experience that the black body experienced. Also, when they spoke, they didn’t speak as what we’re used to when we watch movies where the English is very fluent, and It feels like you’re watching a movie—so hearing them speak in a broken language, it makes you understand that when they were being taught English, they were being taught English for instruction and not English for conversation.
And that speaks even more to the circumstances under which they found themselves. Their masters didn’t want them having any sort of relationship or any sort of communication, lest they talk about ways of freeing themselves. So you understand the disjointed nature of their existence at the time.
For me, hearing them speak the type of English that they speak, depending on where you are in South Africa, and I could say different parts of Africa as well, depending on where you are, that is how people speak even today. And so it brought the story that much closer to home. And I always say it ceased being a story about African Americans, but it became a story about Africans in America. The story of the oppressed black body is a global story. We’ve experienced oppression in various different ways. None is better than the next. There aren’t any levels to it. It should never have happened at all. And there’s no denying that in our existence.
AD: Absolutely. Your performance is very internal. Cora is often not very expressive. How did you prepare for that aspect of the role?
TM: Cora is someone who keeps to herself. Her mother abandoned her at the age of 11, and the book describes that moment for her as a moment where her entire world was drained of color. Everything that she knew was taken away from her. She was then later gang-raped by men within her community, who then started rumors about her — saying she’s crazy, that she sleeps with wild animals, and howls at the moon at night. Her community then ostracized her, and she withdrew within herself. Cora hardly ever speaks because who would she be speaking with? She has her best friend, Lovey (Zsane Jhe). In everyday life, as introverts, as people who keep to themselves, you will find that one person that you can really trust.
It was like that even with my initial audition. The four scenes that I auditioned with are the scenes where Cora speaks the most. She hardly ever speaks in the show; her dialog is internal. Her thoughts are internal because that is where she is the safest. She’s more of an observer than a talker. So you get glimpses of who she is through her reactions rather than what she says. And for me, that meant I really had to focus on developing her psychology. It wasn’t about just figuring out what she looked like at all times, but I needed to understand what her motivations were at all times. So that meant that I had to fully understand the circumstances under which she was born, the circumstances in which she was living and existing. Because it is your environment that shapes your psychology. Your environment and your experience shape the way you look at the world and how you exist in the world, how you receive the world, and how you put yourself out there. And so that is what it was with Cora.
I think another thing was just vocally, again, harking back to the language and hearing the former enslaved people when she speaks. Cora is someone who is so quiet but still has a lot of internal chaos as a result of her suffering from abandonment. I had to find and develop how she sounds when she does eventually open her mouth. How much of her voice or of her sound is she really in control over? There was a lot of work that went into developing that. It was in conjunction with my dialect coach. As I was working through dialect, we’d find moments where [my coach] would say, ‘In this moment, you can afford to sound more African than American because it’s a sound which is more internal, rather than trying to polish it. Because again, having heard them speak, I actually went back to Barry and said, ‘Barry, the way that people usually sound in movies and the way that the former enslaved people sounded two completely different ways. How can we find a place where we’re not compromising one over the other?’ Because the last thing we want is to have people sit there reading subtitles throughout the show, but then to cancel out how they actually sounded, it is not right for me in any way.
AD: I wanted to ask you about what Barry taught you about Cora’s relationship to the camera. You have these moments where you’re looking, gazing into the camera, directly at the audience. How did you approach that in terms of Cora, how she feels and what she’s trying to express in those scenes?
TM: For me, that’s just a Barry signature; we’ve seen it in all his other movies, you’ve seen it in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. And for him, I think it’s a connecting point for the audience and controlling the gaze. He released this 52-minute video before the show came out called ‘The Gaze.‘ And it’s about him and reframing the gaze of the black body. But in terms of Cora, we’re shooting it, I’m looking into the camera; Ridgeway’s on the other side. I don’t know if there was anything specific about it in that moment. I know that Barry would have something specific for me. It was really just being Cora looking at Ridgeway 100 percent.
AD: How do you feel as you say goodbye to Cora and enter the next phase of your career? What are you going to carry with you? How has this experience with The Underground Railroad shaped you as you move forward?
TM: I am excited for the next chapter of my career. I officially was able to say goodbye to Cora when we wrapped last year. It was very important for me to talk to a therapist so that I can close that chapter. I couldn’t afford to have Cora leaking into my own life because telling her story was very, very heavy—emotionally, mentally, and physically. It’s wonderful now seeing people experience her, seeing people go through this range of emotions and find their healing. I also believe that I found a lot of healing in telling the story. This has been a great thing for me going forward. I think I can say that in the past, back home, with the shows that I’ve done, I’ve done ample preparation. Coming from a theatrical background, you always have to prepare going into any role. But I can say that because the stories that I told were in the context of my lived experience, I didn’t have to do as much research for them as I did for Cora. And because of the amount of research that I did for Cora, I saw how I developed a really multi-layered and complex character. And that’s actually something I would really love to go forth with as I go on in my career. I never want to take that for granted again. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it.