SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Underground Railroad,” streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
In November 2018 South African actor Thuso Mbedu had her first U.S. audition. She went into it with the goal of giving the best possible performance, if only to get herself “into the archives” so that she could be thought of for the next audition, even if she didn’t book this one.
As it turned out, though, she did book that one, landing the lead role in Barry Jenkins’ high-profile limited series adaptation of “The Underground Railroad” for Amazon Prime Video.
It didn’t happen overnight. At the top of 2019, Mbedo had saved enough money to actually come to the United States for a couple of months to take meetings with studio executives and casting directors. One such meeting turned into a working one for which she prepared the same sides that she performed just a few months earlier. That went so well she was then sent to meet Jenkins the next day. After an hourlong conversation she recalls him telling her, “You are the character” — but he cautioned that she still didn’t have the part.
After a callback that became a test shoot, during which she worked with Jenkins on four scenes, she booked the role as Cora, a young woman who escapes the Southern plantation on which she was born in the 19th century.
Reflecting on the early days of working with Jenkins, Mbedu tells Variety “he saw something in me that even today I cannot see in myself. I actually, at the very beginning, doubted if I was strong enough to serve the character the way she needs to be served.”
Yet, as Mbedu familiarized herself with the character, both through Jenkins’ scripts and the source material, she began to find almost uncanny, and certainly unexpected parallels between herself and Cora.
Cora’s mother abandoned her at a young age, escaping the plantation without her child. Mbedu’s mother passed away when she was very young, which triggered similar feelings of abandonment and loss, she shares.
“My 4-year-old mind didn’t understand what was happening so it felt like she was there one day and then the next she disappeared,” she explains. “Unfortunately I’ve suffered a number of losses whereby mentally at some point in my life I just made the decision to not form attachments, to distance myself, as a coping mechanism and a means to protect myself. In working on Cora, I found she’s distanced herself [too].”
Although there are characters along Cora’s journey who express affection for her, from Caesar (Aaron Pierre) to Royal (William Jackson Harper), she constantly keeps them at an arm’s length away, Mbedu notes, because her foundation is “based on abandonment, loss, rejection.”
Cora is a character of few words, something with which Mbedu also identified. (“Growing up I was a child who read books. My sister was the more extroverted one; they would tell us she was the more likable one,” she says.) And the way Cora reacted to the titular means of transportation, which is depicted as actual locomotives and train stations in the series, was one of surprise, which was how Mbedu, too, felt about the experience.
The train sequences were block-shot at the beginning of “Underground Railroad’s” production schedule in Savannah, Ga. “It was massive, massive construction and I was in complete awe of it — and for Cora, it’s taking in everything,” Mbedu says. “I was experiencing the train sequences through Cora’s eyes. Cora has no clue what this is, all she knows is she’s leaving this life. For me, coming into this whole new world where the size of the art department and production is new for me — it’s on a much bigger scale than what I’m used to in South Africa — it does feel surreal, it does feel fantastical. You’re seeing everything with new eyes.”
Of course, Cora’s experience as an enslaved woman trying to find freedom came with specific traumas that drastically differed from Mbedu’s own life experience. That required her to dig deep as a performer. Over the course of the 10-episode series, Cora witnesses horrible torture being inflicted on others, including being burned alive; she is attacked while on the run; she is forced to sleep chained to a dead man at one point; she almost drowns, and she is almost run out of a sanctuary for being a wanted woman.
Despite how “heavy” Mbedu found the character to be, the reward of playing her was greater than the risk of living in such dark and traumatic places for the duration of the shoot. “You can give a voice to those who didn’t or don’t have voices,” she says.
Until the final moments of the series, Cora is always on the run. In the book the character was partially motivated by finding out where her mother went, and Mbedu says she did want to keep as much of the book version of Cora alive in her character as possible. (“My script notes were full of quotes from the book,” she says.) But she also stayed on the move because “the moment she stands still something goes wrong,” Mbedu notes. “She’s running from the system,” but she is also running from Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a slave-catcher who had her in his clutches once and refuses to stop looking for her.
“Cora is tired of running but Cora’s freedom is in her running,” Mbedu says.
It is not until Cora finally kills Ridgeway that she can stop looking over her shoulder. “He has this monologue [in which] he’s boasting about everything he’s taken from her — he’s talking about plucking the eyes out of Caesar’s head — and you aren’t allowed to express the pain and the hurt and the trauma,” she says. These characters “witnessed their own people being tortured in front of them and they’re not allowed to give a reaction, in case they’re made an example of. So, in that moment it really was, ‘I’m deeply in pain, I’m hurt, I’m not OK and I just need it to stop.’ He was the first direct thing she can get to shut up.”
Once that happens, Cora is able to let out a breath, in a way, and begin a journey of healing. The end of the series sees her finally planting the seeds she has been carrying in her pocket this whole time, and also traveling with a young girl named Molly (Kylee D. Allen). “At the end what we see is you don’t have to do this journey alone; there will be people to help you along the way, and there are people worth fighting for,” Mbedu says.
Having now completing her first American project — and such an important one at that, Mbedu notes — the actor feels that healing effect in her own life, too.
“At the end of it, I drafted a letter to Barry that said, ‘Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this story’ because through Cora, I was able to gain feelings I didn’t even know I had,’ ” Mbedu says. “There are things in me that maybe I am not strong enough or brave enough or bold enough to challenge head on, but through characters [and] through telling other people’s stories, I am able to confront those things in myself.”