[This story originally appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.]
There’s a tweet pinned to Thuso Mbedu’s Twitter account that’s a snapshot of a time before the world would come to know of her as Cora Randall, in Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad adaptation. The 29-year-old South African actress wrote the words in February 2019, a few months before the news was made public that she had landed the coveted role in Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story. A role that not only marks her official foray into the global spotlight, but also makes her the first [South] African to lead an American TV series.
The tweet captures the relief and joy Mbedu had to at first keep to herself, once she found out she got the part she’d become so heart-set on. “I’m someone who believes in God, so I prayed about it,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But to your friends and others, you seem crazy for having the dreams you have, for taking the risks you take.” Risks like leaving your small town home in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa or spending your savings taking a shot at pilot season in LA or placing all your bets on an uncertain acting career, instead of a steadier one in dermatology.
Before she’d been selected for the part, Mbedu wrestled with the desire of wanting fervently to be the one breathing life into Cora’s story and the fear of being able to bring forth all that the role required. An established name in her home country, Mbedu had twice been nominated for an International Emmy, for the local drama series, Is’thunzi, but she’d never experienced working on an international set, and The Underground Railroad was only her first audition for an American series.
Even before she’d landed the role, or had even read the book for that matter, Jenkins told Mbedu she was Cora. “At the end of our first meeting, he looked at me and said, ‘This role was written for you. I’m not saying you got it’ — because we hadn’t yet done the test shoot —‘but you are the character,’” she says.
Growing up under her grandmother’s care in post-apartheid South Africa, Mbedu shared with Cora, an enslaved orphan in 1850s Georgia, the loss and rejection that come from losing her mother at a young age and not knowing her father. When Mbedu did read the book, straight after her first meeting with Jenkins, she saw the layers to Cora’s character and became invested in wanting to see her brought to life — even if that meant the role went to someone else deemed more capable. “Barry saw, and still sees, something in me that I don’t see,” says Mbedu. “But I so appreciate his support in it.”
On set, Mbedu recalls the trust that helped her come into the character, and her voice. “Cora hardly speaks. I really loved that about her,” she says, wrapping her arms around herself in a deep hug. Jenkins signature style of allowing sound and visuals to fill the spaces where dialogue would be envelope Mbedu’s performance. She did, however, work hard on Cora’s broken Southern accent.
“In my preparation, Barry had sent me written and audio testimonials of former enslaved people, and hearing them speak, in a broken English of people who’d lived into their 90s, versus the fluent English that we hear when we watch movies, that made their story that much closer to me,” she says. “Because that’s a broken English that if you were to go to South Africa today, that’s how people speak. And that point, it ceased being a story of African-Americans; it became a story about Africans in America. It was that much closer to home.”
Playing her Emmy-nominated role of Winnie on Is’thunzi for many years gave Mbedu a depth of respect that she brought to Cora too. “I had to learn not to judge the character, accept the character for who she is, have a deeper understanding than what’s presented to the world,” she says. “Underground was the hardest I’ve worked since university,” she smiles, saying she went to therapy after shooting wrapped, because of how much of herself she brought to Cora. “She’s too heavy to carry in the real world.”
When Mbedu finally saw the finished 10 episodes, she wrote to Jenkins. He never missed an opportunity to thank her for bringing herself to the part of Cora. It was her turn to thank him. “Going on Cora’s journey — she’s provided me healing for wounds I didn’t even know were there,” says Mbedu. “That’s what I hope, I pray, that whoever watches it will experience the same healing. People who are in need of closure. People who need to feel like their voices are being heard. That is what I desire.”