For W’s 2021 Television Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay tribute to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
In The Underground Railroad, the Amazon Prime series directed by Barry Jenkins, Thuso Mbedu plays Cora, an enslaved young woman who escapes from a Georgia plantation. The subject matter—a magical realist version of the actual Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes run by people who offered shelter and guidance to enslaved people fleeing the American South—was relatively new to the now 30-year-old South African actor, but she dove into the exceedingly challenging material with the discipline of a historian in the making, listening to audio recordings from the era and studying the Colson Whitehead novel upon which the series is based.
Mbedu, who has been nominated for International Emmys twice for her role in the South African series Is’Thunzi, is the first person from her home country to hold a starring role in an American television show. Next, she’ll be starring opposite Viola Davis in The Woman King, a film inspired by the African Kingdom of Dahomey and set in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Here, Mbedu opens up to Editor at Large Lynn Hirschberg about preparing for her role in The Underground Railroad, immersing herself in the American South, and why The Boys character Queen Maeve spoke to her on a deep level.
When was the first time you came to L.A.?
I first came to L.A. in 2019 for a short visit. I just wanted to try things out. Then I got the brief to audition for The Underground Railroad. Upon arriving in L.A., I felt like I was home because it reminds me of where I grew up. I grew up in a place called Pietermaritzburg, which is about 30 minutes from the coast. It’s all palm trees, beautiful buildings, beautiful landscapes. Then I officially moved here last year, in October.
Did you have an idea about American television or movies?
We grew up watching a few American television shows, but it was a whole lot of Disney Channel.
Did you have a favorite film growing up that made you want to be an actress?
A favorite performance that made me want to be an actress would have been Viola Davis in The Help. She is very intense. Watching her, watching Angela Bassett, watching Taraji P. Henson, watching Mr. Denzel Washington.
I like that he is Mr. Denzel Washington.
I feel awkward when I don’t put “mister” in front.
Have you met Mr. Denzel Washington yet?
I have not met him yet. I believe it’s only a matter of time. Mr. Denzel Washington, if you are watching this, please meet me so I can say hello!
How much did you know about the Underground Railroad growing up in South Africa?
I think I only found out about the concept of the Underground Railroad a couple of years ago. Because what we’re taught about the enslaved while in America was, like, quickly glazed over—as with any and all other history.
You must’ve known who Barry was.
I definitely knew who Barry Jenkins was, but upon getting the brief to audition, I had no clue that it was based on a book. I only found out about it being based on a book after meeting Barry for the first time. And he kept asking me, “Have you read the book?” And I was like, “I didn’t know it was based on a book.” But after meeting him, I ran and got the book and the rest is history.
The story is set in the American South in the mid-1800s, and you shot the series in Georgia. Was it hard to do the Southern accent?
I was very nervous about doing the Southern accent, so I put a lot of pressure on Amazon to ensure that I had ample time with a dialect coach. But it was a beautiful experience learning this new dialect. And, surprisingly, the Southern dialect was easier to get than what they termed “the standard American accent,” which I’m still working on.
What was your impression of the South?
I feel like I was very protected by production and Amazon. So I had a great experience. In Savannah, people were very hospitable, but I was also informed that it’s where a lot of movies shoot. And so the residents are used to outsiders being in their space and they know how to treat them. In Atlanta, which was our base for when we’re shooting in the different parts of Georgia, people were amazing. The weather was great until it got cold. I hate being cold.
How long was the shoot?
We started shooting in August of 2019, and we had to stop production in March 2020 because of Covid. And then we wrapped in September.
Did you stay in America during Covid-19 or did you go back to South Africa?
Production had me go back to South Africa during the Covid lockdowns, because they didn’t know how long it would be. And they wanted me to be with family at the time.
Did you watch any television shows or movies while you were at home?
I consumed a lot of content during the lockdown. It allowed me to escape the current reality, because when I wasn’t watching something, I was homeschooling my niece and I know nothing about homeschooling and so it was overwhelming. She was a first grader and I was just scared of ruining her foundations! But I consumed a lot of content. I love Legacies. Then there was Bridgerton. It was one of my favorites.
Why did you choose to embody a character from The Boys for this portfolio?
I love superhero stories and movies, but The Boys showed us superheroes in a very different light. Most of my friends are people who enjoy sports. And so when they asked me what The Boys is about, I’d say, “Picture the life of athletes: They have everything that they need, they’re revered in society, but then they have this very bad side—substance abuse, misuse of people, these egos. And then they have teams who are all about damage control. Imagine that but then with superheroes.”
What drew you specifically to the character Queen Maeve?
I picked Queen Maeve because she stands for something bigger than what we see. She represents the erasure, or the misrepresentation, of the LGBTQ community. And for me, I related a lot to her because what we see with this underrepresented community is what people of color have experienced in the years, where it’s like, “Okay, within the space of Hollywood, we’ll give you this tiny platform, but it has to be in a certain way. And there are limits to how you can be yourself.” [The narrative around] Queen Maeve is the epitome of that [mindset] throughout the story. It’s like, “Okay, she’s bisexual, but bisexual doesn’t sell as well as being lesbian. So you are lesbian, whether you like it or not, and your partner has to be masculine, even though she’s not, there are these different restrictions and it’s completely crazy.” So The Boys was able to highlight that and give voice to that in an amazing way. And she’s badass, she’s got superpowers. Oh my gosh.
What are her superpowers?
She’s got super strength. She’s got super speed. She’s super agile. She can’t fly, but she makes up for it in other ways.
If you had to choose between having the power to fly or be invisible, which would you pick?
I would rather fly. Because then I could be anywhere in the world at any time. Hello, vacations!
If you had to pick any superpower, what would you pick?
If I could pick any superpower, it would be super strength.
You seem pretty strong.
I seem strong, but I really am not. I have no upper body strength whatsoever.