V-Girl Thuso Mbedu details landing her role in the highly anticipated summer series The Underground Railroad and how she brought the character, Cora, to life.

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To win her breakout role in Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ new series The Underground Railroad, South African actress Thuso Mbedu risked it all. Mbedu saved up for months to fly from her home in the country’s eastern city Pietermaritzburg to LA for an audition during 2018’s pilot season, where she had little to no preparation—and only one shot to dazzle a room of casting directors and studio executives. “I didn’t have a fallback plan,” she explains, “If I failed at this, then there [was] nothing to fall back on.”

Thuso wears all clothing Celine by Hedi Slimane throughout

Set in the 19th century on a Georgian slave plantation, The Underground Railroad is a harrowing tale with an imaginative twist that will leave you at the edge of your seat. Portraying the series’ heroine Cora, a fiercely resilient slave who devises a plan to escape the shackles of slavery, Mbedu faced the challenge of diving into a realm so dark that its echoes haunt the nation to this day. Before filming began, Mbedu began Southern dialect lessons, extensively researched America’s 400-year-long entanglement with slavery, and immersed herself in the life of enslaved people through written and audio accounts. “I would get so deep into research and because of the dark and heavy nature, I constantly had to tell myself to step away and take a break,” says Mbedu.

Raised by her grandmother, Mbedu was surrounded by an overwhelming sense of community—one that took pride in tradition and the musicality of their native tongue, IsiZulu. With traditions that emphasized the importance of education, Mbedu had her life mapped out with aspirations to become a dermatologist. But when selecting courses for her sophomore year in high school, Mbedu was inclined to offset the mathematics and science courses with a drama class. She starred in productions like the multilingual South African theater classic Curl Up and Dye, and later composed her own play as a part of her final exam. Her hobby of acting, originally intended to be an escape from number crunching and memorizing compounds on the periodic table, became her life’s purpose. “I saw the power that [performing] had to heal audiences. I saw how it could provide an escape to audiences. After that, I could not imagine myself in a lab coat or sitting behind a desk for the rest of my life.” says Mbedu.

Mbedu brings Cora to life through a transcendent performance and immersed herself so deeply in the role that, during filming, the lines between herself and her character began to blur. “I was feeling really low and having depressive episodes,” she says. “But I’d be like, ‘That’s not me’—it would take me a moment to realize that it’s the residue from the character’s mental and emotional state.” Therapy sessions, she said, were crucial for her to re-center after The Underground Railroad’s filming wrapped. Now, she’s vowed to continue using her gift to uplift her community and tell the stories worth telling. “Everything I aspire to do is with the understanding that I want to be able to give back to my community and tell their stories.” says Mbedu. “I won’t just do anything for the sake of being on television; it has to add value to my people.”

The Underground Railroad premieres May 14 on Amazon Prime, watch the trailer below. 

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