Thuso Mbedu from Underground Railroad on the silent capture of Cora’s emotions: slaves were not allowed to feel
In the very first episode of The Underground Railroad, an enslaved black man is brutally and horribly punished for trying to run away.
The inhuman incident serves as a catalyst forcing the story’s heroine, Cora (South African newcomer Thuso Mbedu), to take a similar risk and in both the limited-edition Amazon Prime and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead to flee. Because of this, viewers will see the camera slice back and forth between the torture and Cora’s reaction to it when Barry Jenkins’ TV adaptation premieres this Friday and explores a mysterious world where real trains help enslaved people underground to emancipate yourself.
While there is an understandable urge to look away from this man’s unimaginable persecution, it is important to watch Mbedus Cora stand with Caesar (Krypton’s Aaron Pierre), the man who later escapes with her. In many ways, Cora’s face serves as an emotional barometer for everything that happens to her and those around her on the show. This range of emotions is a challenge that a very expressive Mbedu has conquered and surpassed – even if she doesn’t believe it.
“The people I’ve worked with have enhanced the expressiveness of my face and I don’t see it,” Mbedu told TVLine. “I talked to Barry about it and he saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in me even after watching the show. Maybe that thing is always being your toughest critic. I dont know.”
Also, says Mbedu, in many ways these terms belong to Cora and not hers. And Big Anthony (Elijah Everett), the enslaved black man who is tortured, has harmed her in the past as well.
“I processed the moment as my character Cora, one hundred percent,” reveals Mbedu. “And I remember Big Anthony in the book as one of the people who raped Cora. For me, it’s the moment when one of your biggest injuries suffers, but it’s still a black body. And he doesn’t suffer from your hand. He’s suffering from a system that will likely come for you at some point. So it was this conflict. “
“And as much as she was hurt and hardened, she’s still very human,” added Mbedu. “I processed the whole moment with Cora’s eyes. Because as Thuso I would have been on the ground and complaining. But enslaved people were not allowed to feel. They got tough, but they weren’t deaf and they had to find a way not to show their feelings as a means of survival. If you emote or show something beyond what Master can see, it may mean eyelashes or worse. They had to be very strategic about how they behaved at all times. “
Jenkins says it was Mbedu’s awareness and strategic variability that made her the perfect Cora.
“Thuso can come across as 16 and 66,” says Jenkins. “That drew me to her and also to playing a character who had to live through these conditions. Often you have to check your own voice, but there are so many other ways to express yourself. I was looking for someone who could really express himself, even when he wasn’t speaking ”, who could simply“ use the slackness in his face or the tension in his face and convey so many things ”.
“There are so many things Cora doesn’t want to share,” adds Jenkins. “And yet, after they escape, everyone around them is constantly trying to remind them that their expressions have value. I think Thuso did a great job and when you hang out with Thuso she can talk man. But in this part she has to embark on this journey where she reconnects and finds her voice. That was the greatest quality I found in her from the start of this journey. I realized, ‘Oh my god, she can do anything.’ “
This includes making Cora smile, which she can only do very sparingly. In episode 8, she smiles as she flirts with her new suitor Royal (William Jackson Harper of The Good Place).
“Those are the moments that Barry kept asking me about and that he wanted me to do,” recalls Mbedu. “Cora has gotten so used to not showing what she is feeling and keeping it to herself. And Barry kept saying, “Thuso, please smile. This is one of the few times Cora can smile. ‘”
“In my head it seemed easy, but it was hard to do,” she says. “Cora is so complex and layered, but she knows how to flirt. And if Cora could have opened up, you would see so much more of her personality, but she is so protected. That’s why these insights are so important. “