In the very first installment of The Underground Railroad, an enslaved Black man is brutally and horrifically punished for attempting to run away.
The inhumane incident serves as a catalyst that forces the story’s heroine Cora (South African newcomer Thuso Mbedu) to take a similar risk and flee in both the Amazon Prime limited series and Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which it’s based. Because of this, viewers will see the camera cut back and forth between the torture and Cora’s reaction to it when Barry Jenkins’ TV adaptation premieres this Friday and explores a mystical world where actual trains under the ground help enslaved people emancipate themselves.
Although there is an understandable urge to want to look away from this man’s unimaginable persecution, it is important to watch Mbedu’s Cora as she stands with Caesar (Krypton‘s Aaron Pierre), the man who later escapes with her. In a lot of ways, Cora’s visage serves as an emotional barometer for everything that happens to her and around her in the series. This range of emoting is a challenge that a very expressive Mbedu conquered and surpassed — even if she doesn’t think so.
“The people that I’ve worked with have given props to the expressiveness of my face, and I don’t see it,” Mbedu tells TVLine. “I’ve spoken to Barry about it, and he saw something in me that I’ve yet to see in myself even after having watched the show. Maybe it’s that thing of always being your toughest critic. I don’t know.”
Besides, Mbedu says, those expressions belong to Cora and not her in many ways. And Big Anthony (Elijah Everett), the enslaved Black man who is tortured, also harmed her in the past.
“I was processing the moment as my character Cora, one hundred percent,” Mbedu reveals. “And I remember in the book, Big Anthony is one of the people who raped Cora. For me, it’s that moment of seeing one of your greatest hurts suffering, but he is still a Black body. And he is not suffering at your hand. He is suffering at the hand of a system that will probably come for you at some point as well. So it was that conflict.”
“And in as much as she had been hurt and hardened, she is still very human,” Mbedu adds. “I was processing that entire moment through Cora’s eyes. Because as Thuso, I would’ve been on the floor wailing. But enslaved people weren’t allowed to feel. They grew hard, but they weren’t numb, and they had to figure out a way to not show their emotions as a means of survival. For you to emote or show anything beyond what the master could see could mean lashes or worse. They had to be very strategic in how they conducted themselves at all times.”
Jenkins says it was Mbedu’s awareness and strategic mutability that made her the perfect Cora.
“Thuso can come across as 16 and 66,” Jenkins says. “That’s what drew me to her and also to playing a character who has to live through these conditions. A lot of times, you have to check your own voice, but you can express yourself so many other ways. I was looking for someone who could really express themselves even when they’re not speaking,” who could just use “the slackness in their face or the tension in their face and convey so many things.”
“There are so many things Cora doesn’t want to share,” Jenkins adds. “And yet everyone around her after she escapes is constantly trying to remind her that her expressions have value. I think Thuso did a great job of that, and if you hang out with Thuso, she can talk, man. But in this part, she has to go on this journey where she reconnects with and finds her voice. That was the greatest quality I found in her from the beginning of this journey. I realized, ‘Oh my God, she can do everything.'”
This includes making Cora smile, which she only truly gets to do sparingly. It’s in Episode 8 that she smiles while flirting with her new suitor Royal (The Good Place‘s William Jackson Harper).
“Those are the moments Barry kept asking me for and wanted from me,” Mbedu recalls. “Cora grew so accustomed to not showing what she is feeling and keeping it to herself. And Barry would constantly say, ‘Thuso, please smile. This is one of the few times where Cora can smile.'”
“In my head, that seemed easy, but it was hard to do,” she says. “Cora is so complex and so layered, but she does know how to flirt. And if Cora could’ve opened up, you would see so much more of her personality, but she is so guarded. That’s why those glimpses are so important.”