The actress makes her Hollywood debut in Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of The Underground Railroad.
She has been preparing for this role since her school days. Thuso Mbedu is fidgeting. She is tugging at her long fingers. Her eyes narrow in deep concentration.
“Okay Thuso, try that again,” says her matric drama teacher, Ms Bydawell.
“Um,” she starts, “something doesn’t make sense.”
Mbedu is a top drama student at Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School in KwaZulu-Natal. She has rehearsed, practised and has all her lines down. But something is amiss. She is not connecting with the emotional arc of her character.
“I mean, why would she…” her voice trails off.
“Maybe just still yourself. Try to not gesticulate so much,” interjects another student.
She takes the note, at first, but something is still off. The character does not need stillness. She knows that. She is certain.
“Okay, let’s take it from the top,” says Mbedu, as she resigns herself to the whims of her character. Resigned to the fact that if she falters, her character will intervene.
Older Mbedu, newer world
Eleven years later, Mbedu sits in front of her laptop in her Los Angeles apartment. The world has changed dramatically since her high school days, replaced now with unending screens, sanitisers and masks.
Mbedu’s world has changed dramatically, too. The youthful 29-year-old woman on the screen bears no resemblance to that 18-year-old girl. Yet she still looks the same, and still prioritises comfort in her style.
Her accent now has an American twang, no doubt because her environment calls for it. But if you listen long enough, her Zulu humour sneaks through.
“Sho skhokho!” greets Mbedu as the sound on the video call kicks in. This is a ridiculous greeting, a mix of playful verbiage and slang. It defies translation: the cosmic, poetic and pithy inferences in isiZulu sit far beyond the banality of the English language.
This is the sense one gets from speaking to Mbedu. She is unbelievably rooted in the knowledge of her African ancestry and in doing so, is able to truly make sense of the globalised village she now stars in as she makes her international debut as Cora Randall, the lead character in Barry Jenkins’ series adaptation of Colson White’s novel The Underground Railroad.