Thuso Mbedu broke hearts and raked in accolades as Cora in Barry Jenkins’s limited series The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s book. Now the rising South African star makes her big-screen debut in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical drama The Woman King opposite Viola Davis. “Being surrounded by such strong, fierce women…” She smiles and pauses. “I am looking forward to the press tour.”
BORN IN KwaZulu-Natal—“the land of the Zulus”—she’s the first artist in her family “because my parents were born during the apartheid era. My mother wanted to be a geologist, but she wasn’t allowed.” She lost her mother young, so Mbedu’s grandmother raised her and her sister. “My gran passed three days before my onscreen debut.”
AFTER GRADUATING from drama school in Johannesburg—“I couldn’t afford to fail and go back home. It was not an option”—her big break came in the form of the series Is’Thunzi. “I hadn’t worked for six straight months; I’d gone through depression as a result. I was like, ‘If I don’t get this, take me, Jesus,’ ” she laughs. “I’m dramatic.”
AFTER TWO consecutive international Emmy nominations, she auditioned for The Underground Railroad. At her final callback, she cried so much, her contact lens flipped inside out. I hope they don’t want another take! she thought. “I practically ran out.”
YEARS LATER, the newfound Angeleno and Jenkins remain close. “I bother him at random times. I invite myself to use the pool. ‘I don’t even need you to be at the house!’ ”
SHE TURNED DOWN a major franchise—which one? “I can’t say!”—to do The Woman King.
THE FILM has an all-star cast, which Mbedu says are all introverts—except for John Boyega, who is “a complete clown and a joy to work with.” She and Davis formed a particular bond: “Viola did say that if her story was turned into a biopic, she would love me to play [her]. I said, ‘I can audition?’ And she said, ‘No, Thuso can play.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ ”
NOW SHE’S PRODUCING, with a deal at Paramount+, to make socially conscious content. “I want to create opportunities for other people, and I’m grateful I’m able to.”
HAIR, TED GIBSON; MAKEUP, REBEKAH ALADDIN; MANICURE, THUY NGUYEN; TAILOR, HASMIK KOURINIAN. PRODUCED ON LOCATION BY PREISS CREATIVE. FOR DETAILS, GO TO VF.COM/CREDITS.