While the historical action film “The Woman King” is Thuso Mbedu’s first feature film, it’s been a long time coming. The “Underground Railroad” actress has overcome a number of challenges in her life so far, and said she’s been “living on survival mode” for most of the time.
“The first challenge that I had to overcome was growing up in South Africa. I was raised by my grandmother, I lost my mother to a brain tumor at the age of four,” Mbedu said in an emotional installment of TheWrap’s How She Did It, presented by Johnnie Walker. “In high school, I had my best friend bring me lunch because sometimes we didn’t have food.”
Mdbeu found comfort in drama when she entered college, which spurred her interest in pursuing acting full-time for two reasons.
“I did drama at university. Drama was the space in which I could escape my reality,” she said. “Number one, I could be anything and I’d performed a poem for my final exam and I remember at the end of that performance, I had grown folk come up to me and talk to me about how they were moved by my performance because it articulated a chaos within them that they didn’t have the voice to articulate. It was at that moment that I knew that I wanted to pursue acting because it could one bring healing and two, was something that I could use as a tool for social change.”
The actress flew to New York at 21 – the first time she’d ever been on a plane – as part of an exchange program, and the experience completely shifted her perception of the world.
While making “The Woman King,” Mbedu felt empowered to offer her own opinion on the material and found a mentor in star/producer Viola Davis.
“I think Viola officially mentored everybody. From the very first moment I met her during the audition process where I had a creative conversation with her about the script. I felt like ‘Oh, my opinion actually matters. My thoughts mattered. And Viola would share her experiences as an actress with me as a dark-skinned actress. And I remember thinking there’s value in this because the reality is I am also a dark-skinned actress, and knowing that she is actively trying to kick doors down for the benefit of those coming behind her.”
Although Mbdeu’s feature film career has just begun, she already sees the value in the challenges she faced along the way.
“It wasn’t easy getting here, I had to work my butt off, but I do not take that for granted at all. There’s value in hard work. All the lessons that I learned and the journey here are lessons that will make my craft stronger and make my stories worthwhile to the next person who needs to hear it.”