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Flying the flag for the youth

Emmy-nominated actress Thuso Mbedu credits inclusivity, equality, and sustainability to getting her career to where it is today.

In the first episode of the Friday is a Feeling Podcast, Mail & Guardian’s Friday editor, Lerato Tshabalala sits down with Emmy Award-nominated actress Thuso Mbedu to close off Youth Month in SA. It’s a week before Mbedu’s 31st birthday and marks 10 years since she landed in New York for the first time. 

Since then, Mbedu has taken Hollywood by storm, making the cover of Emmy Magazine, winning an Independent Spirit Award, and has just come off the set of The Woman King, where she worked with the legendary Academy award winner, Viola Davis. 

This year, Mbedu has been shortlisted as an Editor’s Choice finalist for the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans Awards that in 2022 celebrates inclusivity, sustainability and equality, all of which the actress credits her acting career to. 

Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Ron Derby had this to say about Mbedu being an #MG200Young alumni: “Her work in Underground Railroad is one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. Mail & Guardian decided to start honouring young South Africans 17 years ago to celebrate those whose dreams have come to life against sometimes very challenging circumstances, and Mbedu is the epitome of what Top 200 Young stands for”.   

Lerato Tshabalala [LT]: Before we started recording we were just talking about how we are two Zulu girls with Sotho names. Do you have a lot of people assume that you know the language [Sotho]?

Thuso Mbedu [TM]:  Definitely. Apart from that, if people don’t know me they think I’m a man because ‘Thuso’ is used more widely by guys. Then people just start riffing in Sotho, and I’m just like “cut!” I don’t understand. So my first name is Sotho, my middle name is Zulu, and my surname is Xhosa. So I’m like the rainbow nation in a way.

Lerato Tshabalala [LT]: Your story is so rich and dope. Audiences were so moved by your performance in the Underground Railroad and Ms Oprah Winfrey, when she interviewed you, said she’d never, ever in her lifetime seen such a consistent performance from someone. When you hear such things about yourself, how does it feel?

Thuso Mbedu [TM]:  

To be honest … I don’t know, because for me it’s work. It’s applying craft and years of investment. And yes, it’s humbling. I’m grateful for the feedback. But when the next project comes, you know, you don’t think about that. You’re only as good as your last performance, right? So you have to put in the same amount of work. And even with the movie [The Woman King], that’s coming out in September, I hope that I was true to the character and telling the story.

LT: By the way, next week, Friday [8 July] is your birthday. You’re turning 31. Are you doing anything?

TM: Oh, we’re gonna be at a photoshoot the whole day; a cover [The Woman King] shoot. It will be me, Viola Davis, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, and Adrienne Warren, a great birthday gift, right? And then in the evening, I’ve booked tickets to go watch the new Thor movie; I’m a big Marvel fan. So we’re gonna go do that. And there’s a little bit of a surprise that I’m not allowed to share, that my friends will experience on the day.

I was also planning on being in New York this year for my birthday, because exactly 10 years ago was the first time I touched down in New York on my birthday, on my 21st birthday in 2012. So I wanted to do that. It was for the exchange programme between Wits University and New York University.

LT: What was it like shooting Woman King in South Africa?  

We shot from October 2021 to March 2022, and being able to spend Christmas with my family was amazing. Because the truth is, as South Africa we’ve got beautiful locations, we’ve got the resources in terms of storytelling. It’s just maybe the opportunities are here [LA]. We’re getting more opportunities now (industry-wise), but then a lot of politics goes into it. But we are more than capable of producing great stories, right? So, to be able to come with a Hollywood story and shoot it locally was an amazing experience for me.

LT: So what can you tell us about the character you play in The Woman King? 

TM: We only finished shooting in March. But I continued with the stunt training after, because it’s something that I fell in love with and want to improve on. And where I am now is where I wish I could have been when we started the movie, but it works for the character because you wouldn’t want her to be too good as a rookie, she has to grow into it.

LT: What I’ve noticed with your interviews, is that you’re quite hard on yourself, so I hear you saying this now, but I’m sure when we watch it, that is not going to be our experience. I have a feeling that you’re gonna kill it. There’s been a shift in your characters: what was that like moving from playing an enslaved woman with quiet confidence and a quiet rage, to a strong, warrior woman? 

TM: So, I think I related to Cora [on Amazon Prime’s Underground Railroad] much more than I did to Nawi [The Woman King], because Nawi was more challenging. Like Cora, I’m also the type to let the rage or the frustration bubble and get things quietly done. Yet now, with Nawi, we are more like bulldozing. Her thing is about being seen, about being admired, and about having those who were against her and showing them up. 

I had the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood,  constantly say “give me more, challenge more, push more, fight more”. Even in my scenes with Viola [Davis], she said ‘you still need more’ So they [characters] were complete polar opposites, but both very empowering in their own way, and giving me vocab or a voice in two different ways that I can now apply in my everyday life.

LT: I think what’s incredible about hearing you say that is how healing it was for you. The parallels between Cora’s story and your story of losing your mother when you were only four years old and being raised by your grandmother. In some way, the movie healed something in you as well, but you keep doing new things: you learned how to ride a horse to play Cora, now you’re doing martial arts for The Woman King. Do you get intimidated? What’s your attitude when it comes to new things?

TM: For me, it’s like, I think, over age 25, and maybe 30, my attitude became,  “I come from a certain background here, I wasn’t afforded certain things, right. I probably would have had a different life if we had more money”. It’s only now that I can really afford to do the things that I’ve always wanted to do. And so I am completely open to that. I don’t pretend to be anything that I’m not, I don’t have a persona because I am in a space where I’m constantly learning and growing. And  my craft demands that of me, I cannot pretend to know that which I don’t know. 

I’ve been trying to conquer fears, the only thing that I am really struggling with is the fear of heights, which is my fear of falling. But otherwise, I am constantly trying to challenge myself to better myself. And that helps me physically, emotionally, mentally. 

LT: We can totally see it. So, Nina Simone took a [Lorraine Hansberry] poem and turned it into a song called To Be Young, Gifted and Black. You are like the embodiment of that. But you have also had an incredibly difficult life; you battled with depression in 2016 and you’re open about it. And a lot of people have been struggling particularly in the country, over the last two years with Covid. What does it mean for you to be young, gifted and black? 

TM: For people who are struggling and feel like they know their purpose, yet they don’t have the roadmap.  What got me through 2016 was the community of people around me. I had people who spoke life into me, who prayed for me when I couldn’t pray for myself when I didn’t see a way out.

Then, you know, there were times where I would try to collaborate with different types of people just to give myself a shift in perspective, which is necessary. You don’t want to find yourself stuck in that pit of hopelessness, because that’s when things go left. And now, I have to say that I am very much aware of the place of privilege that I’m in. 

I understood and felt deep within myself that what I’m doing is for me. I’m not fighting just for me, if I give up now, then I am not only sacrificing my purpose, but I’m sacrificing all the lives of the people that I could impact. So it is about remembering why you’re holding on to it, but also making sure that you are surrounded by the right type of people. Because in our industry, and with our youth, we can get so disillusioned by the frills, you know, the promises of what life could be like, especially with the advent of social media. 

Collaboration is key. But also, if you can, do not stay in the slump, where you’re expecting other people, and I mean, our government to rescue you, because they’re not. They’ve shown us time and time again that they have put themselves first and I’m talking about the people who are able to loot funds — that are meant for the people — over and over again, it’s not fair. But it happens. 

Now it’s about creating relationships horizontally instead of trying to work vertically with the people that you’re in now that you’re in alignment with. What can you do together to make a difference? 

LT: You’re right. I always say to people, there is no rescue mission. You are the rescue mission.

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