When Thuso Mbedu walked onto the red carpet at the 2017 International Emmy Awards, practically floating in her teal Gert-Johan Coetzee gown, you could see a glint of pride in her eyes.
As the photographers called her name and she turned around, one could say she was having her fairytale moment.
Even though she didn’t win the Emmy for her portrayal of feisty school girl, Winnie, in Mzansi Magic’s “Is’Thunzi”, the world was watching with interest.
When the news broke in 2019 that she was the leading star of Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins’s next high-profile project, “The Underground Railroad”, the industry perked up.
For Jenkins to give this role to a newcomer in Hollywood, meant that he was onto something. And they are right.
The 10-episode drama series, which started streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, May 14, sees Thuso star as Cora Randall, a slave who escapes a plantation in Georgia. She boards a train embarking on a trip where she seeks freedom. All this while she is hunted by a notorious slave catcher, Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton).
The early reviews for “The Underground Railroad”, which is adapted from the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colton Whitehead, have been glowing, with many critics praising her performance and some predicting a Primetime Emmy nomination for the work on the show.
Thuso has drawn parallels between her life and that of her character.
Thuso did not grow up with her mother, who died due to a brain tumour. She and her younger sister, were raised by their grandmother.
Cora’s mother, Mabel, fled the plantation, leaving 11-year-old Cora to suffer and deal with enslavement without her protection.
In a Twitter thread, the award-winning actor listed reasons why the character appealed to her.
“There’s a part of me that wants to say I saw parts of me in her, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to say that yet because Cora is so much stronger than me.
“But playing her did help heal parts of me I did not know were wounded — maybe that’s what drew me to her.
“Cora’s freedom is tied to running and we see this as we go from episode to episode.
“Colson Whitehead created a human being that people can point to on the street. She’s a brave but fragile young woman because of everything she’s been through.
“Cora is… simple, but complicated. We are only as strong as our hardest challenge and, through Cora, we see that.
“She gives hope for a future to the everyday man and woman who, with each new day, find themselves fighting for something.
“What I like about Cora is that she holds the mic for everyone to be heard. As she goes from state to state, not only are we following her but by following her, we meet many others whom she allows to share a piece of themselves.”
The first time I saw Thuso on screen, was in Saints & Sinners in 2014, in which she played Boni Khumalo.
It was an all-star drama that featured some of South Africa’s top actors, including Ntathi Moshesh, Tumisho Masha, S’dumo Mtshali, Tshepo Maseko, Warren Masemola, Sibulele Gcilitshana, and Siyabonga Radebe.
And Thuso stole the scene.
Her performance was so explosive and nuanced that you couldn’t tear your eyes from the screen.
It felt like we were watching a star being born.
So brilliant was she on the show, that she acted circles around her co-stars. When you think of the show, you mostly think of her performance.
And then there’s “Is’Thunzi”, which earned her the Emmy nominations and her first South African Film and Television Award and likely got her the attention from Jenkins.
It’s rare watching someone’s star really shoot up and start shining so bright, that you can’t help notice. Especially a South African actor.
While many do get their chances at a Hollywood career, most only get bit roles and cameos on procedurals. Rarely do you get a South African actor leading a new TV series.
Thuso is living the Hollywood dream.
She shares a style team (Wayman and Micah) with one of her favourite actors, Regina King, where they kit her out in high end designer garb; she’s on the radar of Hollywood’s key decision makers and she just scored her next leading role, alongside Viola Davis.
It was announced last week that Thuso would be starring in “The Woman King”, which is a historical epic inspired by true events in the kingdom of Dahomey, a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now Benin from about 1600 until 1904. It was one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Deadline reports that “The Woman King” will follow Nanisca (Davis), a general of the all-female military unit, and Nawi (Thuso) her ambitious protégé, who fight enemies who violated their honour, enslaved their people, and threatened to destroy everything they’ve lived for.
She was handpicked by Davis and her producer husband Julius Tennon.
“The depth and complexity of emotional life, her authentic beauty and regalness are potent. We were mesmerised by Thuso Mbedu.
“We wanted ’The Woman King’ to be the vehicle to introduce her on the big screen,” Davis and Tennon told Deadline.
Going back to that wide-eyed girl, facing the world press on the red carpet in her princess dress, one can’t help but smile in amazement and be awed at how life can prepare you for the biggest moments in your life, even sooner than you anticipated.