The Hollywood Critics Association (HCA) has recognised the “incandescent talent” of South African actress Thuso Mbedu with the coveted TV Breakout Star Award at the annual HCA Awards.
Thuso was awarded for her outstanding performance in Amazon Prime’s ‘The Underground Railroad’ (watch trailer below). It’s a performance so award-worthy that billionaire US talk show host and Thuso fan, Oprah Winfrey, said: “I have never ever in this lifetime seen as consistent a performance…”
Thirty-year-old Thuso, who was born and raised in Pelham in KwaZulu-Natal, received the international award ‘virtually’. Afterwards she tweeted:
“Thank you very much to the HCAcritics for this special recognition. UGRR has been an amazing journey from start to finish. Thank you to every single person who has walked this journey with me❤”
The actress and director recently told Oprah in a 25-minute interview how much she related to her character, Cora, who was isolated within her own community and faced loss and abandonment at a young age. Thuso lost her mother (to a brain tumour) at the tender age of four, and was raised by her grandmother. She was so young that at the funeral she was begging her mom to wake up.
In a pinned post on her Twitter page from 2019, when she was cast as Cora, Thuso says:
“Being alone in believing in your dream. Fighting and pushing so hard. Then one day you see the pieces come together. You hear God remind you that He told you that you weren’t crazy for believing (in) Him.
“I’m breathing for the first time in a long time.”
This is LA-based Thuso’s first international award, after being nominated twice for an International Emmy for Best Actress in Is’thunzi. She can also be seen in this year’s ‘The Woman King’ – starring alongside Oscar winners Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o.
After attending Pietermaritzburg Girl’s High School, and graduating from Wits University, Thuso first entered South African hearts on popular Showmax series Isibaya in 2014.
For those who haven’t yet watched ‘The Underground Railroad’, Thuso advises pacing yourself and not binge-watching it. Centred around enslavement in the USA, the 10-episode series is wrought with tough-to-watch scenes that require processing, she says. (Oprah’s heart-rate rose from 101 to 110 between Episode 1 and 3!)
Thuso was surrounded by good friends, crew and guidance counsellors on the set to ensure her mental health while filming the show (and fun weekends in between)… although, due to sharing so many similarities with the character, she says she sought a therapist afterwards to disentangle herself from Cora. During her interview, near the end of the below video, there’s a moment where Oprah tears up as Thuso describes how after a particular hard scene in episode 8 she had to locate the counsellor to help her find herself again because she had surrendered so totally to the character and the moment, she had lost herself.
As tough as the content matter was, Thuso says that filming ‘The Underground Railroad’ “healed parts of me I didn’t even know were wounded”.
When, in 2019, she moved with the cast and crew to Georgia for filming, she had her very first dream of her mother, in which her mom said to her “everything’s going to be okay”. Incredibly, in episode 8, exactly what had happened in her dream happened in the show. “It gave me a closure that I didn’t realise I needed,” she told Oprah.
Thuso also revealed that she and co-star Joel Edgerton, who plays slave catcher Ridgeway, and with whom her character has a volatile relationship, actually get on very well off the set.
‘The Underground Railroad’ is based on the 2017 Pullitzer-prize winning novel by Colson Whitehead, and follows a young woman’s journey to escape from slavery on a fantastical train system.