When Aaron Pierre appears on screen in The Underground Railroad, his serene, observant presence instantly arrests the viewer. The enslaved Caesar Gardner convinces Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), another enslaved woman on the Georgia plantation where they meet, to run away on the Underground Railroad—portrayed in Barry Jenkins’s television adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel as a literal railway beneath the soil. What follows over the course of 10 episodes is not only a tale of a journey toward freedom, but a tragic love story between Pierre’s Caesar and Mbedu’s Cora. And it is never difficult for the viewer to see why Cora would be taken with someone as powerful—physically as well as intellectually—as Caesar.
The 27-year-old actor himself also holds a steady gaze when he appears on a Zoom screen to discuss his role in The Underground Railroad, as well as his star turn on the big screen in M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, which will be released in theaters July 23. Born and raised in London, Pierre was a track and field sprinter before he turned his attention to acting. Inspired by Maurice Greene, the American Olympian who was once the 100 meter race record-holder, young Pierre held onto his passion for running. That is, until he was around 13 years old, when he developed a knack for storytelling, thanks in part to encouragement from his father, who is also an actor.
Pierre’s origins are in the theater—and Jenkins, in fact, “discovered” him on stage. The actor played Cassio in the Globe Theatre’s 2018 production of Othello (with Andre Holland as the titular Moorish prince). After Jenkins watched Pierre’s performance one night, the actor received an unexpected Twitter DM from the filmmaker. “At first I thought someone was messing with me,” Pierre said with a laugh. “But everything checked out and he just showed love. He said, ‘Let's connect, let's make something happen.’”
When asked about the emotional demand of playing a character like Caesar, Pierre thoughtfully reflected on the character’s journey throughout the series, particularly with respect to Caesar’s emotional and physical strength. “This is somebody who was enslaved in Virginia, and then was promised manumission. That manumission wasn’t granted, he was separated from his family, and then he was transported to Georgia to another plantation. Just the magnitude of strength and resilience and mental fortitude to not let that overwhelm you and destroy you is huge,” he said. “I was nervous to approach a character with that level of strength. With everything in me, I wanted to bring that character to life in a way that resonated with people.”
There was no dearth of difficult scenes to get through when filming The Underground Railroad. The enslaved people are brutalized, beaten, and chased throughout the show’s ten episodes. But Pierre’s ability to bring Caesar to life with consideration and humanity was made possible thanks to support the actors received on set, not only from Jenkins, but from a guidance counselor who remained available to anyone involved with the production. “Irrespective of whether you utilized that service or not, it's so important to just know that there is someone there, if you need them to guide you out of a particularly dark head space,” Pierre said. “That was definitely a huge component in looking after my mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.”
Up next, Pierre will be seen in Old, a horror film that follows the intersecting lives of a few different families on a tropical island vacation, alongside Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, and Alex Wolff. When they enter a private beach, they discover their bodies rapidly aging within a single day. Pierre plays a rapper known as Mid-Sized Sedan on vacation with his girlfriend.
Naturally, much about this film has been kept under wraps, but the actor was able to reveal the thematic elements that resonated with him in the project. “Although it is terrifying and makes you jump out of your skin, it deals with time and perspective,” he said. “These people find themselves in a particular location where time is not as we understand it, and your life is reduced to a day in that situation. What do you value? What do you give your energy to? What do you give your time to? What perspective is important to you?”
After Old, Pierre has a few more projects lined up—though, of course, as a young and in-demand actor, he is not able to say just yet what those projects are. However, there’s one aspect of the future that he is sure about. “My hope is that I can continue to tell stories that I connect with, tell stories that resonate with me and stories that I'm passionate about,” he said. “And in addition to that, continue to work with artists who inspire me. Everyone I've worked with to date has inspired me enormously, and I'm very thankful and grateful for the opportunity to have had collaborated with them.”