The search for the lead role in Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of The Underground Railroad, has come to an end: Thuso Mbedu has officially been cast as Cora, the main character of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel.
Per reports from Variety, Jenkins has given the main roles of Cora, Homer, and Caesar, three slaves who seek freedom from Southern plantations via the Underground Railroad, to actors who are relatively new to American audiences.
Chase W. Dillon, whom audiences will recognize when he appears on BET’s First Wives Club series adaptation this fall and when he stars as Young Igwe in Kumail Nanjiani’s AppleTV+ series, Little America, has been cast as Homer. The role of Caesar has been given to Aaron Pierre, a London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art graduate known for his parts in various historical drama series such as Brittania and Tennison; and Mbedu has been cast as Cora, Caesar’s love interest and the main focal point of the narrative. The Underground Railroad will consist of 11 one-hour episodes written and directed by Jenkins, as part of his first foray into directing an entire television series.
Mbedu may not be very well known to American audiences right now, but she is already a bona fide star in South Africa. Although she only began acting four years ago, when Mbedu stars in The Underground Railroad she’ll make history as the first South African actress to lead an American television series.
The 27-year-old spent the past year starring on one of South Africa’s most popular television series, a soap opera called Generations: The Legacy, and also scored two International Emmy Award nominations for portraying a young woman named Winnie on Is’thunzi, a teen drama series for the country’s Mzansi Magic channel. According to an interview Mbedu gave to Huffington Post South Africa, the process of portraying Winnie, a young woman who chases marriage to a rich rugby player, was a rigorous one. “I allowed myself to get so lost in the character that I became the character,” she said when explaining that filming a rape scene caused her to suffer an anxiety attack. “I felt so traumatized and so powerless in the moment. I was feeling every single emotion as the character and that translated on screen.”
Mbedu already has a large social media following, and her popularity in the United States is only going to skyrocket once audiences see her portrayal of Cora in The Underground Railroad. With over 800,000 followers on Instagram, it’s clear that Mbedu has become one of South Africa’s It girls, now making her way to New York for the International Emmy Awards and eventually heading to Hollywood. Of course, she shared every step of the way on Instagram.
She’s also set her sights on working with Taraji P. Henson (whom she met late last year), and with this new casting news it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that the two could work together at some point, when Mbedu becomes just as big of a star in America as she already is at home.