The cast of ‘The Underground Railroad’ on 'telling the story of the black experience'

Aaron Pierre and Thuso Mbedu in 'The Underground Railroad'  

Oscar Award-winning director, Barry Jenkins, has adapted Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad, into a 10-part series.

The novel, like the show, is set in an alternate timeline where the Underground Railroad instead of being a series of safe houses for escaped slaves, is an actual subterranean railway with stations and trains. The story follows Cora, a slave who escapes on the Underground Railroad from a Georgia plantation with a fellow slave, Caesar.

Thuso Mbedu, who plays Cora, speaking over a video call, says the show did not feel voyeuristic. “It was not ‘putting the black body on display’ thing that we have seen in the past. It was actually taking the time to understand, do the research and tell the story of the black experience.”

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Resistance, not endurance

William Jackson Harper, who plays Royal, a freeman, agrees saying, “This project is about resistance, as opposed to endurance. It is about actively changing the circumstances, rather than wondering when the circumstances will change.”

Describing Royal as someone who is ahead of his time, the 41-year-old Harper says, “He sees something wrong and decides to do something about it. That was what I latched on.”

Harper says his first day on set was his most memorable. “I felt so scared to be there. (laughs) I had the utmost respect for Barry Jenkins and I wanted to work with him for, as long as I'd known about him. I couldn't believe that I actually got to be there. Just meeting him, and seeing how friendly, kind and normal he was stuck with me. I expected him to be a much more intimidating presence but he was nice and very good at putting you at ease. I wasn’t working on my first day on set. I was just going to meet Barry. He was eating lunch, something from a local restaurant and we were just hanging out for a little while before he had to go back and make this thing. I just thought that was incredibly telling about the experience I was probably going to have.”

Reality bites

Aaron Pierre who plays Caesar, says, “He was born in Virginia and promised Manumission, which did not come to fruition. He then finds himself in the South on the Randall plantation. While he was in Virginia, he had the opportunity to see glimpses of what true liberation was like and he continually pursues that in the hope of obtaining it one day.”

The most challenging aspect of the role, Pierre says, was the knowledge it was based in reality. “This was the reality for many individuals, and that was unsettling. While the series renders horrific realities, it also celebrates the magnitude of strength that these people had, to overcome those circumstances.”

Bringing to life

Ugandan-born British actor, Sheila Atim, who plays a midwife Mabel, is veteran of stage and screen. She has done Shakespeare as well as acted in the musical Girl from the North Country based on Bob Dylan’s songs and the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Pale Horse.

Sheila Atim

Sheila Atim  


Speaking of the pros and cons of working on a character from a book of play, or a song, the 30-year-old actor says, “Having the source material is a pro. If you are ever stuck or not sure about a choice or, what is happening within the script, you can always refer to the source material. The con, depends on how it has been adapted, and could be seen as restrictive. You could feel you are tied to something that already exists, particularly if that thing is popular with many people having read it and having opinions about how things should be done.”

Page to screen

With The Underground Railroad, Sheila says she did not feel that way. “I felt very free and I think Barry was brilliant in making the cast feel like they had artistic licence over their characters.”

Pierre says he could not give specific percentages of how much of his character is the writing, how much is the direction, and how much was his input. “When you work on a project, you try and bring the character to life. I am endlessly thankful for Barry's guidance, for his words of encouragement, and how generous he is with his knowledge. And of course, I am endlessly thankful for Coulson’s writing because in the writing there is a wealth of knowledge and guidance. The way I approach work is to just be as present as possible. I try not to have too many premeditated or preordained ways of doing a scene.”

Money talks

The book was the first point of contact for Joel Edgerton, who plays the slave catcher, Ridgeway. “One of the things that became illuminated for me was that economics plays such a huge role in creating a situation where human beings are subjugated.”

Joel Edgerton

Joel Edgerton  


Edgerton says the character enticed and terrified him. “He was not just a villain. Ridgeway was a particularly complicated man in his relationship with his father and he had this fascinating relationship with young Homer (Chase W Dillon), a boy he bought and emancipated in 16 hours. That made it very interesting to me as an actor, but on a day-to-day level, it was an uncomfortable place to enter. The biggest challenge was finding the space between rendering physical and psychological violence in a way that could be felt by the audience while looking after each other as performance.

Ridgeway has been compared to Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab in his obsessive pursuit of Cora and Caesar. “On the one hand he was looking for affirmation from his father. He is looking to be justified in being right, even though he knows he is wrong. Ridgeway was looking for a way to take back time and to maybe, undo some of the things that he'd done in his life, starting with the mistreatment of his childhood friend, which was driven not by hatred but by jealousy. I feel this man wants to go back to being a boy and see what it is like to go down a different road.”

The Underground Railroad streams on Amazon Prime Video

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 1:16:06 PM |

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