South African actress Thuso Mbedu on playing a 19th century warrior in 'The Woman King'
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
A fierce and courageous all-female army called the Agojie band together to protect their West African kingdom and free their people from slave traders in "The Woman King."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOMAN KING")
VIOLA DAVIS: (As Nanisca) My king, the Europeans wish to conquer us. They will not stop until the whole of Africa is theirs. We must fight back for our people.
JOHN BOYEGA: (As King Ghezo) Nanisca, you're asking me to take them to war. War.
DAVIS: (As Nanisca) Some things are worth fighting for.
RASCOE: The film is based on real events, and it tells the story of General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis, and how she uses a painful past to give her strength in training and leading her army in bloody battles for liberation. South African actress Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, an orphan with a tragic backstory who longs for a sense of belonging. For Mbedu, her character allowed her to explore the depths we are willing to go to find acceptance.
THUSO MBEDU: For me, Nawi's driving force is something that I said to Gina in conversation - was Nawi fears being alone more than death, which is why she's more than willing to join an army where you're basically signing up for death. She really wants to be wanted. She wants to belong, and she finds that in the army.
RASCOE: And Gina, who you're referring to, is Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed this. And she's also the director of one of my all-time favorites, "Love & Basketball."
RASCOE: Oh, my goodness, yeah. So this is someone who is an amazing director.
RASCOE: What stuck out to me about Nawi - you said that she was more afraid of being alone than dying. She was also someone - she refused to live the life that was expected of her.
MBEDU: One thousand percent.
RASCOE: And she was also doubted. Like, was that - is that something you can relate to in your life?
MBEDU: I think so. Both my parents were raised during apartheid South Africa, right? And if you were Black during apartheid, the only profession you could take on was either a teacher or a nurse. My mother had wanted to be a geologist but wasn't allowed to because she was Black, and so she became a teacher. She taught math, science, geography. And then coming up in my family, my family looking to me to be, you know, the one who goes - who finally goes the medical route and then me deciding my path is not that.
RASCOE: You decide to go be an actress. Oh, my God. I'm sure your parents were like, really? Really?
MBEDU: (Laughter). And to this day, like, my life choice still doesn't make sense to my family. And they're seeing all these achievements, but that's still not what they had anticipated for me. So having to fight for my worth time and time again - because even after graduating cum laude from university, like, with an honors in drama, I had one of my aunts saying, OK, so you've done the drama thing. Why don't you get a real job? You know, and then having to - I left home as a result of that.
RASCOE: Oh, gosh.
MBEDU: I - whatever little money I had, I took a bus out of town. And I was just like, you know, God, I am doing what I believe you created me to do, and the rest is in your hands. And you've taken that leap of faith, which is ultimately what happens with Nawi. It's like, you're expected to marry. She doesn't want to marry. She believes, you know, she's created for something bigger, and she finds herself now in the palace and having to go through the testing and, you know, the grinding and the complete destruction of what she thought she knew, of what she thought she wanted, ultimately to become this warrior.
RASCOE: What was it like working with Viola Davis, one of the greatest actresses of our time, and then working on a film, like, with all of these Black women?
MBEDU: Yeah. Well, we'll start with Gina, you know, who again emphasized relationship over everything. From the beginning, they made me feel like my voice mattered. Viola, from the very first meeting with her, so completely down to earth. You know, Viola is that type of actress who in between scenes will break out into a dance, into a random dance. She's like - and then you see everybody else, you know, mimicking it because that's the energy that was in the space. It was a very safe and secure space to be in creatively, emotionally, mentally and physically. You know, there were so many levels to what we were doing, and we all held each other down (ph) equally.
RASCOE: Reading some of the press, you know, Viola Davis talked about how she had to fight for every aspect of this movie - I'm sure her and Gina. This is not a movie that you see in Hollywood. Like, does that up the pressure?
MBEDU: For me personally, there is no pressure because I stand firmly by the project that we did. We created a really good and enjoyable project. I am proud of, you know, the culmination of Gina and Viola's fight. They put everything into this.
RASCOE: You also starred in "The Underground Railroad," and you played an enslaved American named Cora. "The Woman King" is a different type of piece of art because it's looking at an African warrior, but do you see any similarities?
MBEDU: It's hard to find similarities because of the context in which these stories play. Both characters, for me, in their own way heal parts of me that are wounded.
RASCOE: What parts of you do you feel like were healed by these characters?
MBEDU: I did not realize that I was living my life apologizing for existing. And that's a result of being - you know, having been born darker-skinned because I have a lighter-skinned sister who is two years older than me. I was never called beautiful. My sister was constantly told that she was beautiful. And so as a result, it meant I am the opposite of what my sister is. So if my sister is beautiful, then I am ugly. People like my sister, and people dislike me. It was that. You know, and so with Nawi, in joining the army, it was a reversal of that, of that subconscious training and that and the process of, here is your voice. Use it. You know, Gina had to constantly ask me to go a bit further with the confidence. You know, give me more. Give me more, whereas truthfully, I'm not competitive. I'm not combative. I withdraw in conflict. And Nawi does not do that. And that's something that I can take away from her and use in my everyday life even now.
RASCOE: I mean, you know, you're getting into some things, obviously, like with colorism and things like that that are so deeply, deeply rooted. Oftentimes, when you look at Black movies, Black TV, there will be a conversation about, do we want to see Black people as slaves? Do we want to see Black trauma - that word very heavy...
RASCOE: Is that something that you wrestle with, that you have this audience - and this is often Black people saying, well, I don't want to see that sort of thing. I'm tired of it. I want to see something different. Do you wrestle with that?
MBEDU: So with me, it's about, you know, how something has been told, because even with "The Underground Railroad," we are still - we are seeing the story of the enslaved body. However, how Barry chose to treat it is a way that we've never seen before. And then now with "The Woman King," we're not focused on the enslaved Black body. We're telling the story of this fierce, all-female army that fought for their freedom. But in telling their story, we can't pretend that bodies were not enslaved. That's part of the story, but we're actually celebrating, you know, the power that Black people had that history would choose for us to erase at this moment in time.
RASCOE: That's Thuso Mbedu, star of "The Woman King." Thank you so much for joining us.
MBEDU: Thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.