[The following story contains spoilers for The Woman King.]
Few actors can say that they went toe to toe with Oscar winner Viola Davis, but Thuso Mbedu has done just that in her major studio debut, The Woman King.
In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic about the West African kingdom of Dahomey, Mbedu plays Nawi, a young girl who quite literally rejects an arranged marriage. As a result, her adoptive father offers her to King Ghezo (John Boyega) so that she can vie to join the Agojie, Dahomey’s all-female regiment of warriors. Nawi quickly proves to be the most gifted young warrior in the group, and through a series of events, she discovers that her biological mother happens to be the leader of the Agojie, General Nanisca (Viola Davis).
The reveal scene between mother and daughter was incredibly personal to Prince-Bythewood, and it consists of dialogue that she longed to hear from her own biological mother. Mbedu and Davis had many conversations with their director, who was adopted as a child, about the autobiographical scene, and Mbedu wanted to honor Prince-Bythewood’s own journey just as much as her character’s.
“[Those conversations] made me completely understand where she was coming from in telling this particular story or this moment in the narrative, but it also made me rather sensitive to how I treated it in the moment. I wanted to do my best in serving where Gina was coming from,” Mbedu tells The Hollywood Reporter.
In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Thuso Mbedu (pronounced Too-so mm-Bay-do) goes into further detail regarding the film’s incredibly moving mother-daughter storyline. The South African actor also discusses the parallels between herself and her character Nawi.
Had Gina and the casting directors seen your work on Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad prior to casting you?
The series had not come out, officially, but I know that Gina had a phone call with Barry [Jenkins]. So I don’t know if she had asked to see snippets of it, but Barry did say to me that if I needed to audition, he was more than willing to share clips or moments from the series with those directors. But I don’t know if Gina asked for those from him.
Was it a nice surprise when you found out that your Railroad co-star Sheila Atim was cast in The Woman King as well?
It was an awesome surprise! She played my mother on the series, but we only had one scene together, which was the dream sequence. So [The Woman King] was the first time I actually got to work with her, properly.
Did you and Viola read together during casting?
We didn’t actually, no.
She was in the process of filming The First Lady. So in the very first audition, I had a female reader, and Gina was part of the first audition. And then in the next meeting, it was the creative conversation with Viola, where we went through the scripts. And then I had my test shoot with another female reader, but not Viola.
How long did it take for you to get comfortable with the fact that you were working opposite the mighty Viola Davis?
So that’s the thing. In the very first creative conversation that we had, she made me feel completely comfortable. I never felt like, “Oh my gosh, this is Viola!” I never felt intimidated or anything, and the fact that we trained together made it that much easier as well. We were huffing and puffing. We saw each other in the worst situations, sweating and on the verge of tears. (Laughs.) So that completely broke the ice for us.
Since you’re from South Africa, how familiar were you with this West African story?
Unfortunately, I knew nothing of it prior to talking to [producer, Viola Davis’ husband] Julius Tennon in 2019. We were on hiatus from The Underground Railroad, so I took a trip to L.A. I had a general meeting with Julius of JuVee Productions, and he told me about this amazing story, which I completely fell in love with. So I knew that I wanted to be a part of it, and I asked my team to keep track of it.
Physically speaking, I know you did some training for Railroad, but Woman King had to have been the hardest thing you’ve ever done, right?
One thousand and ten percent. (Laughs.) I’ve always wanted to do action, but I never understood what that actually meant until I was training for it.
Was there a day that stands out as your most grueling day, physically?
There are two. I was doing strength training with [lead trainer] Gabriela Mclain very early on, and I just remember crying. So she had to stop the session and talk me through it. It was a range of different things, and she completely understood why it felt the way that it felt in the moment. And then another day, I was doing running training with Jerome Davis, my sprinting coach, and that was really hard as well. I would have to sprint uphill, and there was one day where I was just like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to serve the character the way she needs to be served.” And then I actually just thought of one of my favorite anime series to get me through it.
So you and Nawi both shed tears during your respective forms of training. Perhaps your own tears crossed over.
I think so. The mentality that I had to develop to get through training and the shoot really informed the mentality that I had to develop for the character herself. Nawi has always aspired to be an Agojie. She had no clue how she would get to it, but she finds herself in it and it’s so much bigger and so much harder than what she thought it would be. And it’s the exact same with me because I’ve always wanted to be in an action film, but the reality of that was so much harder. It was brutal. But I had to get through it, and I did, just like the character.
The adoption storyline is very personal to Gina, and I think you can feel it in the work. Were those conversations between you, Gina and Viola rather invaluable to playing those scenes?
Yeah, they made me completely understand where she was coming from in telling this particular story or this moment in the narrative, but it also made me rather sensitive to how I treated it in the moment. I wanted to do my best in serving where Gina was coming from.
It was heartbreaking to hear Gina say that the characters spoke the words that she wished were said to her by her biological mother.
It really, really is. The conversations that we had with her were really in-depth and super private. So, of course, I’m not able to get into it, but yeah, it added many layers.
What else can you tell me about shooting the big reveal scene in the healing pool or bath?
That was a very beautiful day, creatively. There are a lot of technical things that went into it because of the prosthetic with the tooth and the scar. It felt as silent as you see it onscreen. Again, that was a big moment for Gina and the characters, so we had to give it its space and not rush it. It wasn’t about forcing the beats; it was about letting Nawi and Nanisca experience the moment for what it is. Nawi is being rejected all over again. She knows that she was never loved. She was given away as a kid. Her [adoptive] father called her scar the Devil’s mark. So she’s here, with the Agojie, because she desires to be wanted, to be feared, to be admired. She believes that she just proved that she was the best, but obviously, her best is not good enough. She then finds out that she was thrown away and that she’s the product of a gang rape. So it’s a lot of information to take in all at one time, and that moment needed levels of time and care and respect. And that’s what we gave to it.
I really admired the way you played the processing of information. An immediate reaction that’s easily defined would’ve been inauthentic.
Thank you. When you receive bad news in real life, it doesn’t sink in immediately. It hits you in doses. So even when she hears it from Nanisca, it hasn’t fully registered in her mind. So I didn’t want to overreact right away.
Do you remember how many takes you did that day?
I don’t think we spent too long on it. I can’t remember. Like Barry, Gina didn’t want to abuse our emotions. She didn’t want to do it too many times because, at some point, you deplete the artist. Directors typically have to remind me to pull back because I’m the type of actor who gets so invested and goes so hard even when the camera is not on me. (Laughs.) And by the time they turn the camera around on me, it’s like, “Thuso, come on. Give us something to work with.” (Laughs.) But I don’t think we did it too many times.
Was that your most emotional day? Or was it the big moment with Lashana Lynch’s character, Izogie?
Ooh! I think the Lashana scene was definitely harder.
Because it was more vocal?
Yeah. Oof. When we shot that one, the bodies were coming off the auction block, and we were fighting, physically. And when you’re fighting physically, you’re also fighting mentally and emotionally. And by the time Nawi has to hold on to her mentor [Izogie] as she dies, she’s no longer just a mentor. She’s her sister. Izogie broke the Agojie rule by coming back, and she died because of it. So there are many layers to that moment.
A lot of people have glommed onto Viola’s (Nanisca’s) line, “To be a warrior, you must kill your tears,” but I loved your take on how it’s the completely wrong lesson.
Yeah. Basically, Nanisca tells Nawi that to be a warrior, you must kill your tears, and a lot of people have run with that. They go, “Yeah, to survive in this world, we need to cloud tears,” but the movie shows us that it’s not true. That’s not what’s supposed to happen. Nawi and Nanisca learned a sense of humanity based on the fact that Nanisca went back to look for Nawi and the other Agojie soldiers who were taken. Nanisca goes from this general who doesn’t feel to someone who is now allowing herself to care. And so cutting off our humanity is what makes us less compassionate, and less compassion results in senseless violence toward others on many different levels. Senseless violence can be physical. It can be prejudice. It’s many different things, and the root of that is a lack of humanity.
This movie is being called the Gladiator of its generation, and since they’re actually developing a sequel to Gladiator, I suppose a Woman King sequel is also within the realm of possibility. There’s obviously a Nawi and Malik-related thread that could be explored, but has there been any chatter about where this story could go next?
(Laughs.) Viola says, “If there’s a sequel, Nanisca is toothless on her deathbed.” She said that she should die within the first five minutes. That conversation started when we were training. She was like, “This is so hard. I cannot imagine myself doing this again.” So that’s the most that’s happened in terms of that conversation. Nobody wants to set themselves up for something that doesn’t happen.
Your first two American projects are as good as it gets, so where do you want to go next? Is there a genre you have in mind?
I am completely open to anything that has an amazing script. I definitely want to keep challenging myself. Next year, I am working with Vanessa Block. She was the producer for Pig, with Nicolas Cage. She introduced herself to me at the Indie Spirit Awards where I won something [best female performance in a scripted series] for The Underground Railroad and Pig won something [best first screenplay] there, as well. And so we’ll be working on this character-driven, very grounded sci-fi film, which is still in its very early stages. I never thought that I would be in a sci-fi anything, but that’s what I’ll be working on next year. So I’m really excited about it.
The Woman King is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.