This story about “The Woman King” star Thuso Mbedu first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap awards magazine.
From an early age, Thuso Mbedu knew she wanted to be an engine for change. She knew that acting was her path, but she didn’t always know how it would happen. And sometimes she found it so difficult she considered quitting — or worse, ending her own life.
Now, as she finds herself at the center of a transformative film for Hollywood and beyond, “The Woman King,” she feels prepared to be that driving force that brings progress to others. In playing Nawi, the young warrior in training who follows Viola Davis’ General Nanisca leading an all-female army in 19th century Africa, she’s found that she has touched people unexpectedly.
“People come up to me and say the movie changed them,” Mbedu said in a conversation crammed between red carpet appearances and photo shoots during awards season. “They say they feel seen for the first time. Not just Black women, (but) Caucasian women too. We have parents coming and saying they’ve shared the story with their children. That they feel nothing is impossible for them going forward.”
To play the role, the South African Mbedu, 31, had to learn to fight with a spear, do hand-to-hand combat and inhabit the skin of a virginal soldier (the Agojie take a vow of celibacy). And while “Woman King” is her first feature film, it was not her first project to break barriers and require intense sacrifice. In 2021, Mbedu played the lead in “The Underground Railroad,” the series about American slavery from Barry Jenkins. The first African to lead an American series of its kind, she credits that role and “The Woman King” as seminal moments in her career.
In a way, it still surprises her that she was able to get to this place. “When you come into this industry, you think you can be anything,” she said. “But then you find, ‘Oh, I’m Black. Oh, I’m a woman. I’m confined to a corner and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ But with “The Woman King,” an all-female ensemble led by a dark-skinned Black woman, it’s something different.”
Her journey from the South African city of Pietermaritzburg to a top role in a Hollywood studio movie is also something different. Mbedu lost her mother to a brain tumor at age 4 and was raised by her grandmother in modest circumstances. When Mbedu was an adolescent, her grandmother died as well, leaving her orphaned, with no immediate family but her sister.
“In high school, sometimes I’d have a friend bring me lunch because we didn’t have enough food,” she said, fighting back tears as she decided to be candid about her childhood, something she does not do often. “Not a lot of people were aware we were raised by our grandmother.”
She felt acting was her calling, but as she finished high school and began a professional career in South Africa, Mbedu struggled to get roles. “In 2016, I felt like I hit rock bottom,” she said. “I’m in this industry because it’s my purpose — what I was created to do. At the time I hadn’t worked for six months. That is devastating when you don’t see another option of what you could do.”
She spiraled to a dark place: “Do I go back to school? Do I find something else to do? I did contemplate taking my life. One, I didn’t want to do it because I would hurt my sister. But two, if I gave up on myself, I wasn’t just giving up on myself but on the generations that I could have impacted.
“Deep inside I knew it wasn’t an option,” she concluded. “I did go through a depression I’m still healing from. Part of my brain lives in fear of being in that space again.”
Somehow, she pulled herself out of that deep hole and went on to move to America, a daring gambit for a young woman on her own. And now, just a few years later, Mbedu has created meaningful, challenging performances that create pathways for other actors. “My why in being in this industry was to bring healing through my craft,” she said. “To use my craft as a tool for social change, and one day to use my influence in a manner that will empower other people. What I can do is try my best to make life better for the next person.”
But also, she is savoring the ability to pay her rent and invite her sister to join her for the holidays. “I want to enjoy the moment,” she said. “I’ve been living in survival mode most of my life. It’s only now I can remind myself that I need to enjoy this life. I don’t know what that looks like.”
Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.